The court waiting rooms fill up every Friday, but the authorities are only a fraction of the way through processing the 1,076 climate activists arrested during Extinction Rebellion’s April shutdown.
Those who plead guilty are given a chance to make a speech. On a swelteringly hot August afternoon, Tim Ponton, 68, a retired NHS specialist in prosthetics, stood up. “I feel desperate. I feel outraged that successive governments have failed to protect me and my family,” he told the court. His wife, Susan, a 70-year-old retired civil servant, was shakier. She only just kept her emotion at bay as she quoted from a speech thought to be by Chief Seattle, a 19th century ecologist and Native American leader. “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are just one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. We are all in it together.”
Much of the attention during the rise of Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, has been on the streets of cities across the United Kingdom. But for the past five months, the battle has moved to the courts. More than 60 per cent of the April arrestees are yet to start their journey through the justice system, while the next rebellion, which promises to be even bigger, is just a week away.
If this is a battle to throw sand in the gears of the British justice system – and turn a heavy-handed judicial battle against the climate movement on its head – XR is winning.
The sheer volume of arrested protesters caused a rift between police and prosecutors over whether to charge as many as a thousand people and bring them to court, according to sources.
In early October, the movement will block all routes into Westminster for two weeks, in an effort to force the government to take decisive action on the climate crisis. A senior figure in XR says that, this time, they expect four or five times as many people on the streets. Once again, the movement is set for a showdown with an already stretched police and justice system. Who will win, says Mike Schwarz, a lawyer at Bindmans, representing many of the climate activists, “depends on who has the most to lose and who’s willing to lose it.”
This is the story of what happened in ten days of carefully planned chaos – and its long tail effect on the justice system.
We followed six protesters
In just 18 months, Extinction Rebellion claims to have cultivated more than 100,000 ‘rebels’ worldwide, mobilised in countries as far afield as South Africa and the Solomon Islands. Their actions have shut down cities, occupied parliaments and forced the United Kingdom to declare a climate emergency on 1 May, just days after XR’s April protests.
The movement, set up by Gail Bradbrook, a 47-year-old scientist and campaigner with a PhD in molecular biophysics, and Roger Hallam, a 53-year-old PhD student researching civil disobedience, began in November 2018 with an occupation of five bridges in central London. In April 2019, they shut down the city. For a week-and-a-half, XR’s rebels took control of five high-profile spaces in the capital: Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, and Parliament Square.
They held the sites in style. It took police five days to tow away a fuchsia pink boat named ‘Berta Cáceres’ after the murdered Honduran environmentalist. Activists had docked the boat, daubed with the words “tell the truth”, in the middle of Oxford Circus junction. As the mast was dismantled and the boat finally removed, the crowd chanted: “we have more boats.” Elsewhere, a half-pipe adorned with XR logos turned Waterloo Bridge into a temporary skate park.
Stretches of central London were essentially pedestrianised by blockades. More than 50 bus routes were diverted, affecting the journeys of half a million passengers. The West End shopping district lost an estimated £12 million in the first three days of the action, according to Jace Tyrell, who represents businesses in the area. Stores on Oxford Street, London’s flagship shopping district, reported falls in sales of up to 20 per cent. The police force deployed more than 10,000 officers to the streets of London – in an operation which cost more than £16 million and 243,000 hours of officer overtime. It was the largest police operation in modern British history.
The head of London’s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, said that she had “never known” a police operation like it. Activists glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange, among many other things. They smashed the windows of the Shell building. They staged ‘die-ins’, stood on top of trains, and even chained themselves to the Islington home of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. When the threshold for “serious disruption” was met, on the first evening of the protests, the police took action under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. Those who wished to continue to protest had to go to Marble Arch, as occupation of the other sites became unlawful.
The sustained nature of the protest, as well as the willingness of more than 1,000 people to be arrested, caught the police unawares. There are just 683 cells across 27 custody suites in the whole of London, according to 2017 Metropolitan Police data. They reached full capacity twice in the first two days of the action.
