What a ‘not guilty’ verdict in Palestine Action’s first crown court case really means

Public demonstration organized by Palestine Action outside 77 Kingsway in Holborn, London, then-UK headquarters of Elbit Systems (Joely Thomas)

Joely Thomas

Mondoweiss  /  January 4, 2023

The acquittal of five activists in Palestine Action’s first crown court case shows that the British public support direct action against Israel’s largest arms company.

October 10, 2020. Palestine Action, a direct action group that targets UK complicity in Israeli apartheid, has called a public demonstration outside 77 Kingsway in Holborn, London — then-UK headquarters of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems. An hour into the protest five of us pull up in a car. Myself and a fellow activist exit with fire extinguishers and two others carry buckets, all filled with red paint. We spray the location, creating a symbolic river of blood flowing from the door of the building and down Kingsway. In doing so we aim to draw the attention of passers-by to the crimes being committed in an otherwise innocuous-looking office block. It is a viscerally striking effect. The police leap on us. 

Over two years later, in November 2022, we sit in a courtroom having been charged with conspiracy to commit criminal damage. We have supposedly cost La Salle Investment Management — the landlord of 77 Kingsway — thousands of pounds, although they are not able to submit an exact cost. 

In all honesty, we are surprised it has come to this. It seems an absurd turn of events to be having to defend ourselves for throwing paint while war criminals run free. But, of course, our experience is not unique. The British government has always employed a variety of tactics to quash protests, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the approaching Public Order Bill seek to make it harder than ever to protest effectively in the UK. 

We enter the courtroom with six defenses and leave with two. Protections afforded to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression under articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights are thrown out by the judge before the jury are even sworn in. It is argued that it was a violent protest and that damage was more than trivial. The defenses of lawful excuse — that is, “protection of property,” “acting in defense of another,” “prevention of crime” and “necessity” — are initially left in with the caveat that they will likely be ruled out once all the evidence has been heard. They are. 

The justifications for ruling them out are frustrating. We have apparently not shown that we exhausted the democratic process, even though people have been protesting UK weapons sales to Israel for years to no effect. As for “protection of property,” that everyone in Gaza is under threat of having their homes bombed is not specific enough. Next time we will bring an address book. 

But the delay in ruling them out allows us to explain why we took action against Elbit Systems. In addition to a shared anger at the uses to which Elbit weaponry is put, each of us had personal reasons for taking action — from coming from a family of Holocaust survivors who refused to go to Israel, to witnessing children being shot by Israeli occupation forces, and being in Palestine during the 2014 bombing of Gaza. 

The jury pay close attention to what we say, at times shaking their heads in disgust or even shedding a tear. At the same time, we paint a picture of the action that contradicts the prosecution’s version of a “military-like attack.” Our fire extinguishers were not “weaponized,” as the prosecution puts it, but Elbit drones certainly are. 

When the jury retires, it is to debate our remaining two defenses – that we did not conspire to commit criminal damage and that we believed that, had landlord La Salle been aware of all the circumstances, they would have consented to our action. 

It is a bizarre sensation to have your fate in the hands of twelve strangers and I feel for those facing far more punitive sentences than we did. Though we glimpse moments of empathy during the trial, we have no idea which way the jury will go. But barely an hour passes before we are called back into the courtroom. We hear that a unanimous verdict has been reached. Each announcement of ‘not guilty’ washes away the stress accumulated over two years, replacing it with a wave of euphoria.

Though we will never be certain why the verdict of “not guilty” was reached, it did not appear to be an emotionless judgment. That the jury reached a unanimous decision so quickly was one indication. But as significant was the jury’s emotional reaction on announcing the verdict. A number of them were in tears, others beamed at us, and one woman mouthed “thank you.” We later learnt that all the jurors were “very happy” with the result. This was not a decision simply based on whether water-soluble paint on a metal door amounted to criminal damage.

The UK government’s attempt to deter pro-Palestine activists by dragging us through the courts has thus backfired. It has instead boosted our morale and shown us that randomly-selected members of the public are appalled by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and that they disagree with Elbit Systems being allowed to operate in the UK. Critically, we have seen that pro-Palestine activism has public support and just how out of touch the government is with public sentiment. While there are many problems with trial by jury, in this instance it felt like democracy in practice. 

I am sure a lot of powerful people will not be happy with the verdict and will be considering how to change the rules of the game. They will likely seek to prevent activists speaking in court about why they act, and the Crown Prosecution Service may hesitate before putting future Palestine Action cases before a jury. But in the meantime, pro-Palestine activists await trial with renewed hope and Palestine Action may find itself with twelve new members.

Joely Thomas is a researcher and activist who has studied and worked in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon; she is interested in migration, armed conflict, and civil resistance