Why did Black Lives Matter UK shut down a London airport?

Black Lives Matter UK released a video that stated that they were trying to 'highlight the UK's environmental impact on the lives of black people locally and globally.'

Eddie Keogh/Reuters
An information screen lists cancelled and delayed flights at City Airport after a protest closed the runway in London, Great Britain on September 6, 2016.

Nine Black Lives Matter activists halted London City Airport, which serves mainly business passengers, for several hours Tuesday to protest the airport's environmental degradation on the nearby borough of Newham.

"It is an airport designed for the wealthy," the group said in a statement, according to The New York Times. "At the same time 40 percent of Newham's population struggle to survive on 20,000 pounds ($26,600) or less. When black people in Britain are 28 percent more likely to be exposed to air pollution than their white counterparts, we know that environmental inequality is a racist crisis."

Tuesday’s demonstration marks the first time British Black Lives Matter activists have turned their attention to the environment. It also falls in line with the way in which the movement has sought to distinguish its message from Black Lives Matter in the United States, which has focused on police brutality.

“While the coalition is presenting a purposefully ‘global’ focus, it also appears to be reformatting itself around an experience specific to Britain,” Simone McCarthy wrote for The Christian Science Monitor in August. “British activists are both embracing the movement and hoping to build momentum for Black Lives Matter in the United Kingdom.”

Tuesday’s protesters brought London’s smallest airport to a standstill by chaining themselves to a wooden tripod in the middle of the tarmac. It appears they accessed the airport from the River Thames, having sailed in an inflatable dingy onto the Royal Docks. Law enforcement negotiated with the protesters for several hours before they arrested them on suspicion of aggravated trespass.  

The group’s main message was the environmental impact of an airport expansion on the community of Newham. The borough has one of the lowest white populations in all of Great Britain, according to the 2011 Census. About 20 percent of Newham is black, and about 40 percent of the population is Asian.

In the group’s statement it released shortly after it began its demonstration, it also said black people are “28 percent more likely to suffer air pollution.” It added the airport was allowing a “wealthy elite” to fly around the world while migrants are drowning in the Mediterranean.

The size of Great Britain’s foreign-born population has more than doubled since 1993, from 3.8 million then to 8.3 million in 2014, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. About half of Britain’s foreign-born population lived in London in 2014.

Hundreds of passengers were affected by the protests. By late morning, 16 flights were cancelled, and 12 were delayed, according to the Associated Press. The cancellations and delays came the same morning British Airways travelers in North American and Europe were affected by a computer glitch to the airline's check-in system, according to Fortune.

While London City Airport is near the Canary Wharf financial district, not all the passengers were among the "wealthy elite."

I am a normal working class person on an average wage so should I be penalized for booking a flight from City where, according to them, everyone earns in excess of £100,000,” Michael Twomey, who was scheduled to fly to Malaga, told the Daily Mail.

Others panned the activists’ lack of diversity.

This isn’t the first time the group has blocked airport traffic. In early August, activists blocked the main road to London Heathrow Airport by laying down beneath a banner that read “This is a crisis.”

Similar demonstrations took place that day across England in Birmingham, Manchester, and Nottingham, all calling for a nationwide "shutdown" to end racism, violence, and discrimination.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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