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Sheffield climate activist’s court success is a victory for the right to protest against government inaction

The right to protest has been upheld in the case of 75-year-old Sheffield climate activist Heather Hunt, whose conviction for wilful obstruction was overturned in the Old Bailey this week. She told us more.

For Heather Hunt, a 75-year-old retired clinical psychologist living in Sheffield, the climate crisis is not something remote and in the future.

Heather’s work and interests have taken her to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Chile. The friendships she has maintained with people living in those places mean she has personal experience and knowledge of how climate breakdown is affecting her friends now.

Heather hunt defend the right to protest

Heather Hunt at a protest in Sheffield.

For more than 25 years Heather has been organising and campaigning for effective action on the climate crisis. She stood as a Green Party candidate for Hackney North in 1991, sharing a platform with Diane Abbott. She was a founding member of Sheffield Campaign Against Climate Change in 2004 and attended COP15 in Copenhagen and COP21 in Paris.

But despite the huge increase in climate campaigning across the globe, the Heeley resident became increasingly despondent at the lack of government action, while cyclones, floods and droughts were severely affecting her friends in hotter parts of the world.

When Heather saw Extinction Rebellion (XR) undertake its ‘bridges’ action in London in 2018 – where XR activists occupied Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth bridges – it changed her view of climate activism.

“The bridges action provoked massive media attention, questions in Parliament and was a conversation changer. It brought home to me that climate breakdown is an emergency and it required this kind of coordinated, non-violent civil disobedience. I knew then I would get involved.”

Heather joined Extinction Rebellion in 2018. She was arrested as part of the XR action that took place in London in April 2019. “We were warned by the police that if we didn’t move we would be arrested,” she says of the sit-down blockade in Parliament Square. “At that time I knew I was going to take a stand and not move. It was absolutely purposeful and deliberate, and I was arrested.”

The following October, however, although she attended an XR action in London, she says she went only “in the capacity to support others, definitely not be arrested.”

“I was standing holding a banner, when suddenly, with no warning, I was grabbed by the shoulder from behind by an officer and told I was under arrest. I was very shocked. I thought, to be honest, that the young police officer had made a mistake and I would be released without charge.”

Instead, Heather was detained at Brixton police station for 14 hours and released onto the street at 2am in the morning. She walked back to the hostel where she was staying.

Five and a half months later Heather was charged with wilful obstruction of the highway. She decided to plead not guilty and appeared at the City of London Magistrates Court in June 2021.

Heather hunt tangi Zimbabwe

Heather Hunt's friend Tangi in Zimbabwe.

Heather got legal advice from XR about how to defend herself in court, including how she should cross-examine, what type of legal language to use and how to present her case for the defense and summing up.

“I cross examined the arresting officer, who agreed he did not give me a warning. I also made the case that I was engaged in a peaceful protest that, in the face of the climate crisis, is both proportionate and absolutely necessary,” she says of the court case.

“The only time I choked up was when I was talking about my friends Tangi, Monica and their daughter Peace, who live in Zimbabwe. I told the court their lives are threatened now because of the continuous drought, because they can’t grow crops and because wells have dried up.

“Millions of people like my friends are suffering and dying in other parts of the world now – and they are people who are least responsible for the carbon emissions which are causing climate breakdown.”

The magistrate found Heather guilty and fined her £1,500. But following the Ziegler judgement, a 2021 ruling made by the Supreme Court which said that the exercising of protest rights could be a “lawful excuse” for obstructing the highway, Heather was supported by XR to appeal the conviction.

She had help from a solicitor to put forward a case for appealing the conviction. On learning this, the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to contest the appeal. The case was heard by a judge at the Old Bailey on Monday (14 February 2022), who quashed the conviction, returning the fines and costs to her.

Tangis field in 2021

Tangi and Monica's field in Zimbabwe in 2021.

Heather is one of a number of climate activists who have had their convictions overturned. At a recent case in London, six defendants argued that their actions, which involved obstructing railway trains and carriages, were lawful and proportionate protest against government inaction on the climate crisis. The jury agreed, finding them not guilty.

“At this time, with the draconian Police and Criminal Justice Bill in process, I want to share this story of my conviction being overturned, as a victory which upholds the right for peaceful protest, particularly in light of climate breakdown,” Heather says.

“Our major news sources do not tell us a major cyclone has just engulfed Madagascar, cut all power supply in Malawi and is impacting Zimbabwe. Certainly I will continue to protest peacefully in solidarity with people around the world who are dying and whose lives are disrupted because of climate breakdown. I will continue until the government stops subsidising fossil fuels and acts proportionately to mitigate the crisis and rectify injustice.”

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