4 September 2019
Berkhamsted Green, Sue Hampton who is an author and Extinction Rebellion activist, was arrested in April in central London. Her plea hearing took place in late August. Here is her account of the day:
Before I went along to the City of London Magistrates’ Court a good few weeks ago, to support a friend in the first batch of XR plea hearings, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never imagined myself in a court of law, and there was much that surprised me: the complexity, the chaos, the amount of time waiting around, the ordinariness – inside a grand old building – of the courtrooms. I was struck nonetheless by how intimidating it was for individuals appearing one by one, standing behind a desk to the side that served as a kind of low-key dock – after trying to snatch a few minutes’ advice from the one defence solicitor in a kind of waiting room or corridor. When I went back yesterday for my own hearing, with an XR flag and a home-made placard that said ECOCIDE IS A CRIME (which I left outside the revolving doors), I felt well informed. I had been 90% serene about the whole thing and have already more or less prepared for my trial, but I woke in the morning feeling the same way I do before an operation. Because a lovely guy called Lyndon, who shared ‘my’ police van, was in court in the morning session, I decided to go up to support him although I had been called for the afternoon shift. One good friend came with me, bless her. Leslie and three others joined us at lunchtime and observed my appearance. I have felt wonderfully supported and it’s made that calmness I mentioned achievable even for a worrier like me.
It was lovely to see Lyndon and I was glad to be there. When we walked in to the waiting room there was a buzz of conversation. Members of the XR arrestee support team were there and food had been provided in a corner. I expected things to run late and they did. I expected the guilty pleas to be heard first and they were. What I didn’t foresee was a change in the way the cases were processed, with rebels entering in groups, sitting together at a long table. I imagine this would feel less threatening for the defendants but I did notice that individuals delivered shorter statements or in one case said nothing, in contrast with the early hearings where each one pleading guilty took some five minutes or so delivering their reasons, quoting scientific reports as well as their own personal history of taking legal actions that had changed nothing. This had been moving; I’d cried at each one, and clapped each one out. I imagine that yesterday people felt constrained by a process intended to accelerate proceedings, and by the dynamics of being part of a group. This District Judge was more relaxed and smiley and possibly more sympathetic than the previous one I’d seen, mentioning in his sentencing that our actions had been ‘underpinned by the science’ as well as prompted by deep conviction. However, when I initiated applause for the first group as they left, he asked us to remember that we were not at a protest but in a court of law. All of this meant that the tone and mood of the ‘guilty’ pleas was rather different. It was all less emotional. And interestingly, one young woman was told her case had been ‘discontinued’ and she was free to go. No explanation.
Of course once we came to the morning’s ‘not guilty’ rebels, I realised this was the way my own hearing would go. While the DJ was out of court, the group of three sat together with the Prosecution lawyer in the middle of the room so that he could take them through what to expect, showing them their police bodycam footage and helping them to fill in a fat and daunting form. This seemed a relatively relaxed business – which had to break up fast when the return of the District Judge was announced and we all had to rise for him once again. I observed as Lyndon and the other two had to stand and each give their name, address and date of birth, answering the question about how they were pleading with “Not guilty.” A date was agreed, one on which the senior police officer and one arresting officer were available to attend if only by video link. The Clerk of the Court mentioned there was someone else, appearing alone in the afternoon, who had been arrested at the same time in the same place and could be added to this group to share that trial. I did wonder whether that might be me.
By this time my guts were recognising that I was more stressed than I thought I was so I didn’t want lunch (I’d already nibbled between the ‘guilty’ and the ‘not guilty’ cases) but along with Leslie and two friends who had all now arrived, we emerged into the sunshine and found a Pret for coffee. Returning, we surrendered our bags again for another airport-style check and had to take a sip from our reusable water bottles. We found another friend inside, and because the morning session had overrun there was plenty of time for talk, most of it serious. One friend not involved in XR was impressed by conversations overheard, recognising that he was amongst principled, thoughtful and committed people. But there were plenty of hugs too. Being a ‘not guilty’ I had to wait quite a while before being called in with all my trusty supporters to find that I was going to be added to the trial arranged late that morning with others, like Lyndon, arrested on the same day at Waterloo Bridge. It was my turn to sit with the Prosecution lawyer, who could not have been kinder, and complete my form. In my case the bodycam footage, which I’d seen the night before and which did make me cry a little, is no use because it’s impossible to hear anything said during my arrest – but then I’m not questioning the legality of that. I didn’t listen to what my arresting officer said because I had my head down and I was singing. My choice. I did raise, however, the description of me in his barely-legible handwritten witness statement which begins with the phrase ‘skin head’. I explained that this is insensitive, inappropriate and prejudicial. The Prosecution lawyer agreed and said he would ask for it to be struck from the statement before it’s read at the trial; I asked him to make sure he passed on my objection to the officer. I explained that my defence is on the grounds of conscience, necessity and prevention of a crime. In spite of the informality of all this, felt a little overwhelmed by everything I was being asked to take in about what’s required of me. For a moment I wondered whether I can do it, but not for long.
My actual appearance before the District Judge was brief. While giving my name etc I used ‘author in school’ projection. I didn’t, like one ‘guilty’ defendant, address the DJ as ‘your honour’ but I was respectful, as was he. I agreed to be added to the all-day trial set for October 24th. And that was that. I hoped friends didn’t feel let down. Now I have to organise and update the legal bundle I have prepared, and negotiate any paperwork and information sent from the court.
Suzanne Watts (Green party member, Hemel Hempstead) and I went on to the protest at the Brazilian Embassy. It was an exhausting day but on my way home in the evening I turned on my phone to find countless messages of support. I feel loved and that, along with the truth I’ll be telling and my belief that my actions were justified, will uphold me. I just have to remember to shut ‘Sue the wimp’ in a cupboard and rely on ‘XR Sue’ instead.
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