Extinction Rebellion on Trial

Lorna Scott Fox

Since last September, Monday to Friday, City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country. XR court supporters are on hand with vegan snacks, hugs and advice, within limits. We’re not legally trained but we’re learning, recording arguments and outcomes, watching for patterns. It’s gumming up the system: the trials, single or in batches, may occupy all three courtrooms all day. At the end, the district judge typically commends the defendants for their high-minded unselfishness (a pleasant change, one said, from the usual lot), expresses personal sympathy with their concerns – and finds them guilty as charged.

During the April Rebellion, about 1100 people were arrested, most for violating the Section 14 order imposed by the police on the second day, requiring protesters to gather only at Marble Arch. Around 850 were charged, half of whom pleaded not guilty, though some later changed their pleas. (A Section 14 order was also imposed in October, but the High Court later ruled it unlawful.) A handful of defendants can afford to hire lawyers; others qualify for legal aid; but most are self-represented. With help from XR’s legal support team, they usually prepare a defence on grounds of the unlawfulness of the Section 14 order; their non-awareness of its imposition; or necessity – that they broke the law in order to avert a greater, imminent evil.

I’ve only seen people get off when the police have made a mistake. Every day a senior officer comes in, usually the chief inspector who imposed the Section 14 order. As the Crown’s first witness, he describes the ‘serious disruption’ to the community that justified his decision. Next, the arresting PC testifies. The relevant clip of bodycam footage is shown: a lurching blur of bodies lying down or locked on under lorries, the hoarse shouts of the officer urging Sir or Madam to move and continue their protest at Marble Arch or risk arrest, amid the din of drumming and chanting. The case is dismissed if insufficient time was given to the protester; if the officer said Hyde Park instead of Marble Arch; if he admits it was so noisy he couldn’t be sure of being heard. Someone was acquitted, too, when a sharp barrister caught the senior officer out in a confusion over the European Convention on Human Rights, but since then he’s straightened his story.

What doesn’t work is arguing that you couldn’t move because you were glued on, or that you weren’t paying attention to the constable so hadn’t understood about Section 14. Necessity hasn’t worked either. The relation between the unlawful act and the avoidance of ‘serious harm or death’ must be direct and specific: you’re allowed, say, to break into a burning house to rescue a child. As the judge invites each defendant to prove the necessity of their actions, we hear speech after eloquent, wasted speech about the science of climate change, the terror people have for their children, their grief for the world; the sense that there is no option but civil disobedience. Judges, prosecutors and ushers seem genuinely affected by the daily litany, and several tell of changing their lifestyles in response. But the narrow definition of necessity is decisive every time. A recent defendant made a key point about ‘imminence’ – that climate time functions differently, with a delay between cause and effect. Had action been taken ten years ago, today’s fires in Australia might not be so bad. The argument wasn’t accepted.

The April and October rebellions caught the public eye. This hidden aftermath, in which committed men and women take the consequences of XR’s mass arrest strategy – up to £800 in costs, plus a fine, or a conditional discharge that even when spent could cause them problems – is almost too private. Does anyone really think that stopping traffic for the sake of a future should be a crime?


  • 18 January 2020 at 6:32pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    However there IS an option to civil disobedience: vote Green. If not enough of your fellow citizens follow that lead then I don’t believe that confers the right to try to blackmail or bully them into doing so.

  • 19 January 2020 at 4:23pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    It is always sad to see people evicted from their homes. But any assault on private property is an assault on all our basic values and cannot be tolerated. Do we know these evicted people are really unable to pay their rent? This reminds me of outrage in America when school meals are made less nutritious in order to save money. Why are children not fed two means at home? I suspect their parents prefer to spend the money on alcohol, drugs, promiscuous sexual advantures, and other activities. Families in the past always fed their children first; not any more it seem.

    So stop the whining for the evicted and for the children forced to east pizza in school without veggies or fruit or anything healthy. Take their parents to court and lock them up.

    • 19 January 2020 at 6:49pm
      prwhalley says: @ Norman Ravitch
      If you say so Norm.

    • 19 January 2020 at 8:55pm
      Norman Ravitch says: @ prwhalley
      I guess you are just another leftist!

    • 20 January 2020 at 3:47pm
      Reader says: @ Norman Ravitch
      Not sure how evictions and eating pizza has much to do with the actual blog article. Were you perhaps commenting on another item on this blog?

  • 20 January 2020 at 6:03pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    Is there a connection between evicting people who refuse to leave another's property and refusing to feed children at school? Yes of course there is: OBJECTING TO EITHER IS A SIGN OF INFANTILE LEFTISM.

    • 20 January 2020 at 7:10pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Norman Ravitch
      Thank you, Norm, for so ably demonstrating the signs of infantile rightism.

  • 21 January 2020 at 3:37pm
    Simon Bradley says:
    Contribute to Extinction Rebellion's legal defence fund here:

  • 21 January 2020 at 4:26pm
    Mark Haworth-Booth says:
    Many of us do vote Green as well as supporting XR - but our votes don’t have great consequence thanks yo our outdated electoral system and emissions are still rising. That’s why we are willing to get arrested - and re-arrested.

    • 23 January 2020 at 12:21pm
      John Haskell says: @ Mark Haworth-Booth
      UK emissions are falling. I thought everyone knew this.

  • 21 January 2020 at 4:32pm
    neil blackhaw says:
    This was probably written before the disclosure that XR was included on the list of 'key threats' by counter terror police. Its an outrage and perversion of language to classify these acts in this way. To criminalise people as the writer describes is similarly a perversion of 'justice' and a indicator of the extent of repression in the uk. The people in the dock should be the climate deniers and those responsible for fossil fuel promotion. Soon perhaps the crime of ecocide will be adopted globally and the acts of XR and countless others will be seen as those of liberation. The hard work needs to go into challenging and changing the law.

  • 21 January 2020 at 9:44pm
    slola says:
    No - it’s overkill!

  • 22 January 2020 at 10:56am
    XopherO says:
    As ever the rhetoric around global warming and the justifications of XR's disruptive actions are manifested as black and white. All the fuss about the UK's emissions when China is opening coal mines and power stations faster than ever, when 'nuclear' is probably an even dodgier option, and trees and turbines cannot be planted or built anywhere close to having a real effect. And it takes attention away from global threats more imminent and dangerous in the much shorter term. Wars, disease, hedge funds, global greed, the collapse of social democracy - much closer to home than the UK's relatively paltry emissions. Of course it makes sense to limit pollution - plastic, poisonous air etc, but sitting down at Oxford Circus contributes next to nothing, in my opinion, to the more testing debates, and legislation we need. Getting rid of Trident would be a good start - but CND had little effect on disarmament (perhaps a little on the test ban treaty). The right-wing Gaitskell overturned Labour's brief policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, and no leader since has had the guts to argue for it. And Labour is still in disarray.

Read more