Guilty of staying silent
This is an 8 minute read but we think worth every minute. Grab a coffee and be inspired.
Green Christian supporter, Sam Wakeling, a father of two small children, was arrested whilst taking part in a prayer vigil outside London City Airport as part of an Extinction Rebellion protest in October 2019. In March 2021 he was convicted for failing to provide his name and address when asked by a police officer prior to being arrested, despite explaining to the court that he was silent because he was in prayer.
Sam’s defence statement is such a powerful and faith-filled read we have reproduced it below in full. It was originally published here.
I’m charged with staying silent. And for that I am surely guilty.
Like so many of us, I have stayed for too long as a bystander. A silent witness of unspeakable things. But the day in question, sitting in prayer at an airport, is the first time my silence has been called criminal.
Breaking the law is not my intention, and we claim that this country protects in law the right to protest, and the right to practice one’s faith. My legal claim is very simple – that according to articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights I was participating in both legitimate protest and practice of well-recognised faith, and that the Police’s actions in preventing this were not proportionate or necessary, and therefore were not lawful.
I was not the one breaking the law that day.
The prosecution has not shown evidence of any threat I was posing to national security, public safety, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of other people, nor was my presence any cause of disorder or crime.
In this upside down world is it not the government of this country who, by gratuitous negligence of failing to respond properly to the climate emergency, are guilty of each and every one of those things?
So I appeal to the rule of law, as independent and providing protection for every person regardless of status? But when the Supreme Court, our highest court, rules as on the Heathrow expansion, that the Paris Agreement should be disregarded rather than holding our government to its own laws, it becomes all the clearer that my faith cannot lie simply in the courts to uphold justice.
I hope instead to speak of where I find and place my faith. Not in the crown but the cross.
I have today sworn to tell the truth, and since I am charged with failing to answer why I was sitting on the pavement outside London City Airport, I will give my reasons.
I think back to the day London City Airport opened, on October 26, 1987. 6000 miles away in Cape Town, I am aged three and walking with my mother alongside a busy road. My red sandals dusty from the hot concrete slab pavement. The metallic tang I could taste I would now know as diesel exhaust. We were on our way to the preschool of St Luke’s church Wynberg. I wasn’t aware of it then, but we were participating in an activity which the South African government then called illegal. The church was multiracial and as such it and its activities were against the law.
It should have been an early clue to me that what a government tries to stop, and even makes illegal, may not necessarily be wrong. And the harder a government tries to silence dissent, the harder we must all look at what they’re afraid of people saying.
A few months later, in January 1988, and on almost the opposite side of the world in Hawaii, a little-known observatory on Mauna Loa recorded atmospheric carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million for the first time.
These three events – opening an airport, an illegal playgroup, and crossing the threshold for a stable atmosphere – would help lead me to that day in October 2019.
Today I stand here in a courtroom festooned with the hazard tape and warnings which make it inescapable that we are in an emergency, a global pandemic. The media talks of little else, governments have upended society, and used constant communication at the highest levels to convey the seriousness of the situation to the public.
Instead of trying to wake us up, those with power seem intent on pressing snooze for as long as they can – moving now from blunt, old-fashioned denial, to instead pointing at distant targets and greenwash, something Prof Kevin Anderson calls “mitigation denial”. The result is to further brutalise and steal from people and lands across the majority world in a desperate attempt to prop up this sick and tired world order.
As the prophet Jeremiah said “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Jer 8:10-11
Yet there are many who need no waking up.
Millions who have lived with their house on fire for hundreds of years. People who have been on the sharp end of Global Britain. Black and brown people treated as less than human, their lands treated as resources and their labour taken without choice or charge.
For centuries wealthy white men have looked around the world for more of ‘nature’ to claim as their own and turn into what they can recognise as wealth. This climate crisis does not spring out of thin air, but out of patterns of exploitation, many of which trace back to the City of London.
And the City of London, while financing the emissions doing violence to our climate, are also a main customer base for London City Airport.
This airport serves the richest passengers of any major airport in the UK, perhaps the world, with the average incomes of their 5 million passengers in 2019 at around £89k – very literally an airport for the 1%.
Aviation kills, yet the vast majority of the world have little or nothing to do with it. Half of all the emissions from passenger air travel globally are caused by just 1% of the world’s population.
And it is growing. The UK likes to celebrate that since 1990 our territorial emissions have halved. Yet in that same time, and not counted in the territorial figures, emissions from aviation have more than doubled.
London City Airport is determined to continue this growth, especially expanding their capacity for hosting private jets. Months after our actions they announced the airport was now carbon neutral (through buying offsets, and not counting the 95% of their emissions from flights). In 2020 they boasted that while building their new taxiway they saved 3000 tonnes of CO2. They didn’t mention that unfortunately this much is then emitted by the flights the airport normally hosts in just the three days you’d need for a long weekend to Amsterdam.
We now look to future projections of climate change and see terrifying prospects, with the earth on course to be heated beyond 1.5C by around 2030, with the food supply disruption, unbearable heatwaves and further social breakdown this would bring our children.
I am afraid, and I do fear for my children – how could I not? They are 4 and 2, and ought to expect to live to see the 22nd century, whatever that might look like. But by no virtue of mine they are some of the safest in this world. They are not likely to find themselves trapped the wrong side of a border, starving while others feast, or denied simple treatments for disease.
We in the UK, in one of the least vulnerable parts of the world for climate impacts, cannot stay blind to the reality that this future that we fear is already here for many of our brothers and sisters.
Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate says:
“Historically Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions and yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis. Rapidly intensifying hurricanes, devastating floods and withering droughts. Many Africans have lost their lives while countless more have lost their homes, farms and businesses. The droughts and floods have left nothing behind for the people. Nothing except for pain, agony, suffering, starvation, and death.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu compares this global separation with the apartheid into which I was born:
“Sadly, the leaders of some of the largest contributors to climate change show little interest in human rights and justice. The prospect of what some are terming climate apartheid, in which the rich pay to protect themselves from the worst impacts while the poor take the full hit is becoming depressingly real.”
Today we can see this play out in distribution of the vaccine for Covid 19, itself another symptom of ecological breakdown. The head of the WHO calls this a grotesque moral catastrophe, saying “Countries that are now vaccinating younger healthy people at low risk of disease are doing so at the cost of lives of health workers, older people and other at risk groups in poorer countries.”
He warns that this is self-defeating and will prolong the pandemic.
This is a stark comparison to the climate: if our richest countries try to do as little as possible while they feel less affected, the risks of disastrous global impacts will continue to increase.
In the last few years our society has worried a lot about disposables. Plastic straws, cups, masks. In 2018 London City Airport trumpeted that it was the first airport in the country to ban plastic straws. But we hear less concern about the human lives which are considered disposable, on which their business model depends.
In Copenhagen in 2009, Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di Aping, called a 2C target “a suicide pact.” And noted “It is unfortunate that after 500 years-plus of interaction with the West, we [Africans] are still considered ‘disposables.’”
But having heard these things: the towering injustices and racist exploitation by the powerful, the urgent need to change course however intractable things seem. Why did this lead to me sitting in prayer?
I can simply say that it was where my body needed to be to feel honest.
I’ve grown up in churches, and have recited the Lord’s Prayer countless times. But as the small group of us – including grandparents, and a nun – spoke it sitting on that concrete paving it was more real for me than any time behind stained glass.
To pray “your kingdom come” was to look to an authority above the crown badged on the police standing over us. And “may Your will be done, on earth as in heaven” reminds us that this God we seek is profoundly invested in this earth we sit on. This faith I was practicing on that pavement is no call for spiritual escape, but for redemption and transformation of our world’s real injustices, through our real, bodily lives.
This is holy week, when Christians remember Jesus visiting Jerusalem. He went to the temple, and he turned the place upside down. He could not stand the authorities running systems of economic and racial division and exploitation in the name of God. He turned the tables, scattered their money and quoted ancient prophets saying “my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, and you have made it a den of robbers”.
To follow this man, is to follow someone willing to disrupt in order to speak the truth, to demand justice alongside oppressed people.
Of course, this got him into yet more trouble, and we all know how the week ended, as the brutal violence of the empire tried to silence yet another troublemaker.
We also know the strange whispers of the week that follows. His dejected and despairing followers seeing things that couldn’t be true, telling each other of hope that couldn’t be justified. Of women meeting a gardener. Of someone cooking fishermen breakfast. Someone determined to show that he wasn’t a disembodied theory or a detached soul, but a real – if somehow changed – body.
This faith means following a man who told a different story with his actions, who challenged corrupt, racist exploitative power, without becoming like them. He taught his followers to pray and dream that God’s Kingdom would come here on earth. For freedom for all God’s children, especially those who have been pushed down, marginalised, racialised and made less than.
He taught of a Kingdom where the last would be made first, and many who are first now would come last.
Vanessa Nakate said the world community had two choices – life or death. “Choose life for the people, choose life for the ecosystems, choose life for the planet. If we are united, if we work together, if we demand climate justice, we will be able to transform the world and make it a better place.”
I am here today because of silence. You can decide whether you believe this was criminal.
I’ve spoken of my childhood brush with an ugly apartheid regime, and of this same deadly logic of white supremacy and capitalism, wrapped in denial and sleepy delusion that it can continue devouring forever. And I’ve spoken of a kingdom that whispers of healing, turns tables on injustice and brings life out of death.
My prayer on that ground was a protest, maybe like every prayer is – a dream that another world is possible. Maybe that’s foolish. Maybe this government calls it criminal.
I don’t believe that makes it wrong.
It makes it even more necessary.
Whether criminal or simple fool, I am here today, as I was at the airport that day, a broken man, searching for grace. I’m privileged with everything this crooked world can give, but still starving and thirsty for the freedom that none can have unless we all are free.
Jesus called himself the truth, and said that truth could set you free. I hope I have said something that’s true today.
We find ourselves, each of us, alive here, facing the fierce urgency of now. It is never too late to do what is right. And never too soon to start.
You will pass judgement on my actions. I pray, as the motto over the door to this court says: “Lord direct us”.
That you, and I, and all God’s children may be free.
Green Christian does not necessarily endorse opinions featured or matters reported on this website
Comments on "Guilty of staying silent"
I admire his idealism and sincerity - even though I spent many years trying to stop aircraft accidentally crashing as I worked on the safety of avionics systems. Yet most flights are luxuries; exceptions are air ambulances, those serving people in remote areas, disaster relief fights and flights taken by people with relatives far away. I enjoy holidays but my flying has been limited to two round business trips since 2007. To be fair, there is much that can be done to reduce emissions here (and in many other sectors of course e.g. livestock where the UNFAO's "Livestock's Long Shadow" points out some of the many drastic reductions in impact which are possible, although cutting numbers may be sensible too) e.g. flying lower, slower and with more frequent stops on long trips - much fuel is burned carrying the extra weight of fuel to allow on-stop long flights. Even then there are problems though - burning biofuels instead of fossil fuels still generates carbon dioxide, water vapour and some nitrous oxide while even hydrogen fuel gives two of those. At high altitudes, it is harder for such emissions to be caught up in the relevant cycles which could help mitigate them while purely electric flying is so far confined to short distances. Flying less does help but it has become a part of modern life for the well-off which most of us take for granted.