Acquittal of activists shows public taking climate crisis ‘far more seriously’

·6-min read

The acquittal of three Extinction Rebellion activists who stopped a rush-hour train in central London is part of an “escalating pattern” of juries taking climate change more seriously than the Government, their lawyer has claimed.

Reverend Sue Parfitt, 79, Father Martin Newell, 54, and former university lecturer Philip Kingston, 85, became the latest protesters to be acquitted for protesting on public transport on Friday.

The jury at Inner London Crown Court unanimously cleared all three of obstructing the railway following their protest at Shadwell Station on October 17 2019.

Mr Kingston superglued his hand to a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) train, while Rev Parfitt and Father Newell climbed on the roof and said prayers for the planet.

Rev Parfitt hailed Friday’s acquittal as “vindication” of their action, though a Tory MP criticised the protest as “selfish” and said the jury system needs reviewing.

Mike Schwarz, solicitor at the law firm Hodge Jones and Allen, which represented the defendants, said: “There is mounting evidence from the courts – and in particular from juries – that the public is taking the climate crisis and the increasingly urgent need to focus on it far more seriously than government and business. This verdict is part of this escalating pattern.”

Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith criticised the decision as “giving the green light to people looking to commit all manner of appalling crimes”.

The Bassetlaw MP said: “The selfish actions and egos of these individuals prevented people from getting to work to provide for their families, children from attending school, wasted the time of our emergency services, and put people’s lives at risk. I don’t see that as being a particularly Christian thing to do.

“Whilst I would always defend the jury system, it clearly needs a review, and this outrageous decision has given the green light to people looking to commit all manner of appalling crimes in the name of religion to justify their extreme political ideologies.”

Summing up on Thursday, Judge Silas Reid told the jury to decide whether the actions of the defendants and the disruption they caused was “proportionate” with their right to protest.

He reminded jurors that the motivation of the protesters was not relevant to whether or not they were guilty of causing disproportionate disruption to the public, nor was the sincerity of their belief in what they were doing.

Judge Reid told the court: “Intentionally disruptive action, even that which has more than a minimal impact on the rights of other people, need not result in a conviction.

“It is all a matter of fact and degree. It requires balancing the defendants’ rights to free speech and to protest, as against the rights and freedoms of other people from being obstructed from going about their daily business and the importance and need in society to prevent disorder and secure public safety.”

Father Martin Newell and Reverend Sue Parfitt
Father Martin Newell and Reverend Sue Parfitt said they hope the jury’s decision will inspire others to act over the climate emergency (Victoria Jones/PA)

Speaking outside the court on Friday, Reverend Parfitt told the PA news agency she felt the verdict showed the protest had been “the right thing to do”.

She said: “It’s wonderful that the jury saw the bigger picture, that the court has vindicated our action, and we hope it in some small way inspires others to feel that there may be sacrifices to be made, perhaps particularly by people of faith.

“We have to do whatever it takes to try our best to enable the people on this earth to change direction radically so that we live differently and we live in a better way.

“We are in an extreme and dire emergency in terms of our civilisation and our human and non-human species on the planet, and we have to have action from the governments of the world.”

Father Newell said he is prepared for further action and would risk going to prison in the future.

He told PA: “I’m not sure that disrupting public transport is the right thing to do at this point, but in terms of would I risk going to prison? Absolutely.”

Mr Kingston, the third defendant acquitted on Friday, appeared in court via video link.

The trio said they were strongly motivated by their Christian faith, while Mr Kingston said the futures of his four grandchildren also prompted him to take part in the protest.

In what they said was an attempt to appeal to the public and the Government about the dangers of climate change and the financial institutions whose actions damage the planet, they targeted a train one stop away from Bank in the City of London’s financial district.

Extinction Rebellion protester Phil Kingston who has glued himself to a DLR train at Shadwell in east London (Max Kara/PA)s
Former university lecturer Philip Kingston glued himself to a DLR train (Max Kara/Twitter/PA)

Some 15 trains were delayed or cancelled but none were stuck in tunnels.

This was partly because, according to the activists, they had planned the demonstration to ensure there was no risk to public safety by taking certain measures, including targeting a station above ground and having 10 more Extinction Rebellion activists on the platform to ensure violence did not erupt.

Rev Parfitt had previously vowed to continue protesting after being found guilty by a district judge at City of London Magistrates’ Court in February 2020 of refusing to obey a police banning order preventing protesters from demonstrating at Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge in London in April 2019.

The verdict comes days after four people were cleared of criminal damage over the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, which was then thrown into the harbour, in Bristol.

The bronze memorial to the 17th century figure was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest in the city on June 7 2020, with those responsible acquitted on January 5 following an 11-day trial at Bristol Crown Court.

Last year saw a string of convictions overturned at the Old Bailey, where a judge urged the Crown Prosecution Service to review its response to protesters’ appeals against convictions for obstructing a highway in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June.

Judge Mark Dennis QC said in August there was a “fundamental problem”, adding the Crown had not properly “grasped” the ruling or the “basic human rights point that has been there for a very long time”.

The Supreme Court had overturned the convictions of four protesters – Christopher Cole, Henrietta Cullinan, Joanna Frew and Nora Ziegler – who were charged with obstruction of the highway after they locked themselves together outside an arms fair in 2017.

James Brown
James Brown glued himself to the roof of a plane (Extinction Rebellion/PA)

In their judgment, Lord Hamblen and Lord Stephens said: “There should be a certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life, including disruption of traffic, caused by the exercise of the right to freedom of expression or freedom of peaceful assembly.”

And in April last year, six Extinction Rebellion protesters were cleared of causing criminal damage to Shell’s London headquarters, despite the judge telling jurors at Southwark Crown Court they had no defence in law.

Earlier on Friday, six activists who blocked motorways as part a series of protests by the Extinction Rebellion offshoot Insulate Britain were released from prison.

And former Paralympic athlete James Brown, who was given a 12-month jail term after supergluing himself to the roof of a British Airways plane at London City Airport in a bid to draw attention to the climate crisis, had his sentence cut to four months by appeal judges.

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