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How can breaking bank windows be justified?

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This latest blog from Dr Gail Bradbrook Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion follows previous ones here and here. In it she responds further to this challenge from an angry anonymous banker…

Dear Barclays Bank - Why I Believed You Wanted Me to Break Your Window

Dear Anonymous Banker,

Let’s address one key point of controversy in your letter. As you rightly point out, Extinction Rebellion have broken several bank windows, including myself at Barclays bank in Stroud.

Gail Bradbrook March 2021 Breaking a Window at Barclays Bank in Stroud

Others have been broken at Barclays Bank Canary WharfHSBC and JP Morgan. Branch windows have also been broken; a list of recent bank based protests are here.

In 2017 Bradbrook had organised a “spray chalking” of the bank which she and fellow protestors subsequently washed off

Those of us who undertake acts of peaceful civil disobedience do so with a clear intention to be accountable for our actions. We take great care that no one is harmed and wait for the police to come and arrest us. Many rebels sit in tears in their cells, feeling that they have done the right thing but despairing that it has come to this. These are not “mindless acts”, they are deeply caring acts by thoughtful and courageous people. They are also not necessarily illegal. We do not intend to break the law, so much as challenge the status quo; one which is destroying life on earth.

How can breaking windows be legal?

There are several defences in law that can be evoked. If your house was on fire and I broke your window to rescue your child, the action would have been subject to “duress of circumstances / necessity” and I may well believe that you would consent to my action, even appreciate my bravery.

It is to be expected that some will immediately associate window breaking protest actions with negative terms like “vandals” or “extremists”. I prefer the label coined by my friend the late Polly Higgins, a former barrister campaigning for Ecocide Law. She defined “conscientious protectors” as “those taking peaceful direct action to protect the earth”.

Our ability to act within "freedom of conscience" was set out by the United Nations General Assembly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Protest must be proportionate, a matter which has been tested in the Supreme Court with respect to direct action protests.

Furthermore, the law can be out of step and needs updating, especially in matters of great injustice. When Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a man racialised as white, in Jim Crow law era America, she may have had no defence in law either. But she was certainly on the right side of history. Likewise a jury can still find those accused of criminal damage not guilty – a so-called “perverse verdict” – even if they have no defence in law, as demonstrated by an Extinction Rebellion case in which 6 people were acquitted having broken windows at Shell's HQ. One of the defendants did have a viable defence as it happens. Sid Saunders, a builder from Stroud, said he honestly believed Shell’s employees and shareholders would have consented to his criminal damage, and I maintain the same. I believe that when faced with the same information I have, bankers understand that peaceful window breaking is a necessary part of change.

I can imagine you find that hard to believe, so let me explain.

My proposition is that some people within the banking system would consent to the window of their bank being broken, if the following conditions were in place:

  1. they fully understand the depth and breadth of the climate and ecological emergency;
  2. they understand that institutions with power to make the change that’s needed are not going anywhere near far enough or fast enough;
  3. they understand that in many cases financial institutions are doing the wrong thing, especially by continuing to invest in new fossil fuels, something the International Energy Agency has said must stop; and
  4. they understand the necessary part played by social movements and civil disobedience in making profound change possible (as evidenced by both the experience of history and the findings of sociological research).

Do you fully understand the gravity of the climate and ecological crisis?

A “Frontiers” science paper from January 2021, authored by 17 ecological scientists in institutions spanning the globe, said: “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms – including humanity – is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp even for well-informed experts”.

We are not simply talking of significant risk and harm here, rather of existential risk. An existential risk is an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

The Global Oceanic Environmental Survey of The University of Edinburgh in a recent article shared their opinion: “The evidence shows that we have reached the point that unless there is an immediate and radical shift to upgrade, adopt and ratify the existing Government policies, that would address marine pollution, both toxic chemicals and plastic; all carbonate based marine life, including plankton, seals, whales, birds, fish, will disappear from our seas within the next 25 years.”

“The continued loss of marine plants will transform our oceans into a toxic soup of cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates and their neurotoxins will pollute the air we breathe. The oceans are the life-blood for the entire planet; responsible for regulating our climate and the quality of air. We are on the precipice of allowing our life support system to completely collapse.”

“As well as being the life support system for the Earth, more than 3 billion people and countless other species depend directly on marine life for their food and income. Due to the inertia in the marine ecosystem, failure to address the issues over the next 10 years will result in run-away climate change, starvation on a massive scale and place the survival of humanity in jeopardy.”

Each time I read this, I find the breaking of a few windows of the banks that are funding so much destruction to be a proportionate response. I would rather ask of myself and others why we aren’t doing more? Next month I will write in more detail about Barclays Bank’s dire track record on the climate and ecological crisis (in the meantime here is a summary from Market Forces).

