Legal verdict? Guilty.
As we prepare ourselves for the likelihood of an unusually harsh sentence on February 24th - the Judge told us to prepare for prison, and implied it could be the maximum of 3 months - we sit reeling from the institutional failure of the legal system to address the biggest and deadliest problem of our time.
A guilty verdict may have been a forgone conclusion in the eyes of the law, but today has been an extraordinary day for climate change activists the world over.
The issue of climate change, its connection to the aviation industry, and its resultant massive loss of life have not once been disputed in the proceedings of the trial. In her closing remarks, Judge Wright said: “There can be no doubt that the defendants are very committed to tackling the problems of climate change and that they acted as they did on the 13th July in what they genuinely believed was in the best interests of the public and society as a whole”. She called us “principled” and “passionate” people. She accepted that climate change was a problem and that we were doing what we could to stop carbon emissions.
This acceptance, however, appears to have had no bearing whatsoever on the verdict we have received, and the sentencing we now face. After warning us to prepare for prison, the judge said 'I cannot think of a more serious case of aggravated trespass', implying that she may give the maximum, which is 3 months inside for our charge (aggravated trespass). If we had been taken to court for more serious charges (eg, public nuisance, which we arrested for), we could have had a trial by jury. Unlike judges, juries have previously found people not guilty for similar actions.
With his opening statement this morning, the prosecution lawyer attempted to paint us as crusaders against democracy, taking the law into our own hands and seeking a defence based on “criminal self-help” rather than necessity. His summation ran into the following confusing circularity: “sober and reasonable people don’t break the law”, and “it is my job to decide whether a sober and reasonable person would have broken the law in these circumstances.” Well, no surprises then when he decided that they wouldn’t have. But that was a forgone conclusion. A system that defines reasonableness as following the law can’t acknowledge the possibility of a reasonable breach.
Defence lawyer, Mr Greenhall, put it well when he said (I paraphrase):
Suppose our small group had just learned that Chernobyl was about explode, Madam, and had tried to do something to prevent the inevitable and catastrophic impact on human life. Suppose our group felt compelled to act, and that they decided to chain themselves to the reactor in an attempt to physically prevent further leakage and future explosion. This group would have had both the support of the public, in whose interest they were acting, and also the support of the law. Even if the deaths from Chernobyl were somewhat removed in both space and time; even if they could not name the people who would be affected; even if the group had waved banners warning about the dangers of future expansion of the plant, the necessity defence would have been open to them, and they would have won. Their actions would be reasonable to prevent loss of life. The #Heathrow13 find themselves in a very similar situation. And this is the defence that should prevail today.
Unfortunately, it has not prevailed.
When Lawyer Mr Chada ended his statement with some words from Robert Kennedy, the Judge was still to announce her decision.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and, daring those ripples, build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
These words feel all the more powerful now the verdict has been made.
Climate change has already claimed many lives, and it is the continued negligence of governance that forces citizens to act in their stead. We are not hooligans. We are not heroes. We are ordinary people who acted against the letter of the law in the face of complete failure of the authorities to act in the service of what we, and many, many others, know to be the major issue we face today.