Airport Protests: off-airport issues becoming on-airport challenges

Airport terminals have long provided protestors with a safe and effective environment for spreading international awareness of an array of issues. More often than not, demonstrations are conducted peacefully, causing little to no interruption of services and procedures, but what are the risks associated with protests in an airport setting? Lucy Rawlings discusses these issues and considers whether our right to protest is impinging on the effectiveness of our security measures.

Airports have a long history of attracting protest groups who use them as a stage for a global audience to hear their concerns. Many airports, including London Heathrow, have stated that they ‘support the right to peaceful protest’ within their doors as long as they do not disrupt the safe and smooth running of the airport. In many respects this is admirable; they are supporting the right to freedom of speech and freedom to protest, without which we would not have many of the liberties we exercise today: equal opportunities, women’s right to vote, or the right to join a trade union. But, in the current climate, with a focus on security increasing, at what point do we view these protests as a potential threat and declare airports to be an inappropriate venue for public demonstration? At what point do ‘off-airport issues’ become an ‘on-airport challenge’ and a threat to the safety of those who enter the parameter?

Airport protests are often staged by groups whose issues are not airport-related as they are seen as an effective method of reaching a broad and international audience. Airports are also considered a safe environment for protesters themselves since the police are unlikely to storm a terminal or turn water cannons on protestors – as they did on the student protestors on the streets of London in 2010, or use tear gas and pepper spray, as they did during July this year against civil rights protestors in Arizona – for fear of damaging the airport or causing harm to travellers and employees. In recent years many laws have been passed, which limit the number of places in which groups are allowed to protest, often requiring permits or limiting them to certain public spaces. Generally, a permit is required for a protest to be staged at an airport and they are often granted providing the protest is to be conducted in a contained and peaceful manner. However, many protests take place in a ‘hit-and-run’ style, whereby the protestors enter, cause a disruption, and either abruptly leave, are arrested, or escorted from the premises. This raises concerns around the ability of risk-imposing individuals to enter the airport undetected and cause a disturbance. Genuine protestors are, generally, harmless, but they are an example of how easy it could be to enter and cause greater harm, or to potentially use a protest as a front for an attack.

There have been many examples of these ‘hit-and-run’ protests occurring in airports all over the world, some causing damage and others merely a disturbance. On 25 June 2013, five men dumped human faeces at the entrance to Cape Town International Airport. Witnesses described how the men arrived in a black car, unloaded containers covered in blue plastic bags, put them onto a trolley and brought them to the airport’s entrance where the contents were dumped. Some was also spilt near the escalators leading to the airport’s restaurants. One of the men explained that, by staging their protest at the airport, they were hoping to send a message to the United Nations that, “The city does not care about the health of black people”. The men and those in their community, understood to be known as ‘Europe’, an informal settlement in the Guguletu township bordering Cape Town International Airport, had been living with unsanitary toilet facilities, which they explained had been filled up for three months. Airport operations were not affected by the incident, but the men were arrested.

It would be safe to say that this protest would have made an impact on those unfortunate enough to witness, and smell, it. However, aside from that, protests which occur in this way create a significant distraction for airport security, staff and travellers. While these men were being dealt with someone with greater negative intent could have seen this as an opportune moment to act and, with security staff distracted, go undetected and cause greater damage than may have occurred otherwise, if at all. In this case one must also question how these men managed to bring such questionably shaped and wrapped containers into the airport grounds unchallenged.

In August 2014, a similar style was taken by LilithS, a Belgian feminist activist group, when they poured hundreds of litres of fake blood in the main entrance to Liege Airport and over some of the check-in desks. The blood was to symbolise what they believe to be the ‘slaughter’ of Palestinians in Gaza by Israel, and they targeted the airport to protest its alleged facilitation of the transport of arms to Israel. The members wore T-shirts bearing the colours of the Palestinian flag and the slogans ‘Terrorism is real’, and ‘Free Palestine’. Behind the main site of their protest they hung a banner declaring, ‘How many tons of weapons for so many litres of blood?’. Aside from creating a potential distraction, these women caused criminal damage to the airport. Should this be tolerated? It is a key consideration for the future of protests held at airports.