Their sentencing attracted a huge crowd protesting against the verdict. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue
As the bankers and consultants of Canary Wharf made their way into work on a clear April morning in 2021, seven women with a very different mission were in their midst. They were not, at 7am, walking up to Barclays headquarters to begin a day of spreadsheets and bar charts, but to draw attention to the bank’s financing of fossil fuel projects. The seven were Extinction Rebellion activists, armed with chisels and hammers.
What happened next led to a high-profile trial for criminal damage – and ultimately saw them convicted but spared jail.
Following the sentencing, we bring you the inside story of a symbolic trial. It is not just the story of broken windows and legal arguments. It’s a snapshot of how climate movements have evolved, how the courtroom is being used as a platform, and the toll a life of protesting can take on those involved.
It also provides a glimpse into the future.
‘Oh my God, this is it’
“I see myself as just a person who cares about people and the environment and animals, and sees what needs to be done, which is to break through this sleepy business as usual,” Sophie Cowen explained in a well-spoken southern accent. She didn’t come from an activist background – her dad worked in oil and her mum in PR during what Cowen described as the “cool 80s in Soho”. When she was at uni studying French at Oxford, protests largely passed her by, and she went on to study a masters in journalism. But when Extinction Rebellion started up in 2018 she decided – actually – she could make more impact working with them than she could as a journalist.
Zoe Cohen grew up watching reports of Greenpeace protests. Those activists were simply a different kind of person, she thought, heroic but out of reach. Her career had taken her from working in the NHS to setting up her own coaching business, but in 2018 she found the thing she had been waiting 30 years for. Extinction Rebellion were blocking bridges in central London, and anybody could do it. “I just watched with tears rolling down my face, and was like: oh my God this is it,” she said.
From there, as the movement grew and XR protests shut down central London, gained media traction, and began to splinter into groups like Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, the pair became more involved. Cowen, using her skills on XR’s media team, was working full-time managing relationships with journalists, putting together content, and organising actions. She supplemented the £800 to £1,000 a month she received from the group with tutoring work, trying to stay afloat in London. She also set up an ethical banking company, helping customers move their money out of banks contributing to the climate crisis.
Cohen began taking part in more protests. Her law-breaking lost her some friends, but self-respect – being able to look herself in the mirror and her 19-year-old daughter in the eye – kept her going. The pair’s activism began to take over their lives, but neither considered themselves, in a strict sense, “activists” – an unhelpful word, in their opinions, employed to make it seem like ordinary people had no part to play in fighting climate change. Between them they were arrested over a dozen times.
This is a key part of Extinction Rebellion’s strategy, taking cues from the Suffragettes and a long history of civil resistance. Public disobedience and disruption will get you in trouble with the police. And arrests mean trials. The targets varied – sometimes it was roadblocks and bridges, other times it was government departments and newspaper printing presses. But what about the banks funding fossil fuels?
Take Barclays. In the first 10 months of 2021, the bank put £4.1 billion into new fossil fuel projects, including the Dakota access pipeline in the US and Canadian oil extraction. Its boast of being “one of the first banks to announce our ambition to be a net zero bank by 2050”, and of reducing its lending and financing of fossil fuels while increasing investment in green projects, didn’t wash with climate activists. So they decided to go after it. Cohen had actually become a Barclays shareholder in 2021 to try and force change through. But the resolution she brought forward at an AGM to phase out fossil fuels failed, supported only by 14 per cent of shareholders. She’d even confronted the company’s CEO in person.
They had intended to convene as seven women at 7am on the 7th, but made it to Barclays’ UK headquarters a few minutes late.
Along with Cowen and Cohen, there were five others. Cazzie Wood, a single mother, vegetarian and buddhist, was a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the ’90s. Rosemary Webster, known by friends as Annie, had two grandchildren and like Cohen became aware of XR with the bridge blockings. Lucy Porter, a former teacher, wanted Barclays to have its “lightbulb moment”. Gabby Ditton worked in bars and restaurants and animation, and was caring for her terminally ill mother while the planning for the action had been made. The seventh cannot be named for legal reasons.
They had met the night before and were ready to carry out the action, targeting a building worth over £1bn, but not actually owned by Barclays. Wearing the green and purple of the suffragettes, the group were armed with brightly painted hammers and chisels. Cohen had painted ‘love’ on the back of hers.
As they stuck posters reading: “In case of climate emergency, break glass”, they calmly and methodically went to work on the windows. Some targeted the corners, near the frames, others went straight for the middle of panes.
“Thankfully it cracked nicely with one hit, it was like: ‘No’. It was a message of no and a message of love,” Cohen recalled.
Their actions were steeped in history. In 1911, the Suffragettes adopted a mass tactic of smashing windows, targeting shops and offices in London’s West End. It was part of a campaign which saw around 300 Suffragettes jailed in Holloway prison. Many were subjected to force-feeding. “The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics”, said Emmeline Pankhurst.
