The dharma of disobedience and supporting the Heathrow 13
by Lindsay Alderton
I’m sneaking off a Buddhist retreat to write this post and breaking rules to switch off from technology and the ‘outside world’. This is not a decision I’ve made lightly nor something I’m proud of, but rather I couldn’t sit any longer with the insistent nudge of something deeper, something that wouldn’t let me side-step my conscience for the sake of being ‘a good Buddhist’. It’s not easy for me to do this; it’s not easy for me to break rules.
Others are more courageous, and they deserve our support. On the 25 January a fellow Buddhist, friend and activist, Kara Moses, was found guilty of aggravated trespass for carrying out a peaceful protest at Heathrow airport in July of last year. She and 12 others – the Heathrow 13 – occupied the northern runway for six hours, as part of an ongoing campaign by the direct action group Plane Stupid, in protest about the proposed plans for expansion and the development of a third runway. This was a peaceful, non-violent action in response to the violence of climate change, which kills over 300,000 people a year, predominantly people living in parts of the world who are least responsible for causing it. According to District Judge Deborah Wright their actions have been deemed criminal because of the ‘astronomical costs’ they caused and they ‘should all come expecting custodial sentences’ at their final sentencing on February 24th. If they are sent to prison this will be the first time in UK history that peaceful environmental protesters will go to jail for aggravated trespass. It is a dangerous precedent and one which must be met with alarm, when the profits of a corporations are given precedence above the rights of humans, in this case peaceful protesters.
I’ve known Kara for just over a year now and she is kind and well spoken and whole-heartedly committed to embodying the dharma as a way of life, and by that I simply mean living in a way that ‘causes the least possible harm’. This is mirrored in her work as an environmental journalist and outdoor educator, at the Centre of Alternative Technology, in Wales. As a writer she expresses a deep sensitivity and attunement with the natural world, which is underpinned by a fierce rational understanding honed from her years of study in Biological Science. As an activist she takes the Buddhist precepts seriously which means her practice doesn’t sit separately from her politics, and she isn’t interested in remaining aloofly detached while the world is on fire.
“Activism for me is an important part of my Buddhist practice,” Kara explained recently, “and structural violence – the ways in which social structures harm or disadvantage individuals and certain groups of people through policies and processes, including governments, institutions, businesses, and the whole socio-economic system – is as important as individual or behavioral violence, and it’s just as important to challenge it. For me, a deed of loving kindness is chaining myself to the gates of a fracking site so it can’t pump toxic chemicals into the earth or blockading a runway to prevent the release of thousands of tonnes of CO2. ‘Not taking life’ is also the cherishing of life, holding it sacred. It’s a fierce solidarity with all of life and living beings, especially those without a voice – standing with them in their struggles, fighting with them for justice. It’s about honoring how deeply connected we are with everything and everyone else.”
Last November Kara took steps to honor that connection by moving out to Paris in advance of the UN climate talks to collaborate with other activists who were gathering from across the world. She was there to witness first hand the impact of the shootings and the ensuing State-ban on public protest, the house arrests and heavy-handed response of police raiding the building she was staying in with a collective of artists and activists. Despite all of the conditions, and the incredible tension of the surrounding circumstances, thousands still took to the streets on the final day of the talks in defiance of the ban and to have the last word. During this time Kara also made a fleeting visit back to the UK, to participate in a protest at the British Museum organized by the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement, encouraging the management of the museum to cut their sponsorship ties with BP. It was Kara’s voice which first rang out to draw the crowds in closer, before she skillfully began to articulate the interconnected links between big oil, climate change and terrorism. More recently at Willesden Magistrates Court she showed the same gift for articulation when she was questioned by the Judge on why she’d felt compelled to take part in the action at Heathrow. When asked if she could pinpoint individuals who were directly impacted by climate change Kara spoke of the friendships she’d formed in Madagascar when doing her field research; “I know people who live in villages near the coast. Floods, droughts and cyclones are ongoing risks. I’m aware there’s a threat there every single day.” When she offered to give names, the Judge declined to hear them.
I’m not comfortable with breaking rules, and I may be a ‘bad Buddhist’ for sneaking out of retreat to write this, but it feels important nevertheless to inquire deeply into what obedience means, and discern wisely whether that’s in meditative practice, or in direct engagement with the struggles and challenges of the world of politics and power. But particularly when it’s wrapped up in overly simplistic terms such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For wrapped up within those labels are assumptions which may go unchallenged, assumptions so deeply embedded that they feel like unquestionable facts of life, such as ‘bad people go to prison’, or ‘good people do as they’re told’.
“Truthful communication”, Kara explained, “extends beyond being honest with the people around me. It’s about speaking truth to power. It’s about speaking up and calling out violence, oppression, and injustice, not being willing to allow those things to happen without accountability from those inflicting it. Truthful communication happens on the level of the public discourse as well as inter-personally; we can change that discourse. Without inner change, there can be no outer change. But without collective change, no change matters.”
It is true that Kara and the Heathrow 13 might feel the sting of injustice more sharply than many, and yet their decision to break the law will have been balanced between both feelings and facts. For the facts are there, and they’re clear and unequivocal, in the words of the world’s leading scientists across numerous reports – climate change is worsening, and it’s the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. And with a backdrop like that plans for airport expansion become more than just stupid; they’re suicidal.
To show support:
1. There’s a solidarity demonstration outside Willesden Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday 24th of February at 9am. Please share the event and come along: www.facebook.com/events/1520319771595789/
2. Sign and share this petition to encourage an appeal outcome that reverses the threat of a custodial sentence for the Heathrow 13: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/heathrow-13
3. Write a letter to your MP or local newspaper to ensure the momentum keeps building in opposition to new runways. Contact your local MP at: https://www.writetothem.com/