The role of civil disobedience in creating change is extremely well-established. History points to, many examples: American and Indian independence, our rights to roam, our trade union movement, our vote, gay rights, civil rights for people racialised as black, etc. There is also a detailed literature about the effectiveness of social movements (for an enjoyable read try the Englers’ This is an Uprising; for a more detailed academic review, Vinthagen’s A Theory of Nonviolent Action).

Whilst it is comforting to think that change might “come from within the system” or that petitions, marches and writing to your MP will make the change, this isn’t borne out by history. Which doesn’t mean to say that there isn't a value in the awareness-raising and movement-building of conventional protesting. We certainly want people to act from within, especially when the possibilities for change have been super-charged by nonviolent protests and their role in transforming our collective consciousness.

The Chartists used window breaking, amongst other tactics, to raise their grievances in the fight for all British men to be given suffrage. Emeline Pankhurst developed tactics for the suffragettes by copying those of the Chartists, including what she termed “the noble art of window smashing”. Pankhurst stated “The argument of the broken pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics”. Lord Hoffmann (2006) said “Civil disobedience on conscientious grounds has a long and honourable history in this country. People who break the law to affirm their belief in the injustice of a law or government action are sometimes vindicated by history. The suffragettes are an example.”

Our actions have certainly had an impact as measured by stakeholder intelligence firm alva. Victoria Walsh, managing director of Financial Services, alva, commented:

Despite many banks launching high profile net zero commitments, powerful protest groups like Extinction Rebellion remain unconvinced of the authenticity of their intent towards cleaning up their investments. Corporate environmental credentials are now expected to form the backbone of plans not just for the future, but the present, too. Lofty promises with little detail and no real c-suite backing will no longer cut it. Until banks make this change, the issue will continue to have a damaging effect on the sector’s reputational score.

Henry Mance, an award-winning Chief Features Writer ,commented in the Financial Times (Sept 2021):

Extinction Rebellion may be annoying but it performs a vital function”.

But really, would a banker accept me breaking their window? Here’s evidence this is possible:

  1. Sir Chris Hohn, a billionaire hedge fund manager is an activist investor and one of Britain's wealthiest people. He has personally donated £50,000 to Extinction Rebellion and his foundation CIFF a further £150,000. Not long after I had broken a window at the Department for Transport he asked to meet me in his hedge fund offices to discuss his ESG strategy for tackling climate change.
  2. Donnachadh McCarthy, a Climate Columnist for the Independent, shared that at the Countdown TED pre-COP conferencein Edinburgh, the Head of Sustainability for a major high street bank said that our XR protests enabled her to press more powerfully at board level for greater action on climate change.
  3. Dr Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England went on to become the UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Financeand the UK Finance Adviser for COP26. He delivered the 2020 Reith lectures on the BBC; his fourth lecture was on the climate crisis. I had previously broken a window at the Department for Transport in October 2019 and had subsequently been asked by the BBC to ask the opening question to Dr Carney at the end of his lecture. In responding, Dr Carney began by stating the importance and impact of social movements and thanking me for my work, and in the same broadcast he said: “[taking] social movements first: people's attitudes have shifted as a result such that political consensus has formed leading to stated objectives or legislated objectives. What cascades from there are a series of regulations, policies objectives and also a more general understanding of what's required.
  4. Finally I was very recently introduced to a former Vice Chair of a major high street bank. Under Chatham House rules he shared this opinion:

"Progress is made in very different ways and the "extreme end" has its place, you can see this from historical examples such as the abolition of slavery. Provided no harm is done to individuals (including the harm from blaming and shaming) then as far as I'm concerned there is going to be a need for this kind of action because change has not come quickly enough. The vast majority of employees in Barclays Bank have felt things needed to be done and still it was hard for the CE to take action because our species has set up systems skewed in the wrong direction. Change costs money and the harsh truth is the dividends feed the pension system - it's an integrated system which we are having to break. This is a global issue and global governance is needed. Extreme perspectives are to be expected when the issue itself is so extreme. I would support anyone who is about bringing about change and transformation (so long as it is peaceful means)."

I’m challenging this person, as well as the Head of Sustainability mentioned above (and others out there) to come out publicly and stand behind what they know inside themselves to be true. We need your truth, and your voices. I believe Barclays Bank staff are also able to see and feel this truth, and on one level feel trapped in a system that seems out of control. But it genuinely is within our power to alter our course. I made my protest as a prayer for change, for us to wake up and act. Being truthful, in public, is a first step that some of you have the power to take - and in this time of absolute crisis, we need all of us who can to be stepping forwards and putting ourselves on the line.

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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