Lisa Leak reports on the trial of the Brook House Three, who have sensationally been found not guilty after preventing the deportation of dozens of people to Jamaica.

Solidarity demonstration outside Lewes Court on 30 May 2023. Photo credit: Stop Deportations.

On 9 November 2021, three people lay down in the road outside Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, on the grounds of Gatwick Airport. Using lockable metal tubes fitted one to the other, they secured themselves by their arms to a nearby bus stop, lay down on the hard concrete, and waited.

Inside the detention centre itself – which is run for profit by Serco, and has been the site of a wide range of repulsive human rights violations – detainees were working around the clock to try to avoid deportation to a country to which many of them had no connections, far away from the friends and loved ones they had built lives with in the UK. Some were resisting being removed to a deportation van that would take them to Birmingham, where a chartered plane was waiting to deport them to Jamaica. Almost all of those due to be on the flight were working frantically on legal challenges to their deportations. As is normal in such cases, the state had given many people mere days of notice that they would be deported and they had been cynically deprived of legal advice, meaning many legal appeals were only just being lodged. Every minute counted.

It was several hours before the police were able to cut through the lock-on devices and remove the protesters from the road outside. The window had closed for transporting Brook House detainees to the flight that evening. Moreover, the protesters weren’t an isolated handful of individuals, but the most visible manifestation of a broad civil society outcry against the flight, with migrant communities, activist organisations, NGOs, legal aid lawyers and a few left-wing MPs working to halt the flight and secure the release of the scheduled deportees. Minute by minute, legal appeals took shape and one person after another was told their deportation was being stalled. By the time the flight left in the small hours of the morning, only four people were onboard, of whom one was (officially) leaving the UK voluntarily.

This was a major defeat for the Tory government, and was seen as such. The flight had marked a significant political rubicon: for the first time since the Windrush scandal of 2018, the government had tried to run a deportation flight to Jamaica that was not limited to those with criminal convictions. The people due to be on the flight included the spouses and parents of UK citizens, alleged victims of trafficking and modern slavery, people with family connections to the Windrush arrivals, and many people had who had been in the UK since early childhood. You could almost read the speckles of spit on the petulant press release issued the next morning by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel, in which she said she was “absolutely galled” by the flight’s failure and slurred her would-be victims as being “guilty of abhorrent crimes such as murder and child sexual offences.”

In the ethical house of mirrors of UK immigration law, no good deed goes unpunished. After being mistreated and threatened for several hours by heavily armed police out on the road, the blockaders were held for 22 hours in police custody. The authorities left them in suspense for 11 months before finally charging them in October 2022 with “aggravated trespass” and “causing a public nuisance”. The latter charge has long existed in English common law as an archaic and opaque offence with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, and was converted into a statutory offence, with a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, by last year’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. Although the defendants were to be tried under the iteration of the law that applied in November 2021, the government was clearly looking to this case to begin setting a precedent for the use of the “public nuisance” charge against dissenting activists.

The trial

The activists were ultimately brought to trial another eight months later, on 30 May 2023, for a trial lasting until 13 June.

Presumably, part of the reason for the delay was to ensure that the controversies around the Jamaica flight had receded from public attention by the time the trials began. But if the hope was that defendants would be isolated, it was badly misplaced. Every day of proceedings, a range of well-wishers were present in the public gallery, clearly demonstrating public attention to the case and investment in the welfare of the detainees. Around 50 people made the trip to Lewes Crown Court in Sussex for a solidarity rally on the first day of proceedings. At the trial, I met members of the local community in Lewes a Tory seat and by no means a hive of left-wing politics who had begun coming to the public gallery to show their support after learning what the case was about. Despite the government’s best efforts, there is still deep respect and understanding in Britain for those who put their safety and freedom on the line for a cause of justice and solidarity.

From the get-go, the state attempted to block defendants from meaningfully expressing their reasons for taking action. Through protracted procedural wrangling relating to government trial regulations or hostile case-law precedents emanating from previous legal decisions, the defendants were prevented from admitting some of their most compelling evidence, including analysis from experts about the threats to the lives of deportees in Jamaica, and testimony about the chain of events from one of the would-be-deportees themselves. The jury were mostly kept in the dark about the actual difference that the blockade made in the event to the welfare of detainees, allowing the prosecution to make the ludicrous claim that the defendants’ actions had no meaningful impact on detainees’ situation. 

In the courtroom, it was clear that the state prosecution effort was channelling the current right-wing ideological vogue against dissent and protest. Prosecutors repeatedly demanded to know why the defendants had not contented themselves with minor acts of civil input such as writing to their MPs, and at one point suggested that defendants could have resolved their concerns by simply informing the police of risks to the health and safety of detainees. Prosecutors wove a fanciful scene in which beleaguered police had strained to protect the activists from being run over by angry motorists; in reality, the road blocked was a quiet logistical path at Gatwick Airport, and the only vehicle directly blocked was a supply lorry for an airport café. In line with the current government’s ideological template, prosecutors made the tenuous argument that the defendants’ actions were both a “nuisance” and an irrelevance – an action simultaneously disruptive to the public and inconsequential in achieving its goals. 

Despite the severe restraints placed on them, defendants performed magnificently, repeatedly explaining the simple, humane and urgent reasoning that motivated their actions. Time and again, prosecutors were made to look foolish by being respectfully corrected in their shoddy account of the facts, and were confronted by an unshakeable moral clarity that was humbling to witness. 

Not sorry, not guilty

When the jury returned from deliberation, at midday on Tuesday of the third week of the trial, they delivered a marvellous vindication of non-violent direct action and social solidarity: the Brook House Three were found not guilty of all charges.

Defendants had lived under the threat of prosecution and conviction not just for two weeks, but for over 18 months. It’s important not to underestimate the distress and psychological risks they were exposed to by these long months of anticipation, facing an ordeal that could end in prison. The Crown Prosecution Service went all-in on isolating and demonising anti-racists – and, not for the first time, totally failed to do so.

We should be heartened that it was possible for the defendants to present themselves to the jury with a clear, uncompromising argument that the deportation regime is an evil which must be obstructed. When the defendants took their action 20 months ago, they put their freedom and future in the hands of a group of their peers, as yet unknown to them, in order to stand with another group of neighbours, detained and under threat, likewise mostly unknown to them. We can all learn from the leap of faith that these comrades took, as much as from their courage and commitment to their principles.

The Kafkaesque brutality of the detention and deportation regime, and inspiring acts of resistance to it, are very much ongoing. The same is true of the escalating state attacks on political freedom and the right to strike and protest. We should savour moments like these that pierce the veil of propaganda generated by the Tory government and their client media, who claim a blanket mandate from “The People” for their racist agenda. Our strength and resilience as socialists and activists must be in solidarity, in our ability to stand with our neighbours and be stood with. We should remember that justice and solidarity aren’t just more powerful than spite and persecution – they are also more popular. 

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