“You learned on the police radios that they had zero space,” said 24-year-old activist Cameron Joshi, who was arrested after refusing to move from Oxford Circus. “It was one of the most empowering things to see: that ordinary people could take the space [on the streets] for days and the police couldn’t do anything.” In the warm April sun, protesters drummed, danced, proselytised – and welcomed police intervention.
“You needed people who were willing to get arrested,” said Joshi, “because the police’s last resort is to just arrest everyone.” Some brought decades of activism to the street. But many who marched were willing to be put behind bars for the first time: nurses, civil servants, IT technicians and greengrocers.
Scott Henery, a father of three, who trains social workers, called his daughter as his arrest looked imminent. “I had to phone up my youngest, Eva, who’s 13,” he said, matter of factly. “And I said: ‘Right darling, I’m about to go and get arrested now, are you OK about this?’ And she’s going ‘Yes, I’m fine, I’m not worried in the slightest!’ Which meant I could calm myself, and be comfortable, because I’m doing the right thing by my family.”
The police only charged 70 or so people during the April rebellion, typically those who had been arrested twice during the 10 days of action. Around a thousand other people were released “under investigation” after their first arrest, with the widespread expectation that charges would not follow.
But the police had suffered a “very public loss of control,” said Schwarz, who believes they wanted to deter future protests after XR made clear that April’s disruption would not be the last.
While the CPS and the Metropolitan Police denied any disagreement, people with knowledge of the legal discussions said the CPS opposed prosecuting as many as a thousand protesters for non-imprisonable offences. An XR representative said separately that a senior district judge voiced opposition in a meeting with XR and prosecutors, saying: “This will put back my court business. Is it in the public interest?”
Nevertheless, the CPS proceeded. The police charged hundreds of people, and handed over their files to the CPS to prosecute. As of 30 September, the CPS said it had received 757 files of evidence from the Metropolitan Police.
The mass arrest of XR activists comes at a time when the UK’s justice system, according to the Law Society, is at “absolute breaking point” due to court closures and underfunding: last year only 8 per cent of recorded crimes in England and Wales resulted in charges.
Letters arrived through the doors of arrestees across the country, summoning them to court in London – a “battle of attrition” between the movement and the justice system, said Schwarz. “It’s the idealism and altruism of activists pitted against the money and practical resources of the courts and prosecution service.”
In July, when Britain hit record temperatures of 38.7C, two courtrooms in the City of London were booked every Friday for 19 weeks to process arrestees. Twelve of those have now passed.
In the court, XR badges and stickers appear on suits, jackets, bags and the odd waistcoat. A small team of support workers, mostly women in their fifties and sixties, take the names of arrestees, advise them on the process and stock up on snacks. Daisy Gibb, a 34-year-old waitress with dark red hair and wearing a bright blue dress, looked wide-eyed around the waiting room. “This is a huge waste of time and money,” she said. “What’s the point in the charges? They’re not going to dissuade people.”
Seasoned campaigners, disillusioned by decades of ineffective protest, mingled with first-timers. Direct action is a new frontier for many members of both groups. “If I was here for something more seriously criminal, I’d probably be anxious,” Henery said. “What happened sits comfortably with my conscience.” He was one of several people who cited the impact of the Iraq War march in 2003, when around a million people marched against the invasion. “The government totally ignored us. Our voices don’t matter.”
Erika Curren, 62, from Cornwall, voiced similar disaffection. “I have gone on marches, I’ve signed every petition going. This is a last ditch attempt.”
If protesters plead not guilty, they are taken to trial. More than half of those already processed have chosen this option. The prosecution must prove that they took part in a public assembly and knowingly breached lawful conditions; and that the charge was in the public interest. But the cost of the legal fees, travel, and threat to working life and convenience has nudged an increasing number towards pleading guilty.
