Can wearing a T-shirt be a crime? This was the question we set out to answer on the opening day of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on 27 March.
I was one of hundreds of people dressed in bright red “Stop Airport Expansion” T-shirts in the International Arrivals Hall that morning.
BAA, which runs Heathrow, was unveiling its grand new terminal before the global media, as a stepping stone to a third runway and a sixth terminal.
We wanted to create a visible sign of public opposition to the madness of airport expansion.
The problem? Pretty much any form of protest inside the airport is illegal under Heathrow’s byelaws. These give the police the power to demand your name and address and escort you from the terminal. So – learning from the no-protest zone around parliament, where acts as simple as reading an anti-war newspaper have drawn police attention, to the embarrassment of the government – we kept it simple.
We would get as many people to the terminal as possible, to do nothing more controversial than wear a slogan-emblazoned T-shirt – and perhaps carry a climate-change-related book.
We produced hundreds of T-shirts, and offered them for free if people committed to coming. (The whole project cost around £6,000, half of which was covered by donations from individual - the other half was start-up funding from anti-aviation groups.)
The T-shirt plan worked. At 11am on the dot, hundreds of activists stripped off their outer layers to reveal their T-shirts, surrounded by a bevy of television crews and photographers.
Later we even managed to spell “STOP NOW” with our bodies on the terminal floor.
Little did we know, of course, that BAA and British Airways’ shambolic planning would end up leapfrogging the flashmob on the way to a global story of British incompetence.
Nevertheless, there was still extensive media coverage of the flashmob on TV, in the tabloids and online, and it still made a great “spoiler” media story for T5’s big day.
We hope this will be only the first “Stop Airport Expansion” flashmob - Heathrow is not the only airport in the country trying to expand, and it is not the only place where opposition to expansion is significant.
The flashmob worked as a way of showing that opposition to more airports is not limited to a few. It brought mass action to an airport terminal in a way that has never happened before, and brought together environmental activists and local people to help build the movement.
It was also a first step beyond traditional protest for many of the participants.
T-shirt-wearing is not a crime. For now.
- Milan Rai
The T5 flashmob generated a grand total of two sentences in the paper version of the “quality” papers (one in the Telegraph, one in the Guardian) – which failed to raise climate change issues in their coverage of Terminal 5.
It was the Sun (small picture), the Daily Mirror (fairly large photo, and a mention in the headline), and the Daily Star (a huge picture, and quotes from protestors) that paid some attention to the issues and the event.
Noam Chomsky points out that the intensity of media self-censorship tends to increase with the political importance of the media channel. This may be an example.
Chomsky notes that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s peace offers to Israel in spring 1984 were almost completely ignored by the “good” newspapers.
It was the San Francisco Examiner, known as the worst paper in any major US city, that put the story on the front page.
The more distant a publication is from power, the more relaxed the controls are; we could call this the “Chomsky gradient”.
However, there are counter-measures one can take.
Andrea Needham, one of the flashmob organisers, managed to get letters in the Guardian and the Times afterwards.