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‘It’s what God is asking of me’: Bristol reverend, 80, will risk arrest again to raise awareness of climate crisis

‘It’s what God is asking of me’: Bristol reverend, 80, will risk arrest again to raise awareness of climate crisis

‘It's what God is asking of me’: Bristol reverend, 80, will risk arrest again to raise awareness of climate crisis

As Reverend Sue Parfitt was convicted, supporters cheered.

Reverend Sue Parfitt sat outside the main gates of a Ministry of Defence site, in Bristol, in a camping chair. She was blocking the road from the complex, as she was in the middle.

It was cold, winter’s morning and for this reason the pensioner decided not to lock-on to her fellow climate change protesters helping to create the blockade in front of MOD Abbey Wood. She needed to move around so she wouldn’t freeze. 

For four hours, the then-78-year old and a small group Extinction rebellion demonstrators refused movement from the site. Seven vehicles – carrying food supplies and maintenance equipment – were unable to gain access during this time.

The demonstration, held on the eve of the Paris Climate Accord’s fifth anniversary, was to highlight that the military is a “major contributor” to carbon emissions, despite being excluded from government emissions targets, Parfitt said. And it took place following a £2.4 billion funding boost for the department – twice the amount the government had allocated to combat the climate crisis.

Parfitt was detained for her actions on that day, 11/12/2020. She was later convicted in June last year of blocking a highway without legal excuse and ordered to pay a fine of £1,500.

Her conviction was overturned after a one-day hearing at Bristol Crown Court. Robin Sellers, the Recorder, concluded that Parfitt was lawfully exercising her freedom of expression rights. This outweighed the disruption she caused during the demonstration. 

Friends of Parfitt, now age 80, cheered as the verdict was read. But the reverend – a seasoned activist who is no stranger to prosecutions – kept her cool. “Well, that was worth it,” she remarked as she moved slowly towards the exit.

Outside the courtroom, she told the Cable the judge’s decision was “vindication”. Asked what’s next for her, she said she would remain committed to direct-action protesting to raise awareness of the climate crisis, and to risking arrest, “because there’s no time to do it any other way”. 

‘Children have no future unless we turn this crisis around’

Parfitt was present during the one day trial. “I’m afraid I’m totally committed to this,” Parfitt told the court during cross-examination, referring to her repeated involvement in direct-action. “I believe it’s what God is asking of me.”

“I don’t have children, but I imagine many in this courtroom do,” she said. “And I have to say, children born now have no future unless we turn this [climate] crisis around.” 

Quoting David King, head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, Parfitt warned that the “irreversible tipping point” is between three and four years away. “It’s my absolute duty as a Christian to protect the planet.”

Parfitt, a retired family therapist admitted that the demonstration caused some disruption. “I apologise to them of course… I didn’t want to disrupt their day. However, somehow we needed to try to get across to everybody… the gravity of the situation we are facing.”

“If you remember back to the beginning of Covid-19 there were scenes in supermarkets of people fighting over toilet rolls. That is going to be nothing when you are fighting over food, water and fuel and all the basic qualities of life.”

Protest was peaceful, targeted and limited

David Rhodes, defending the pensioner, told the court that the protest was “peaceful, limited and targeted”. He said the disruption the demonstrators caused was minimal, and that they only prevented deliveries of goods to the site “for a short period of time”.

He stated that pedestrians and cyclists were permitted through the blockade as were vehicles with disabled badges. He also said that seven vehicles that were not allowed to enter the blockade were carrying food or maintenance equipment. 

“People may have missed their bacon sandwich, but they didn’t miss lunch,” he said, referring to the contents of the lorries that Parfitt obstructed. “Is it necessary to arrest her to allow the delivery of those sandwiches?”

He told the court that the protest’s date was symbolic. It occurred on the fifth anniversary the Paris Climate Accord was signed, when the UK Government and others committed to limiting global warming to 1.5C.

And the demonstration took place after a £2.4 billion funding boost for the Ministry of Defence was announced, which was twice the amount the government had allocated to combat the climate crisis. The court heard that the military is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, but it is not included in the carbon emissions targets. 

‘Reverend was exercising her freedom of expression right’

Rhodes argued that Parfitt, from Westbury-on-Trym, had a lawful excuse for her actions on that day given the precedent set by a landmark Supreme Court ruling that said blocking a road leading to an arms fair wasn’t unlawful. This judgement ruled that the exercising of protest rights could constitute a “lawful excuse” for obstructing the highway, even if the protest is considered disruptive.

Quashing Parfitt’s conviction on Thursday, and citing the Supreme Court ruling, Recorder Sellers said the priest’s involvement in the demonstration was “reasonable”, and agreed with the defence that it was important to show “a degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings”.

“In this case, limited to its own facts, we find that [Parfitt] was exercising her Article 10 right of freedom of expression and this must be balanced against the level of disruption that is established on the evidence,” he added.

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Parfitt’s solicitor, Mike Schwarz, said: “This successful appeal, overturning a district judge’s verdict in the magistrates’ court, underlines the point that the right to protest, particularly on public roads, must be taken seriously.”

He added that the right to protest “means nothing” if it is not rigorously applied by the courts, “at all levels and at every stage of the criminal justice system.”

Parfitt had already begun to pay a fine and costs she incurred following last June’s conviction. The court heard that Parfitt will now receive the money.

Parfitt was involved in many protests and was eventually arrested. A jury cleared her in January for her role in blocking a London train line in October 2019.

“I just find it incredibly inspiring,” said Eve Sharples, who was among the protesters who gathered outside Bristol Crown Court to show support for Parfitt on Thursday, holding a banner that read: ‘lower your weapons, lower your emissions’.

“The fact that an 80-year-old is willing to be arrested for these things just shows how serious and scary this situation is. And we’re already seeing gradually more court wins – protesters not going to jail. More and more people are realising that we’re fighting for everyone, and it’s not an us against them kind of thing.”

Eve’s father, Richard Sharples, who is also a priest in Bristol, said: “As people of faith, we don’t have the option of despairing. We believe in a God who gives us hope, and we must keep praying, hoping, and acting. And addressing climate change… that’s the direction we have to be heading in.”

Dave Mitchell, a friend of Parfitt, told the Cable: “There’s not enough time to tackle the climate catastrophe with democratic means. This is something that should be done. [Parfitt]She acknowledges it, and I am there to support her. Direct action and disruption in this way, she believes, is the only way to get people to understand the urgency of the crisis.”

Speaking after Thursday’s verdict Parfitt said she planned to celebrate her victory with “a nice glass of prosecco”, before her attention turns to preparations for the next direct-action protest she’s set to be involved in.

Parfitt didn’t reveal the details of the demonstration or whereabouts. But, asked if she was worried about the possibility of future prosecutions, she said she expects to at some point serve time in jail for “one thing or another”. 

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