Once the windows were smashed, all seven sat quietly and waited for the police to arrive and take them away. “This was not a fight, it was not an argument,” the judge later said.
Left behind were windows in various states of damage – some like spiders’ webs, others with big white cracks. They had thought it might come to a few thousand pounds of damage. But, when accounting for out-of-hours work and road closures, the figure worked out at £97,022.06, including VAT.
The case was headed to crown court. A jury would decide the fate of the women Extinction Rebellion had taken to branding the “Barclays Seven”. Could this be an opportunity?
‘The jury is often seen as a cornerstone of UK democracy’
Early in XR’s life, co-founder Roger Hallam advocated mass arrest as a core tactic of the movement. He spoke at early meetings where 30 per cent of people present ended up agreeing to get arrested, and 10 to 20 per cent agreed to go to prison. Springing up in 2018, it was a desperate response to an existential crisis, a bid to achieve “cultural resonance”. Naturally, this approach fed criticism of the group for alienating marginalised groups. Now, Cowen talks about using her privilege as a white woman to be somebody who can put themselves through this, Hallam has no formal role in XR, and things are a little more complicated.
Cohen was keen to emphasise that the Barclays Seven didn’t break the windows with the goal of ending up in crown court. Their focus was on the action itself, rather than on its consequences.
The window-smashing was part of the “Money Rebellion” campaign, attempting to shed light on the role banks played in financing fossil fuels. Intended as a wake-up call not only to the shareholders of the bank, but the employees and executives, it was not done as a way to get in front of a jury. But they were there anyway.
So they too advantage of it. After all, beyond clogging up the courts and prisons, the trials themselves can be a platform, and a way to show how their message is spreading.
From December 2019 to November 2022, Extinction Rebellion activists were acquitted by juries in three of seven trials. In two of the four guilty hearings, the jury expressed regret over the verdict. In four crown court cases, Insulate Britain activists have been acquitted twice and had their trials deferred twice. You might not consider these to be terrible odds.
Magistrates or high court hearings do not have a jury. Crown court hearings, which are reserved for more serious offences, are tried in front of a jury. This presents a chance for activists to make their case on a larger platform.
These often-high profile trials can be a way of working out what’s acceptable, and finding the frontier of public opinion, according to James Ozden, a former Extinction Rebellion activist who founded Social Change Lab, an organisation researching how protest movements can achieve change.
“The jury is often seen as a cornerstone of UK democracy. If an act is deemed not guilty by a jury, this is often much more significant than an ordinary ruling by a judge. To be deemed as innocent amongst a group of your peers, is a crucial litmus test for determining the morality of certain actions,” he said.
“As such, having climate activists vindicated by juries can signal to the legal system that current laws are punishing activists beyond what most deem acceptable or right.”
Wins can also shift public opinion, he explained: convincing sceptics that the public take it seriously, and showing policymakers how public opinion has shifted. Equally, activists can run up against unfriendly judges who to an extent dictate how big the field of play is.
What’s more, the approach isn’t without its perils, explained Catherine Higham, a policy fellow at LSE working on climate change laws.
“While defending a protest action in court offers a public forum for raising climate issues, these cases often have serious consequences for the individual actors concerned, particularly when cases are not heard before a jury,” she said.
“Many protesters never intended to get arrested and the experience can be very difficult. To have the greatest impact, the cases also typically rely on attracting media coverage, which in a busy media environment doesn’t always happen.”
Extinction Rebellion champion the need for citizens’ assemblies, where members are randomly selected from the population, given detailed information and asked to reach a conclusion. The parallels with juries are clear. In 2020, the House of Commons held “Climate Assembly UK”, a citizens’ assembly made up of 108 members, which produced a report calling for improved education on climate change. If one can work, why not the other?
The government is intent on cracking down on protesters such as Extinction Rebellion by giving police greater powers and creating new protest-related offences. After the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts act, there is the Public Order bill. The government estimates it will put 66 people a year behind bars. Bluntly, we are likely to see more trials.
So the case, like many others, carried significance.
Southwark Crown Court is not a particularly nice place, whether you’re on trial or not. If you tried to use its browning corridors as a TV set for a 1970s comprehensive, somebody might suggest giving it a lick of paint first. But it was where the seven women assembled in November, facing a maximum prison sentence of four years for criminal damage.
As with the day at Barclays, they evoked the Suffragettes by wearing green and purple.
In the past, climate activists have won acquittal from jurors by using what’s known as the ‘necessity’ defence, and arguing that their actions were a necessary response to the climate crisis. This is good ground for climate activists – the courtroom can become a place to lay bare the looming environmental catastrophe.