Successfully fighting charges for climate-related direct action does have a precedent in the UK. In 2008, six Greenpeace activists were acquitted by a jury for causing criminal damage at Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent. The activists climbed the tower and attempted to shut the station down. They used a ‘lawful excuse’ defence, arguing they were attempting to prevent greater damage to property around the world being caused by climate change, a logic which protects firefighters smashing windows to rescue people from burning buildings.
A similar argument is being used by many of the defendants in XR. As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old face of the global climate movement, told the World Economic Forum earlier this year: “I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”
The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell supported such arguments in a statement he submitted to the first joint trial of April’s arrestees, which saw three male activists take to the dock in August. McDonnell said that the protests led directly to the climate emergency declaration and to the rapid development of the Labour Party’s climate policy.
But magistrate judges fulfil a simple role: upholding the law. For them, the lawful excuse defence is a stretch. That first joint trial brought three convictions, where the men were given an extended conditional discharge of 12 months. The argument was rejected by Judge Richard Blake, who said that legitimate protests don’t need to break the law. This ruling is expected to be replicated in future trials.
But with more than 650 arrestees still awaiting a hearing or charge, XR organisers hope the size of the judicial load may be softening magistrates. Just a few days ago, Judge Michael Snow waived the charge for Lioux Maunder, 50, who claimed she had been kept in a police cell for 10 hours (though many other arrestees had been kept in much longer).
Later that day Eleanor Milne, 35, explained to the court that she wanted to plead guilty so she could adopt a child with her husband. “Is a charge going to affect your adoption?” asked Judge Snow. She wasn’t sure. “Well have you consulted a lawyer?” Milne had. But, concerned with the effect a sentence might have on a child’s need for “a loving home”, Judge Snow decided to give Milne an absolute discharge: no punishment whatsoever. “This is not setting a precedent for others,” he insisted.
XR’s three demands of the government (to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency, to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and to convene a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice) have, in the eyes of the movement, not been met.
This feels like a movement still growing. Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to hit the streets next month, of which 4,000 are rumoured to be “arrestables” – XR’s term for activists who are willing to put themselves on the line. Police chiefs, for their part, have called for greater power to clear streets and bridges.
But with hundreds of arrestees still to go through the courts, the last battle won’t be over even as the next one begins. The streets will be occupied. The cells will be occupied. The court waiting rooms will be occupied.
Hanna Nuuttila, 41, Narberth, West Wales
Hanna is a marine biologist working as an academic at Swansea University, but originally from Finland. She was arrested in Oxford Circus while seven months pregnant. She pleaded guilty.
I went to London with my three-year-old daughter. I planned not to get arrested because I’m not a British citizen.
But I was staying there on the first night and I felt that I was letting people down. So I went back to West Wales, dropped my daughter off and came back on the weekend.
I’ve always been afraid of being arrested because of the fear of deportation. For me I thought: “Well this is bigger than my fear.” I thought it was more important for me to be arrested than to worry about my status.
I had no mental or physical problems in the cell. I got to see the nurse to make sure I was fine. I don’t think I ever put myself or my baby at any risk being arrested.
It was so hot and I hadn’t slept for like two days by the time I was arrested – I was grateful [to be in the cell]. It was quiet and cool, and I had a bed to sleep in. It was just so nice to be out of the streets.
Cameron Joshi, 24, London
Cameron is an activist working mainly at Global Justice Now, a campaign group. He was arrested in Oxford Circus. He has pleaded not guilty.
I have a chronic illness, Crohn’s Disease. I was in the cell for 20 hours. I tried to explain my condition to a police officer, and explain what food might be better [for me]. He just shut the window and chose himself what food I was going to eat.
I went to the rebellion because I was inspired by the organisation of XR and how well they were able to put on these events – but there are a lot of people on the activist scene who don’t like XR. They’re quite a controversial group.
