From custard to custody, Hackney local Leila Deen tells Etan Smallman why the environment is no laughing matter – and why she’s happy to be basking in the limelight.
As ingredients for a grand political intervention, flour, water, custard powder and a few drops of food colouring probably wouldn’t be at the top of most agitators’ shopping lists.
But for eco-warrior Leila Deen, homemade green custard proved the perfect recipe when she carried out an impromptu sliming of Peter Mandelson last week. She hatched the plan in her kitchen at home in London Fields, in an attempt to stop the business secretary from making a speech on climate change.
“I couldn’t let him stand up and talk about climate change because that’s the last thing he’s interested in,” the 29-year-old charity worker says. “The thing I really wanted to do was show how slimy he was and how the only thing that was green about him was the slime coursing through his veins.”
The attack, which was carried out on behalf of environmental activist group Plane Stupid, has provoked a media storm and Deen is relishing her time in the limelight.
“It has meant I’ve spent three days being recognised in the street and having people shaking my hand,” she says gleefully. “I’ve heard that a lot of people have had [green custard] for dinner in the last couple of days to celebrate. It’s apparently a popular thing to do in London.”
Deen has been involved with Plane Stupid for two and a half years. She became interested in climate change after campaigning on issues of poverty and global inequality. “Even if you improve conditions in the developing world, climate change will undermine it all,” she explains.
She was first arrested in 2005 after climbing a crane to protest at the G8 summit in Scotland. In 2007 she joined Brian Haw’s peace camp in Parliament Square to protest against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act and the Iraq war. Since then she has dressed as a suffragette and glued herself to the doors of the Department of Transport. Only last week, she was engaged in disrupting a speech by the transport secretary Geoff Hoon by sounding a klaxon – or “lie detector horn” – every time she thought Hoon was telling an untruth.
Launching a media offensive following the incident, she was confronted with one viewer’s email on BBC News. “One of them says ‘you’re a silly cow,'” the newsreader declared. “‘Why is this yuppie sounding so pleased with herself?'”
“I’m not a yuppie, Deen, the daughter of a teacher, replied immediately. “I’m no such thing. I’ve got a very normal background; I’m from a state school. Mandelson has had all the benefits that this country affords to him and yet he’s working in the interests of business.”
“Well, do you have a job?” – the BBC journalist enquired. “Yes, of course I have a job – otherwise you’d accuse me of being a scrounger on benefits.”
Mandelson himself branded her actions as “an adolescent protest” while former deputy prime minister John Prescott said the attack was “totally unacceptable”, claiming that Mandelson is vulnerable as former Northern Ireland secretary and that the custard could have been mistaken for acid.
However, the campaigner is adamant she would never commit an act of violence. Of Prescott’s remarks, she says: “Mandelson’s been walking around for the last 30 years and no one’s ever thrown acid at him [or] any politician. We’re all just a bit hysterical about terror these days.”
Talking at breakneck speed, she says: “It’s the same as throwing a snowball really. It’s a historical device – in the tradition of pieing politicians – that has been used by many different people to register protest in a political system that is failing. Obviously it’s not the way to act in an effective and functioning political democracy but this is not. And the fact that he’s unelected and has overridden government decisions made by elected officials is proof enough that he is illegitimate enough to have custard thrown at him.”
Throughout her defence, the London Fields resident draws numerous parallels between her campaign and historical protests including comparing herself with the suffragettes. But can she seriously compare herself with the campaigners who won women the vote?
Absolutely,” she contends confidently. “I think this is the most important cause in the history of time. In all of the protests we are putting ourselves in the way for something that needs to be changed. It’s something the suffragettes did, so yes, I absolutely draw parallels and I take inspiration from them.”
“I don’t see this as being childish anyway. I was deeply serious when I said that this is for the third runway. We’ve been doing a lot more than just throwing custard,” she adds.
Image taken from Plane Stupid on Flickr.