Shell shock after XR not guilty verdict

XR protest shell
Samuel Hayward
A jury found six Extinction Rebellion activists not guilty after vandalism at the Shell HQ. Read the inside story of the trial.

Tears came. I reached out to touch the shoulder of my friend. No-one screamed or whooped or laughed: our joy whirled soundlessly around the court.

The acquittal of six Extinction Rebellion activists who freely admitted breaking the windows of the Shell HQ two years earlier was extraordinary.

The case was an unusual one, Judge Perrins said with professional understatement, because although none of the defendants disputed the police evidence that they had committed illegal acts, they had all pleaded not guilty. He made it clear that under the law that didn’t make any sense.

The verdict is the result of the reason for their actions: to draw attention to the fossil fuel company’s role in climate breakdown, and draw attention to the fact the company knew the effects of their production and therefore knew they were putting all our lives and futures in peril.

Vegan

I witnessed the case first hand and was there for the acquittal on Friday, April 21 as the official Extinction Rebellion (XR) podcaster. On many occasions in my two and a half years with XR I have tasted history and I wondered if this might be yet another one of them.

Yet on the previous Wednesday it didn’t feel hopeful as I sat in the court. The faces of the jurors, ensconced behind masks and COVID screens, were impossible to read. 

Like many beautiful things, the result was a mixture of the tedious and the magical. The legal procedure was intense and slow-moving. Because the defendants had chosen to represent themselves, the judge had to get the jury to step out while he talked through the individual statements one rebel at a time.

He was mostly patient but there were moments of apparent irritation.

The case took place nearly two years after the Spring Rebellion, which the Shell action had been part of. That rebellion is always spoken of warmly by rebels: it was the one in which XR put trees on Waterloo Bridge, made a kitchen and fed everyone who turned up with free vegan food. Greta visited.

Polluted

A pink boat, named after Honduran activist Berta Càseres, was moored in the middle of Oxford Circus. It mostly issued dance music, though occasionally someone like Jem Bendell would stand on its decks to tell us the dire climate and biodiversity news.

Massive Attack played for rebels in Marble Arch. Emma Thompson spoke and was slammed by the tabloids for her frequent flying lifestyle. Chris Packham gave a speech standing on the roof of a bus stop while the police tried to clear Waterloo Bridge around him. Banksy was among us leaving graffiti near where rebels camped. It was sunny. The more oppressive policing and home secretary Pritti Patel were were for me still a long way in the future.

The results of the rebellion put XR on the map - but were otherwise disappointing. The government and all the major political parties agreed to have meetings with XR. Clare Farrell, a cofounder, characterised these meetings as "mildly less shit" than she had expected. But arguably they led to nothing substantial.

Although Parliament declared a climate emergency, as everyone involved in the green movement knows, nothing has really yet happened at the level of policy. The wind farms and the electric cars are heartening but none of the heavy lifting has been done.

The many Pyrrhic victories haven’t been worth the polluted air that bore them.

Emergency

Yet it was during that Spring Rebellion that Jane Augsburgher, 55, Senan Clifford, 60, David Lambert, 62, Sid Saunders, 41, Katerina Hasapopoulos, 43, together with XR co-founders Ian Bray, 53, and Simon Bramwell, 49, quietly and deliberately broke windows of the Shell HQ.

They did it without putting anyone in danger, as the judge himself affirmed in his summing up.

The group had chosen this action to ensure the level of criminal damage they would be charged with would ensure a jury trial - unlike with a lesser charge of blocking a highway or disobeying a Section 14,. 

I was present for the defendants’ final speeches. Quietly, modestly they each made their case.

In one speech after another the defendants addressed the jurors, their fellow citizens, on the subject of the climate emergency, the sixth mass extinction and the role of fossil fuels in this disaster.

Truth

They apologised to any juror hearing the extent of the bad news the science gives us for the first time in court that day.

One spoke of the children he teaches; another of the extinction of wildlife around us; another asked the jury to follow the judge’s instructions to carefully consider the law and then put it aside to find them not guilty; one spoke of his Quaker faith and lamented the fact there are only courts of law rather than courts of morals.

He would understand if their judgement went against him.

Finally, the youngest rebel talked about his belief that Shell employees would have consented to his actions - if they had known his genuine desire to inform them of the truth. 

There was a sense of sadness that a seventh defendant was absent. Katerina has previously pleaded guilty, concerned about the impact a trial would have on her child.

Verdict

The speeches were gentle: sometimes forensic, sometimes quietly emotional. There was no grandstanding. The cumulative effect was overwhelming.

Anyone who saw the Royal Court production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted remembers the set: a hotel room that breaks apart in the second act to become the war rubble of a bomb site.

In this case the small awkward courtroom seemed to crack open to allow us suddenly to see planetary-size problems - rather than small scale crimes. 

After the speeches there was a real sense that all the people in the court had been on a profound journey together - including our opponents. A sense of intimacy flowered.

The judge spoke softly as he sent the jury to consider their verdict. The prosecution lawyers chatted to XR co-founder Simon Bramwell in the corridor as we left.

Jury

Yet a not guilty verdict still felt impossible. The judge’s instructions had been clear: this is a court of law and the evidence showed that the defendants had committed criminal damage. How could the jury come back with a not guilty verdict? When I went home Thursday evening that still felt impossible.

I returned Friday. I anticipated a frustrating day of waiting. It was fun hanging out with the defendants as they prepared what they would say to the press after the verdict.

We were told later that the judge had received a note from the jury asking for him to remind them of the wording of their vow.

We were called into court just before lunchtime. A second jury note asked Judge Perrins if he would accept a minority verdict. When he agreed, one of the jurors looked very relieved. 

Over lunch outside the court we picnicked in the sun, speculating as to what it could mean. Obviously, someone was being stubborn in the face of the opinions of the other jurors. But was the stubborn person for us or against us?

Miracles

We were surprised to be called back into court immediately after lunch. The judge told the court that the jury had reached a verdict after seven hours of deliberation. He duly instructed us not to react when the judgement came in. 

When the jury was assembled, the clerk of the court asked the foreman of the jury – a tall man who had sat at the back and whom I hadn’t noticed during the trial -- if they had reached a verdict. Yes. The clerk read the charge for Senan Clifford and the foreman said, "not guilty". Then for David Lambert. "Not guilty." It was hard to compute. To every name and every charge, the same response.

Tears came. I reached out to touch the shoulder of my friend. No-one screamed or whooped or laughed: our joy whirled soundlessly around the court.

In the early days of XR, we recruited mostly by giving The Talk. It gives the unvarnished scientific truth of our effect on the Earth and its possible consequences for human civilisation.

The action at the Shell HQ, the police arrests, the charges, the trial, the judge, the barristers’ time. This all felt like an elaborate backdrop to a new presentation of The Talk. And the jury heard.

There are many similar jury cases in the pipeline this year. We at Extinction Rebellion cannot expect that every one of these will go our way. But who knows? Maybe this year, the year of COP26 and the G7, will also be one of legal miracles.

This Author

Jessica Townsend is a freelance journalist and host of the official Extinction Rebellion podcast.

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