NINE women who broke the windows of Europe’s second largest investor in fossil fuels, HSBC, were found not guilty by a jury at Southwark Crown Court on 16 November.
The women were on trial for an action which took place on 22 April 2021, during which they cracked the glass in several of the windows of HSBC’s headquarters in Canary Wharf, London. The women wore patches reading ‘better broken windows than broken promises’ and placed stickers on the windows of the bank reading ‘£80 billion into fossil fuels in the last 5 years’ before cracking the glass using hammers and chisels.
The nine defendants included graduate Jessica Agar, journalist Holly (Blyth) Brentnall, grandmother and former candidate for London Mayor Valerie Brown, community organiser Eleanor (Gully) Bujak, Extinction Rebellion co-founder and associate lecturer in sustainable fashion at Central Saint Martins, Clare Farrell, musician and nanny Miriam Instone, retired school nurse Tracey Mallaghan, grandmother and retired community care worker Susan Reid, and former fashion designer Samantha Smithson.
The verdict came after a three week trial, where just over half a million pounds worth of damage by the nine women was set against the £80 billion of fossil fuels investments by HSBC in the five years following the Paris Climate Agreement, when over 195 nations pledged to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.
The jury made several requests for further information during the course of the trial, including an explanation of the Paris Climate Agreement, information on what the British Government has done to address the climate crisis and an explanation of how HSBC was able to come up with the estimated cost of the damage to the windows, just over half a million pounds, within hours of the action.
During the course of the trial the jury heard from several character witnesses for the nine women, including Andrew Medhurst who worked for the HSBC Group for over 17 years, including as the bank’s Head of Global Markets from 2003-2005. Medhurst concluded his character reference for Samantha Smithson by telling the jury: “If my daughter grows up to be like Samantha I will be very proud.”
Following the verdict, Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell said: “This was a trial of unusual agreement, the facts of the day were not in any dispute, and the fact that we’re on course for civilisational breakdown and climate collapse seemed strangely not to be in dispute either. It’s tragically surreal to live in times when the justice system agrees we’re totally fucked but has nothing to say about the cause, the remedy, the victims or the perpetrators. We must continue, we will.”
Following the verdict Grandmother and retired community care worker from Preston, Susan Reid, said: “I have said from the beginning that I did this to stop HSBC from killing children. Unicef estimated that over twenty thousand children are displaced each day, and that climate change is the key driver. That means that every day of our three week trial over twenty thousand children have had to pick up the things around them and leave, none of those children will be able to go home at the end of the day.”
“I have spent my life caring for the people around me and I refused to stand by while HSBC poured money into the very thing we know is causing unimaginable harm – the jury’s verdict today shows that ordinary people will not give their consent to the destructive violence of investing in fossil fuels in 2023.”
The legal defences of ‘necessity, ‘protection of property’ and ‘belief in consent’ were all initially allowed by Judge Bartle, remaining in play until after the defence case had concluded and the women had given their evidence. The judge later ruled out all but ‘belief in consent’.
In her closing speech to the jury, Clare Farrell said: “The prosecutor explained yesterday how important it is that you bring your wisdom and experience into the courtroom. And then she told you to put aside your personal thoughts. She told you to disengage emotionally. Maybe that’s what the Board of HSBC tell their staff to do too?
“There are many people I have known over the years who work somewhere that is not living up to the ethics they would like to see in the world but they stay, to keep their salary and pay the rent or mortgage and continue to wish that the organisation will change.
“We are trying to live honestly in a corrupted world. This is a trial of women who are not perfect, but we are all here because we are dedicated to peace and non violence, willing to make great sacrifices on behalf of others. So when you heard our character references, from mayors, bankers, teachers and the former executive director of Greenpeace and Amnesty, you can see that we have loving goals, not selfish goals.
“I believe that the staff, shareholders and customers of this corporation want the economy to continue, they’re not in business to intentionally destroy capitalism. And I have to believe that they can’t know the extent to the deadliness of the projects they fund. As one of my co defendants said, to believe that all the people in that building support killing and displacing people, would mean an awful lot of people are sociopaths and that can’t be true.
“Ultimately my guess is that the people who work for HSBC aren’t so different from me and from you. And I don’t think any of us would do something if we knew it would cause so much death and human suffering.”
Eleanor Bujak, a community organiser based in Hull, said in her closing arguments: “There is evidence, plenty of evidence, that ‘consent’ exists within the very systems and structures we are trying to change. Of course it does. Because everyone, including the shareholders of banks, need a liveable planet. When these are the stakes, of course I believed they would consent to a sum of damage that, when put into context, equates to less than a penny of an average person’s salary.
“I believe in people doing the right thing. In a world in which buildings and corporations can’t feel pain, they can’t bleed or mourn. But people can. A world where it shouldn’t just be up to a handful of rich and powerful people to decide the future, it should be up to all of us.”
* Source: Extinction Rebellion