Activism

What will 2023 hold for climate activists? The trial of seven 'suffragettes' may offer clues

Protests in the UK in 2022 saw activists throw soup at paintings and block motorways. Now, as public order laws threaten to remove our right to protest, what will be the effect on those who come before the courts?

Ocean Rebellion

Ocean Rebellion protest, International Maritime Organization, London, November 2022. Photo; Guy Reece

The sight of bright orange Heinz Tomato soup splattered over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was too much to bear for some. Yes, of course, we support protests for the future survival of humanity, but this is a step too far. Perhaps this was the reaction Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland imagined when they entered the National Gallery in October, armed with one of Mr Heinz’s 57 varieties and some glue. The painting itself, hidden behind a glass screen, wasn’t damaged. Small matter. 

“This is infantile vandalism and these people should be sent to prison… for life,” said a commentator on TalkTV, and so on and so forth. At the time of writing Plummer and Holland are set to face a jury in January – though not quite with a life sentence hanging over their heads. But their day in court is symbolic. It comes at the end of 2022, a year when the right to protest about the things you believe in has shifted and shrunk. 

Just Stop Oil's soup stunt at the National Gallery
Just Stop Oil’s soup stunt at the National Gallery

On one side, there are environmental protesters gluing themselves to roads, throwing soup over artworks, and tying themselves to goalposts during Premier League matches. They’re faced down by the government, defending the “law-abiding majority” against “criminal, disruptive, and self-defeating tactics from a supremely selfish minority”, as former Home Secretary Priti Patel put it.

The government’s main instrument in the battle was the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. This new law, which gave the police powers to put noise restrictions on protests, was described as “the biggest widening of police powers to impose restrictions on public protest that we’ve seen in our lifetimes” by leading barrister Chris Daw. Resistance in the House of Lords meant some of the bill’s more draconian measures were stripped out, before it was passed into law in April. 

It’s worth noting that some of these powers haven’t actually been used. In fact, The Big Issue discovered that the new powers on noise hadn’t been used at all within the first six months of the bill becoming law. But under old laws and new, protesters are finding themselves – not accidentally – in courtrooms. This year, as they’ve landed in court, climate protesters have adopted a new approach, using their defence as an extension of their protest – a chance to spread their message and appeal to the conscience of jurors. 

One such group were seven women from Extinction Rebellion who had smashed windows at Barclays’ HQ in Canary Wharf, east London, in an attempt to “raise the alarm” over the bank’s investments in fossil fuels. 

As November became December, they sat, wearing outfits evoking the green and purple of the Suffragettes, in a nondescript room in Southwark Crown Court to answer charges of criminal damage. They were charged with just over £114,000 worth of criminal damage. The women – mothers and grandmothers, young professionals and former teachers – argued to the jury that, had the shareholders of Barclays known exactly what the bank was up to, they would have been fine with the breaking of the windows. 

One called the jury system “one of the finest examples of democracy we have”, while another said, “this action was taken with extreme love and care”. It was an attempt to spell out the harms of climate change, and their belief in this, as the ultimate justification. The judge disagreed with this framing, telling the jury: “It is not a trial of the harms of climate change.” 

Global Day of Action called by Egyptian groups at COP27
London, November 2022: Thousands took to the streets in solidarity with the Global Day of Action called by Egyptian groups at COP27. Photo: Amelia Halls

The Barclays seven were found guilty, and will find out their sentences in the New Year. But the tactics – using the trial, in effect, as a soapbox and hoping a jury of your peers will rule in your favour – can work. Of seven previous cases in which XR members have found themselves in front of a jury for their protests, three resulted in not guilty verdicts. Three Insulate Britain supporters, even when found not guilty by a jury in December, called their hearing “a politically motivated show trial”. 

While talk show hosts grew puce over blocked roads and coverage obsessed over tactics, the UN found this year that there is “no credible pathway” in place to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the target agreed by nations. A lack of progress at COP27 in Egypt dimmed hope further. The UK has even decided to open the first new coal mine in 30 years.  

So what will 2023 bring? The bits of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill that got defeated the first time round are back in a new form: the Public Order Bill. This will grant police even greater powers to restrict protests. Of greatest concern have been “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders”, which would allow serial protesters to be electronically tagged and banned from attending or organising protests. The police monitoring group Netpol branded these orders “the start of a new chapter of repressive police surveillance”. The Public Order Bill will almost certainly become law soon after the calendars change. 

And yet, as the barrister Adam Wagner told MPs considering the law, these measures do not put off organised, serious protest groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. “They will say: ‘Well it’s going to be a badge of honour to go to prison’, and the prison system will start to be full of these people,” he said. 

So perhaps they’ll find new uses for all that soup. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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