I just learned that John Stewart, a much-respected British activist who campaigns against airport expansion, was barred from entering the United States yesterday.
Photo by Barnali Ghosh
Sixty-two year old Stewart, who heads the London-based group HACAN ClearSkies, was reportedly escorted off a plane by armed guards when it landed in New York yesterday. He was questioned by FBI, Secret Service, and immigration officials for six hours at JFK Airport before being put back on a plane to London.
He may not be a familiar name in the US, but Stewart was a key organizer in the successful decade-long campaign to stop the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport. In 2008 he was named Britain’s most effective green activist by the Independent on Sunday for bringing together aviation-impacted communities, climate activists, and fiscal conservatives. He has no criminal record.
It appears Stewart was denied entry because he was planning to spend a month travelling across the US on an Aviation Justice Express tour, sharing stories of how activists triumphed at Heathrow. Under US Department of Homeland Security rules, a person can be deemed ineligible to travel to the US if they are a possible “law enforcement or security risk.”
In a statement released this afternoon, Stewart said: “What seemed to concern [the authorities] was that I would be discussing, as part of my talk, the role that peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience played in the Heathrow Campaign. I wouldn’t be able to explain the campaign without doing so. In any case, it is completely legitimate to discuss the role of an activity which has featured so heavily in so many historical campaigns, from the American Civil Rights Movement, to the Suffragettes’ fight for the right of women to vote in the UK.”
US organizers who spent over a year planning the month-long national lecture tour on aviation and the environment, and are shocked and embarrassed at their government’s actions. “John hasn’t flown in years, he was flying to the US only because we had convinced him that it was for a good cause,” says Barnali Ghosh of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Aviation Justice, one of the tour organizers. (Read about Ghosh’s attempt to circle the globe without flying in EIJ’s Summer issue.) Within the US, Stewart was planning to travel from city to city by bus and train.
The plan now is to stick to the schedule and do most of the lectures/meetings with Stewart via Skype, as has been arranged with another invited speaker, award-winning Scottish climate activist Dan Glass.
Glass, who is associated with “Plane Stupid,” a loose association of autonomous anti airport expansion groups in the UK, can’t take part in the tour because his visa application was delayed indefinitely due to special “administrative processing.” He has a criminal “breach of peace” conviction for participating in a civil disobedience movement in UK.
“We hope people will attend the [Aviation Justice Express tour] meetings as a show of solidarity. But some events will obviously not be possible,” says Barnali.
Illustration courtesy MISSBADCHILD
If aviation justice is a term you’re unfamiliar with, it’s because here in the US, there’s little serious conversation about the huge impact of flying. Not even within climate change and social justice movement. This is in part because we are heavily dependent of air travel to get us across even short distances due to lack of other viable public transit options. Yet, flying is the single most environmentally damaging, carbon intense, activity an individual can do.
Worldwide, aviation was the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases that, unless curbed, would soon overwhelm all the cuts in emissions we manage to make elsewhere. Currently, aviation is responsible for nearly 5 percent of the total human impact on our climate.
This is also a social justice issue because only 5 percent of people in the world actually travel by air. Cheaper and more frequent flights haven’t helped make flying socially inclusive. Rather 75 percent of people using budget airlines are from the middle and upper-middle classes, who end up flying more, using cheap deals for quick weekend getaways or conferences etc. The people who are most vulnerable to climate change — the poorest inhabitants of the poorest nations — will most likely never board an airplane.
Aviation also has serious public health impacts, especially on people living close to big airports and under flight paths. Studies show emissions from aircraft, support vehicles and airport related traffic all contribute to a build up of potentially harmful gases such as oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These gases are deposited into the atmosphere across the US every day at rates that far exceed safety limits.
Right now, there are 3,400 airport construction, expansion, and development projects planned in the US, including large projects in New York and Chicago. Yet there’s little talk of the impact of these projects will have on our environment and health.
If we are serious about tackling emissions we need to start having more conversations about aviation and alternatives to it – like more land-based public transit, especially for short distances (like New York to Washington, D.C. or San Francisco to Los Angeles). As Barnali told me earlier: “We aren’t saying people shouldn’t fly at all, but rather that they should think about why and where they are flying and use other travel modes if possible.”
But it looks as if this is a conversation the US administration — already struggling to cope with a series of civil disobedience movements in the past few months, including the ongoing one on Wall Street — doesn’t want us to have.