On Friday morning at Southwark Crown Court, trial judge Gregory Perrins passed sentence on Paralympian gold medallist James Brown, committing him to 12 months in prison with a minimum of six, despite his 95% blindness disability, and extraordinary record of good character.
Two years before, James fought his own disability and fear of heights to climb on top of a stationary British Airways aeroplane at London City airport as part of Extinction Rebellion’s protest there. He peacefully held up the flight for just one hour before coming down and being arrested. The action, which gained a lot of corporate media coverage at the time, was aimed at highlighting the government’s inaction on the climate and ecological emergency.
London City was targeted due to its expansion plans, a quadrupling of size with eight new aircraft stands and a new taxi way, and aviation’s business as normal approach to the emergency, which a UN report anticipates will mean a 300% increase in emissions to 2050.
Friday’s verdict came as a shock to friends and family, and James’ solicitor Raj Chada described it as a “dangerous judgement for our right to free speech, our right to protest and for those who campaign on environmental issues”. He told Real Media that he “would be going to the Court of Appeal and saying that the judge has got the balance wrong on this.”
Three years ago, after fracking protesters were jailed for holding up lorries at Preston New Road, their sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeal which described the sentence as “manifestly excessive”. The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office (JCIO) also launched an investigation when it was revealed the judge in that trial, Robert Altham, had close family ties to a fracking supply chain company.
On Friday in court Judge Perrins astonished onlookers by saying “You cynically used your disability to put your plan into action”. This remark has been described by a leading environmental barrister as directly discriminatory, with the potential to stoke prejudice against those with disabilities at a time when the Metropolitan Police’s own Disability Advisory Group has complained about police discrimination against disabled protesters.
Clearly, any discriminatory remarks from the judiciary should not be tolerated and any complaints should be investigated by the JCIO.
Until any successful appeal, James Brown is being held at Wandsworth prison. Because of his blindness, he normally uses electronic aids in order to be able to read – these will not be allowed in his cell. The Equality Act is supposed to ensure that blind prisoners receive appropriate help, but in practice prisoners find they are unable to engage fully with prison life because reasonable adjustments are not available to meet their needs.
Extinction Rebellion have arranged vigils and noise protests at the prison.