Extinction Rebellion on Trial
Since last September, Monday to Friday, City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country. XR court supporters are on hand with vegan snacks, hugs and advice, within limits. We’re not legally trained but we’re learning, recording arguments and outcomes, watching for patterns. It’s gumming up the system: the trials, single or in batches, may occupy all three courtrooms all day. At the end, the district judge typically commends the defendants for their high-minded unselfishness (a pleasant change, one said, from the usual lot), expresses personal sympathy with their concerns – and finds them guilty as charged.
During the April Rebellion, about 1100 people were arrested, most for violating the Section 14 order imposed by the police on the second day, requiring protesters to gather only at Marble Arch. Around 850 were charged, half of whom pleaded not guilty, though some later changed their pleas. (A Section 14 order was also imposed in October, but the High Court later ruled it unlawful.) A handful of defendants can afford to hire lawyers; others qualify for legal aid; but most are self-represented. With help from XR’s legal support team, they usually prepare a defence on grounds of the unlawfulness of the Section 14 order; their non-awareness of its imposition; or necessity – that they broke the law in order to avert a greater, imminent evil.
I’ve only seen people get off when the police have made a mistake. Every day a senior officer comes in, usually the chief inspector who imposed the Section 14 order. As the Crown’s first witness, he describes the ‘serious disruption’ to the community that justified his decision. Next, the arresting PC testifies. The relevant clip of bodycam footage is shown: a lurching blur of bodies lying down or locked on under lorries, the hoarse shouts of the officer urging Sir or Madam to move and continue their protest at Marble Arch or risk arrest, amid the din of drumming and chanting. The case is dismissed if insufficient time was given to the protester; if the officer said Hyde Park instead of Marble Arch; if he admits it was so noisy he couldn’t be sure of being heard. Someone was acquitted, too, when a sharp barrister caught the senior officer out in a confusion over the European Convention on Human Rights, but since then he’s straightened his story.
What doesn’t work is arguing that you couldn’t move because you were glued on, or that you weren’t paying attention to the constable so hadn’t understood about Section 14. Necessity hasn’t worked either. The relation between the unlawful act and the avoidance of ‘serious harm or death’ must be direct and specific: you’re allowed, say, to break into a burning house to rescue a child. As the judge invites each defendant to prove the necessity of their actions, we hear speech after eloquent, wasted speech about the science of climate change, the terror people have for their children, their grief for the world; the sense that there is no option but civil disobedience. Judges, prosecutors and ushers seem genuinely affected by the daily litany, and several tell of changing their lifestyles in response. But the narrow definition of necessity is decisive every time. A recent defendant made a key point about ‘imminence’ – that climate time functions differently, with a delay between cause and effect. Had action been taken ten years ago, today’s fires in Australia might not be so bad. The argument wasn’t accepted.
The April and October rebellions caught the public eye. This hidden aftermath, in which committed men and women take the consequences of XR’s mass arrest strategy – up to £800 in costs, plus a fine, or a conditional discharge that even when spent could cause them problems – is almost too private. Does anyone really think that stopping traffic for the sake of a future should be a crime?