By Isabella Kaminski
LONDON—Hundreds of climate activists are appearing in court in the United Kingdom this summer, facing charges for taking part in the massive protests that snarled central London last April. And while the activists have been surprised by the city’s zeal in prosecuting them, they are also using it as another opportunity to air their grievances against the government.
“If I am guilty then so be it,” Samantha Jane Lindo said in tears after she pleaded guilty and was given a conditional discharge. “But I would like to say how much more guilty are the government… for not acting, not telling the truth and not doing their ultimate job by protecting us.”
The protests were organized by Extinction Rebellion, an activist group that has more protests planned to raise awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis in the UK, US and across the world. The group said it welcomed this “extraordinary opportunity” to take its message into the courts. “These prosecutions give our rebels a platform to speak the truth about the dire situation we’re in.”
Lindo, a 34-year-old teacher and musician from Bristol, said she was sorry that she had taken police resources away from other important issues. “But the thing I’m most sorry about is that it has come to a point where I feel that getting myself arrested is one of the only things I feel I can do to get my voice heard. I have been legally marching and protesting my whole adult life. I have been ignored.”
The City of London Magistrates Court has set aside one day a week this summer to hear cases against people involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests.
The Metropolitan Police arrested 1,151 people over the two weeks of protests in April and originally charged around 70 with an offense. One person received a caution for “outraging public decency” and 32 people were released.
But the police’s stance hardened soon after. It set up a specialist team to refer as many cases as possible to the Crown Prosecution Service, and in June announced that nearly all of those arrested would be charged.
So far, 180 people, ranging in age from 20 to some in their 70s, have been ordered to appear in court, mostly for breaching section 14 of the Public Order Act by ignoring conditions imposed by the police.
Most of those who have appeared in court so far have pleaded not guilty; their trials are expected to take place throughout the fall.
One case that has already gone to trial is that of Angie Zelter, a 68-year-old woman who was found guilty of a public order offense in June. She was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay about $800 in court costs.
Zelter was defiant in court, saying she was fearful for the future and had not taken the decision to take part in Extinction Rebellion lightly.
Other defendants, aware they could be liable for legal fees and court costs, have pled guilty.
Extinction Rebellion questioned the Metropolitan Police’s motives in prosecuting so many people, arguing that it was not in the public interest and there were more important problems to tackle in London, such as the recent surge in knife crime.
The police said the April protests had a “significant impact” on local policing, with thousands of officers diverted away from core local duties. Earlier this week, it asked the government for stronger powers and tougher sentences to deal with protestors.
The April protests were undoubtedly successful, with Extinction Rebellion’s three key demands largely being met: the UK has since declared a climate emergency, promised to set up a citizens’ assembly on climate change and in June became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to be net zero by 2050 (although Extinction Rebellion had asked for a 2025 deadline).
And the protests have continued, with seven more people arrested this week at construction sites in London. They were charged with aggravated trespass. Other cases are currently being heard against protestors arrested in Bristol.
Extinction Rebellion’s legal team hopes to use the latest series of cases to set a legal precedent in England and Wales, establishing a “citizen’s right to act in the face of emergency.”
In May, two climate change protesters involved in setting up Extinction Rebellion were acquitted of criminal damage by a jury in a rare success using the necessity defense to justify civil disobedience. However, since public order offenses are considered more minor than criminal damage, defendants in the latest swathe of cases do not have a right to request a jury trial.