Putting Extinction Rebellion activists on trial isn’t in the public interest, so
In the face of resistance by juries, surely there is a strong case to halt all the pending trials of Extinction Rebellion activists? With nearly a thousand trials still waiting to be heard in the courts, six members of the group were recently acquitted at Southwark crown court in XR’s second trial by a jury.
They had been charged with criminal damage against the oil giant Shell, yet the jury decided that all six were not guilty, despite the judge ruling that only one had any kind of defence in law.
For the police, prosecutors and judge, this was doubtless a “perverse” verdict. But the warning signs had been there. In XR’s first crown court trial in December 2019, in which the defendants also admitted their actions and pleaded not guilty, the jury stated they had only followed the judge’s direction to convict “with regret”.
It seems that the law is out of step with the public, and that there could be many more such “perverse” verdicts by rebellious juries.
The six acquitted defendants took action outside Shell’s London headquarters during XR’s first mass protests in April 2019. They blocked doors, climbed on to the entrance canopy, broke several windows and painted “Shell Knew”, “Lies” and “Climate Criminals” on the outside of the building.
Their action was reportedly designed to create more than £5,000 worth of damage, to ensure the case would be escalated to the crown court and heard by a jury, rather than in a magistrates court. Their hope was that on learning why they felt they had to break the law, a jury of their fellow citizens would reach the decision it did. It was a courageous and risky strategy – for they each faced a maximum five-year prison sentence or a £10,000 fine.
In the two years it took for the case to come to trial, there’s been a major shift in public awareness about the scale of the challenges we face from global heating and ecosystem collapse, not least as a result of XR protests, as well as strikes by school students and increasingly desperate warnings from scientists and public figures such as David Attenborough.
The two-week Shell trial at Southwark was a case study in what can happen when environmental activists put their trust in the people. The defendants dismissed their lawyers and represented themselves, which allowed them to speak directly to the jury, explain the full facts about the climate crisis, and their reasons for taking the actions they did.
This is a tactic I know something about, having done the same thing in 1972 when facing imprisonment in an Old Bailey conspiracy trial for disrupting tours by apartheid South African sports teams. I was also acquitted, like the Shell defendants, on a majority jury verdict.
The Shell jury, having heard the evidence, concluded that the damage done was a proportionate response to the damage Shell continues to do to the planet. Decades ago, Shell researched the causes and potential impact of global heating, but rather than move out of fossil fuels, it hired lobbyists to throw doubt on the science and frustrate action.
It continues to evade justice for the damage it has done to ecosystems and people’s lives and livelihoods around the globe.
Meanwhile, its much publicised net zero strategy includes investment in new oil exploration and gas pumping of $8bn (£5.8bn) a year, with only between $2bn and $3bn for renewables and an unrealistic reliance on tree planting and carbon capture technologies. This inadequate response recently caused the Methodist church, a major shareholder, to lose patience and pull out of the company.
The Shell jury, a microcosm of the wider public, suggests that once people are fully informed about the climate crisis, they may understand the urgency and support the radical action needed to address it.
In addition, a dozen more crown court cases are still pending. Maybe jury…