INTERVIEW-Paralympian turned climate activist readies for arrest at UK airport

by Sarah Shearman | @shearmans | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 September 2019 18:06 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A British Airways passenger plane prepares to land at the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London March 28, 2008.. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/File Photo/File Photo

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The Paralympian is part of a group planning to disrupt Heathrow airport with drones to pressure the government to take tougher steps to reduce carbon emissions

By Sarah Shearman

LONDON, Sept 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Partially-sighted and a five-time Paralympian, James Brown is no stranger to nerves - precisely how he felt on Thursday as he set off to protest at a British airport where he risked arrest.

The Irish social entrepreneur-turned-activist is part of a controversial group that plans to disrupt London's Heathrow airport from Friday with toy drones to pressure the government to take tougher steps to reduce carbon emissions.

"If the airport authorities choose to ground flights, the impact will be felt by the industry, government and individuals," Brown, 54, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"But climate catastrophe and ecological breakdown are far, far more severe ... Do I want to go on holiday or preserve some future for my kids?"

Heathrow Pause, a splinter group of the climate group Extinction Rebellion which disrupted London streets with high profile action earlier this year, plans to illegally fly the drones within a 5 km radius of the airport before it opens.

Police have said that endangering the safety of an aircraft is a serious offence that can result in a long jail sentence.

On Thursday, the Metropolitan Police said in a statement that they had arrested five people on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance in relation to operations at Heathrow.

Brown - who competed for 35 years in five Paralympic games and 18 World Championships, winning multiple medals, including a bronze for cycling in 2012 and two athletics golds in 1984 - said he was ready to go to jail.

"Those of us who are taking part have got to a point in thinking things are so bad, the situation is so grave, that this is the only thing left to us, the only hope, the only possibility," he said.

After retiring from sport, he became in 2015 chief executive of Mobiloo, a British social enterprise – a business that aims to do good - to provide portable disabled toilets in converted vans for events without facilities on site.

While his business flourished, it was Brown's daughter who turned his attention to activism after she told him her fears about climate change.

"She was in grief talking about it. I've never seen somebody so sad - a 24-year-old, incapacitated," he said.

When he asked her what he could do, she suggested joining Extinction Rebellion.

The pair were among thousands who blocked off five major London bridges in November as part of a week-long protest by Extinction Rebellion, which included people gluing themselves to the gates of Downing Street, the prime minister's residence.

Brown was arrested that day and has since been arrested twice more for non-violent civil disobedience, including gluing himself to a bathtub in a busy road in Bristol, a city in western England.

At Heathrow, he plans to hold rather than fly his drone so he does not endanger anyone because of his visual impairment.

The Metropolitan Police said on Thursday that they were prepared to make further arrests.

"We believe these arrests to be a proportionate response to preventing criminal activity that could significantly impact on a major piece of national infrastructure," they said.

(Reporting by Sarah Shearman; editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit

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