This wasn’t an option for the Barclays Seven. Instead, they had to rely on the consent defence. Did they believe that the relevant people would have consented to the action, had they known the reasons for it? In other words, if “the shareholders of Barclays knew of all the harm Barclays was doing in their name, the defendants believe the shareholders would consent,” as the defence put it.
If so, they would have a lawful excuse for smashing the windows.
Talk to anybody involved – really involved – in the climate movement, and a common picture comes through. Taking the time to get acquainted with the climate science and the IPCC reports is like looking directly at the sun. Most people tend not to make a habit of it, because it will do some intense things to you: some get overwhelmed with anxiety, others more or less live in denial, some have faith in technological solutions, while others are spurred into action. Tabloids are fond of describing this conviction as zeal. They’re aware of this tag – in the lift between court sessions, one defendant asks me if I’ll be describing them as “eco-zealots”.
As the trial drew to its conclusion, the self-representing defendants made emotional closing speeches to the jury. The appeals reflected the idea that things cannot be the same once you know what’s coming.
Cohen, choking up, said: “The world my mum used to describe to me when I was a child doesn’t exist”. She told the jury: “Of course anyone who understands this in their right mind would consent to this.”
In a later session, she told the judge of her Jewish heritage, and said the impact of the climate crisis would be “100 Holocausts”.
Cowen told the jury “You are representing society here”. And, in an illustration of how she saw the trial’s significance: “I believe the jury system is one of the finest examples of democracy we have.”
Ditton, apologising for what the jury had heard about the severity of the climate crisis, said: “They say ignorance is bliss and we have taken that away from you forever”.
However, the judge steered the jury away from these emotions, telling them “it is not a trial of the harms of climate change” and “this is not a trial of Barclays”. The prosecution put it more simply: “The crown do not need to win a moral argument in this case”.
It ended with a guilty verdict.
‘The legal system perhaps hasn’t caught up’
I spoke to Cohen and Cowen on a Zoom call a week before their sentencing. Having been told to expect anywhere between six and 18 months in prison, they were preparing: making contact lists, packing bags, and making sure their work would continue.
Cowen had been reading a biography of Emily Davison for perspective. “You just read that and you’re like oh my God, what they went through to get women the vote is a hell of a lot more than what we’re facing,” she said.
“It’s just remembering that what we did was right, and that whatever happens is just a representation of the fact that the legal system perhaps hasn’t caught up.”
All told, their protest on that April morning will consume nearly two years of their lives. Neither had any regrets about it. The trial itself was empowering, but also “limiting” and “ostracising”, not to mention exhausting. Cohen wishes, maybe, she had been a bit more outspoken during the trial.
On the morning of their sentencing, a cold but clear Friday in January, around 100 women dressed as Suffragettes gathered at Bank station and marched through central London to Southwark Crown Court. Among them was Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst – an early advocate of breaking windows.
She saw a clear parallel between how the system treats climate activists with how it treated her forebears.
“They are both socially marginalised, made fun of, considered to be extremists, and legally silenced, and yet they stand up for justice in the way the Suffragettes did,” she told me outside the court.
She felt the status of the suffrage movement – held up by politicians of all stripes as modern-day heroes without any acknowledgement of the opposition they faced – was a form of whitewashing: “I think it’s easy to admire the radical campaigners of the past while at the same time not seeing the parallels with the present, and calling that out, calling the hypocrisy out, is really important.”
Tactically, targeting banks has been bearing fruit. Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, said how senior figures in the banking industry had told her – privately – that the protests were creating a climate for the institutions to change.
“People on the inside of the banking system tell us they’re finding it easier to make their case for sustainable finance,” she said as speeches rang out behind her.
But there was frustration that none were prepared to say this publicly, as well as that judges were increasingly “closing down” the necessity defence to climate activists.
In a courtroom with stains on the walls, and filled with friends and relatives, the judge passed sentence. “The strength of your beliefs has led you to believe you are entitled to take the law into your own hands”, the judge told the seven. He quoted Abraham Lincoln, and tension grew as he told them the offence passed “what we call the custody threshold”.
But they were spared prison. Instead, sentences ranging from six to eight months, suspended for two years were imposed, as well as costs each of £500. While their hammers and chisels will be destroyed, as long as they do not re-offend for two years, they will remain free.
The Barclays Seven will by no means be the last trial we see of climate activists in this country. At the time of writing, a set of Just Stop Oil activists were on trial for storming the track during the Silverstone Grand Prix in 2022. Meanwhile, the planet grows hotter and extreme climate events become more frequent.
If their protests serve to expose how ill-equipped political and financial institutions are to deal with the climate crisis, their trials, they hope, expose the same flaws in this country’s legal system.
And for the protesters, it’s only a matter of time before everybody realises this.
Before heading in to find out whether her next months would be spent in a cell, Cohen referenced The Emperor’s New Clothes, telling the crowd: “They are all naked.”