The policing and sentencing of “disruptive” protest is changing (witness anti-monarchy arrests, with collateral damage even to monarchy supporters). Recently, two climate campaigners were sentenced to two and three years respectively for blocking a bridge, something of an escalation from when 50 protestors were remanded to prison last year, in a single day.
Last time Central Bylines spoke to Just Stop Oil activist, retired vicar Mark Coleman, he’d just been in front of a judge. He was both fined and given a suspended sentence last year, for breaking an injunction banning protest outside the Kingsbury Oil Terminal in Warwickshire. This time, he’d been in jail; a short sentence (what his cellmate called “a shit and a shave”), but jail nonetheless.
At his sentencing, Reverend Coleman said, “I want to state that I acted to protect human life.” There was no jury at the sentencing so he could speak freely, unlike at the trial in January where Judge Silas Reid ruled that defendants could not talk about their motivation, climate change, insulation, fuel poverty or the like.
His written statement continued:
“You will agree, your Honour, that we all have a duty to tell the truth, especially in court. It grieves me as a Christian that I swore on the Bible “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth” but I followed your ruling and did not talk about my motivation, the effects of emissions, the number of deaths in the UK from cold homes. In this I behaved somewhat like the Exxon scientists who kept quiet about their findings (about how burning oil etc heats the planet) because they were told to by their bosses to keep quiet. The bosses were simply following the law of corporations – that is to put short term profitability of their company above anything else.”
Mark and his co-defendants had hoped to be able to compare the relatively minor disruption of some Insulate Britain supporters sitting on a road in London with the serious disruption of floods or fires, failed crops or mass migration due to drought. But Judge Reid has called the climate crisis “irrelevant”, in the narrow sense that it is not a matter of law and has ruled in detail about what can and can’t be said in court, telling jurors they cannot take the motives of defendants into account and telling defendants that citing their motivation would be contempt of court.
Looked at another way, it is currently perfectly legal to trash the planet. Of course, the law has been shown to be an ass before (it also used to be legal to beat wives and children). So the court heard about the time it took to clear the road, not the time it takes to collapse the climate.
The judge seems to have found climate Catch-22.
Law versus justice
There is justice, and there is the law. Juries may acquit the guilty, or end with a hung jury if they can’t agree. In one such case, two protestors were then jailed anyway by Justice Reid for contempt of court.
Good law is based on precedent and conscience. Conservatives who rail against juries acquitting on a matter of conscience may want to recall that this precedent is venerable (it dates from 1670), and has survived, perhaps because it is worth conserving. Since Mark’s trial, Quakers and others have gathered at the Inner London Crown Court to remind onlookers of this fact, their banners reading:
“Jurors have an absolute right to acquit a defendant according to their conscience.”
Some in the legal profession are also now declaring they will not prosecute climate campaigners, and are urging barristers not to defend big oil. The Lawyers Are Responsible website signatories, which includes well-known names like Jolyon Maugham, declares: “We declare, in accordance with our consciences, that we will withhold our services in respect of:
i) supporting new fossil fuel projects; and
ii) action against climate protesters exercising their democratic right of peaceful protest.”
One hundred years ago, we were fighting the injustice that deprived women of many rights. One hundred years from now, will we debate whether those convicted, and perhaps vindicated, should be pardoned, as we did for the suffragettes? A University of Manchester project, Religion, law and the constitution: Balancing beliefs in Britain, asks when and if it is right to break the law. Opinion seems to be that sometimes it is – but that for society to function, most people need to follow the law most of the time.
That’s probably fair enough – but let’s also remember that chattel slavery was once legal, too. Here, we are talking about serious threats to humanity’s future. Last year’s floods in Pakistan, to which the World Bank put a price tag of USD30 Billion with USD16 billion more needed for “resilient” reconstruction, killed thousands and left millions homeless. So pumping out climate trashing gases and killing people, is still possible. Legally.
As Mark Coleman puts it, “It was very frustrating not to be able to talk freely about what we did and why we did it”.
Crime and Punishment
Mark says his jail time was helped by messages of support. His son’s tweets about it got a lot of attention, leading to messages and cards from all over the word. He says this was “wonderfully heart warming.”
I asked Mark about the prison system, and how he feels about it: “I often think of those in prison. It can be a grim place.” He was in Thameside, a Serco prison. He had “a shower and a toilet in the cell, with a little curtain for privacy.” There was 30 minutes exercise time each day.
He says he felt joy, even peace about being able to act, to speak truth to the judge. “We can all resist what is wrong, what is unjust, what kills our fellow human. It made me feel a lot better.”
He said inmates “were friendly and supportive”. While they took their 30 minutes exercise a day, “conversations would arise about what the government was doing and why we were choosing civil resistance.”
Mark continues, “There was a funny moment. One day, there was a picture of me in The Sun, being given some water by a policeman. It was alongside a report about Suella Braverman saying she wanted to tackle ‘woke’ policeman, who were too soft on protestors.” He continued: “This was noticed on my wing and caused a bit of a laugh when we were queuing up for our lunch.”
Braverman, should she be reading, should recall that prisons are infamous as training grounds for criminals. Imagine, if you will, our streets full of ex-cons intent on saving the planet.
“I can’t hang up my hat, give up, it would make me miserable”
Will Mark Coleman be out protesting again? He is on probation, but “I understand there’s nothing to stop me protesting legally. As it seems one and a half degrees will soon be passed, I have told my probation officer I will probably break the law again if the government doesn’t stop facilitating new oil and gas. This is the time to stand up for everything that is precious.”
Next up for Mark might be more writing, more interviews. He wrote something for the Church Times whilst inside. He’s been asked to write something for New Economics Foundation’s Ezine. He says some NGOs are nervous about protests, but we chat about the work of US campaigner Bill McKibben, who is organising Third Act, senior citizens willing to take on the banks who fund big oil. Mark says, “A British version of this would be great. Those of us lucky enough to reach the stage of life when the mortgage is paid off and the children have left home, have a great opportunity. Retirement can be about serving the next generation by resistance to all that destroys their future, perhaps atoning somewhat for the greed of my generation.”
He is heartened by growing support: “Going to prison provokes a deeper response, it moves the heart, we need the heart and the head. People are worried.”
He quotes Mario Savio, an American civil rights activist in the 1960s:
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
He continues: “The new protest legislation is supposed to make us fearful of fines and sentences, but the evidence is that when people grasp the obscenity of the powerful destroying our common home they decide to act anyway.”
He finishes with more words from the Bible. This time about being a good neighbour, looking after people around us. He says: “Whoever you are, whatever your situation or faith or background, it’s a great feeling coming together with other humans to stop the destruction. It’s about the power of love to change the world.”
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