INTERVIEW WITH BARCLAY 7'S ZOE COHEN
The 60 largest commercial and investment banks collectively financed $3.8 trillion in fossil fuel companies between 2016 and 2020, the five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, according to a report published in March from a collection of climate organizations titled Banking on Climate Chaos 2021.
The Barclays 7 came to prominence by taking nonviolent direct action at Barclay’s Bank headquarters to call out the bank’s funding of fossil fuel companies and funding of projects causing habitat destruction and plastics pollution.
On 7 April 2021 the seven women caused just under £100K of damage by carefully cracking windows. They first stuck large stickers onto the windows saying “In case of climate emergency break glass”.
The women were arrested on a charge of criminal damage. They were tried by a jury at Southwark Crown Court in November 2022 where they faced up to four years imprisonment. After a two-week trial they were found ‘guilty’ on 5 December 2022. Sentencing took place on 27 January 2023. Each woman received a custodial prison sentence of between six and eight months, suspended for two years. Therefore, if any of the women commit an offence within the next 2 years, they will go to prison for this sentence, plus whatever the consequence is for the new offence.
REAL’s Kevin Boon interviewed Zoe Cohen, one of the so-called Barclay’s 7.
What got you into Extinction Rebellion?
“I have been passionate about protecting nature and social justice since I was a kid”. I followed the social justice path for work going into the NHS. Alongside that I did various volunteering activities at community level and sustainability related volunteering for many years. I co-founded a community energy company and was the chair of that for three years. However, I knew it was nowhere near enough. As a teenager in the 1980s, I thought Greenpeace’s action with the Rainbow Warrior was “the best thing ever” and those doing high profile actions on oil rigs and whaling ships were amazing. I saw them as a different kind of human. “At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I could be doing anything like that”. I didn’t have any friends or family in activism. I think it’s much easier to get into activism if you know someone that’s an activist already.
I discovered Extinction Rebellion (XR) in November 2018 just after the first bridge blocking action. “It was just so amazing to see ordinary people doing something out of the ordinary”. One of the great things XR has done has been to make non-violent direct action accessible to ordinary people. “When I watched Gail Bradbrook’s “Heading for Extinction” talk on YouTube I cried my eyes out”. I knew immediately I wanted to get involved and I committed myself to being arrested. I’d been waiting for over 30 years for something like this. I joined XR in January 2019. I’ve also been part of Insulate Britain. I’m now also involved with Just Stop Oil which calls on the UK government not to grant any new consents or licences for oil or gas projects.
Why was the decision made to target Barclays bank specifically?
Barclays is the biggest funder of fossil fuel projects in Europe (for more on this see relevant XR press releases). It is also globally one of the biggest investors in biodiversity collapse and ecosystem destruction and in companies causing plastic pollution. Barclays invests in oil pipelines and tar-sands projects which ride roughshod over indigenous peoples’ rights. “At an overarching level, our action was an act of love saying “wake the fuck up” to the banking industry and financial world because their actions are destroying everything. In the wider context, I believe it is fundamentally impossible to have an economic system that has a growth imperative built into it”.
Was there a lot of publicity surrounding the action?
It didn’t make TV but there was a lot of press and social media coverage . It was the first XR window breaking action which targeted the headquarters of a global bank. The press coverage was actually well balanced. We didn’t get called “eco vandals” or “eco-terrorists” – even by the Daily Mail. The Telegraph’s reporting quoted a relatively sympathetic anonymous significant shareholder admitting that things need to change in terms of investment in the fossil-fuel industry.
What was your defence in court?
“The UK courts are in complete denial and collusion with the death machine”. We weren’t allowed to bring in any science or have expert witnesses in front of the Jury. We weren’t allowed to present any evidence about what Barclays are doing in terms of investing in fossil fuels. All we were allowed to do was to talk about our subjective beliefs. In my view these restrictions are censorship and is absolutely disgusting. We got found guilty on 5 December 2022; sentencing was delayed until 27 January 2023. We all got custodial prison sentences of 6, 7 or 8 months suspended for 2 years.
Were you on remand?
Not for this action. I did spend five days on remand in prison when I broke an injunction, a private law protecting the oil industry, at Kingsbury along with 50 other people as part of a Just Stop Oil action in September 2022.
Are the sentences being passed down more draconian for actions against corporations as opposed to those causing public disruption such as road blocking?
I think the increasingly draconian nature of punishment is across the board. Although the courts are also inconsistent. There is The Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. There’s also the Public Order Bill which is even more draconian than the PCSC Act. What we are seeing generally is a huge shift in politics to the right. Trials are being reduced to only being able to talk about the act of breaking glass, or blocking roads, or whatever the action when these are acts of conscience and they are clearly not just about that the act itself.
“As someone of Jewish origin, this feels like early 1930s Germany where all sorts of repressive things are happening and most people don’t have a clue about it. Very chilling. “For me, it didn’t feel like an accident that we were sentenced on Holocaust Memorial Day.” Incredibly the judge concluded that our action was violent (when no living being was harmed) and that the scale of it warranted the top level of sentencing for criminal damage (compared with the climate crimes of the Board members of a bank like Barclays!). “It is such a paradox when the violence perpetrated by the economic system is so enormous and all we did was crack some glass.” The glass can be replaced. Indeed, it has been. But our food systems, our water sources, our only home cannot.
How can our readers get involved in climate activism?
Yes! What else makes sense in 2023 when Governments, banks and oil companies are driving us over the cliff! We must come together to peacefully resist and to create a better world.
Extinction Rebellion are making the biggest call to action – to everyone reading this!
XR, working with many other groups and movements across the climate, nature and social justice spheres, are together mobilising 100,000 UK citizens to peacefully come out on the street, gathering at the Houses of Parliament, day after day in large numbers, from 21 April.
This is about mass action, not arrest. It is family friendly and really inclusive. It’s about us together demanding a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era.
Over 12,000 people have already signed up – you can find out more and sign up here.
Any final thoughts?
“We – myself and my Barclays 7 colleagues – don’t want people’s admiration; we want them to step up. My main message to people is, please, get off your sofa and get on the streets! Stop outsourcing your climate and social justice action to other people and take responsibility. We are not going to see the better world we need until many more of us stand up and speak up”.