XR have a strategy of not talking about things that are politically left wing, but then they have huge hippy workshops, and all sorts of things that come with a particular subculture, which is also offputting.
We were putting on a climate justice workshop talking about the global south and the systems that are causing climate change, and halfway through some people came in saying they’d booked the tent for a ‘singing bowls’ workshop.
But honestly XR are doing a really good job at bringing in a lot of people.
Lewis Norton, 33, Maidstone, Kent
Lewis is a part-time labourer on construction sites. XR’s April protests were his first experience of activism. He pleaded guilty.
I actually fell out of love with society to some degree and found a lot of solace in nature. I would prefer to be in my little bubble – but that bubble is in jeopardy. I have to try to defend it.
Two days into the April protest I arrived, and three days later I was attached to the boats in Oxford Circus and arrested in the final stand. It ticked every box when I got there. I got so overwhelmed by the passion and empathy on show.
Before April, no-one I know was talking about the [climate] issue. After April, all the people I knew were. This was partly because I got involved, and started posting live videos from the protest.
Some are sceptical, for sure. Some are too busy to delve into the details of it, caught up in everyday life. And some say: “How many times have we heard about an end-of-the-world situation, and it turned out to be nothing?’”
But mostly friends have been very supportive, and could see that it was nothing like how it had been portrayed in some of the newspapers.
Kim Pearce, 33, London
Kim is a theatre director. She was arrested while in her penultimate week working on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the National Theatre. She pleaded guilty.
I’m working in the West End, so I walked past [the protests] every day. I always cared about these issues, but I was in this place where I stopped reading articles about climate change, because it was too painful.
But seeing these people, I saw someone arrested in front of my eyes, it broke my cognitive dissonance. I had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. I started listening to speakers at Oxford Circus. The next morning, I got up, made a packed lunch and joined the protestors on Waterloo Bridge. And I stayed there until I was arrested.
I spent 22 hours in the cell. Suddenly you’re on your own. The difference between the connection you feel on the bridge and the loneliness and alienation of the cell was huge.
That process activated a big pool of feeling. The degradation of the planet we live on is an issue that human beings don’t really have the capacity to imagine or grasp. And how do you look after people when you activate that grief and worry? It was a very emotional day.
I’m a very average person, I struggle to stay vegetarian, I’m deeply tempted to take flights. And joining XR was a process of telling myself: “No, this is absolutely important.” To look at my nieces in the face and make a commitment to the next generation that this cannot happen.
Tim Ponton, 68 and Susan Ponton, 70, Totnes, Devon
Tim and Susan are retired, and live in Totnes. Along with a group of fellow over-50s from their home town, they held part of Waterloo Bridge for 18 hours. Both Tim and Susan pleaded guilty.
Tim: We actually came up with a large number of our Totnes group, called “Ground Elders”. We range in age from 55 to 85. We all met at the south end of Waterloo Bridge at the action. At 7am, it became plain that Totnes had been asked to blockade the southern end of the bridge — we were a little shocked! We’re a tiny little market town. But we did it at 8am.
We held the bridge for 18 hours, and were arrested just after midnight.
Nothing has been done with climate change in 40 years from the movements I’ve been involved in. Nearly a year ago I caught a glimpse of XR as an emerging movement and it immediately ticked all the boxes for me.
We both went on non-violent civil disobedience training in November, which involves roleplaying as police, legal observers and arrestable blockaders. We re-enact scenarios, how to behave with each other in the face of provocation, and we learn to remain completely non-violent.
All arrestees are thinking a lot about the decision of pleading guilty or not guilty – it’s one of the major decisions you have to make and it’s a pretty tricky one. We didn’t want this hanging over us the whole summer, possibly winter, and over the next rebellion in October. That doesn’t mean we’re not prepared to do it all again.
Data journalism and graphics by Ella Hollowood and Chris Newell. All Portraits Tom Pilston for Tortoise