On Monday, the government’s crackdown on protest will enter a new phase. The trial of eight members of the direct action group Palestine Action (PA) will be the first in over a decade where charges of blackmail have been brought against political activists. If successfully prosecuted, the case will set a precedent that could expose almost anyone involved in protest movements to prison time.
The so-called Elbit Eight face charges including blackmail, burglary and criminal damage for actions targeting Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, in the six months after the group was founded in July 2020. The group’s actions in this time included spray-painting Elbit’s London headquarters and its Oldham factory, blockading its Kent factory entrance and occupying its Shenstone factory rooftop.
Three of the defendants – including Palestine Action co-founders Huda Ammori and Richard Barnard – have been charged with conspiracy to blackmail.
In English and Welsh law, blackmail is “making any unwarranted demand” and using “menaces” to achieve it, in order to produce a gain for oneself or loss for another.
From a police perspective, it’s an attractive charge, since it does not require that the defendant has committed an offence, only that they have threatened to commit one. It has the added benefit of carrying a potentially unlimited fine, having no minimum custodial sentence and a maximum of 14 years.
Barnard was charged with blackmail in April 2021. Ammori and a third activist, Milly Arnott, were charged in September that year. The demand they were alleged to have made? That Elbit’s landlord, LaSalle Investment Management, evict the company from its London HQ. The menace? Criminal damage to the office building, which PA members had previously sprayed with red paint.
“Charging us with blackmail is crazy,” Ammori told Novara Media. “A campaign always has a demand,” she added, and almost always uses the threat of escalation to ensure it is met. Ceasefire or sit-in. Do this, or we’ll do that.
“It shows that the state is afraid of Palestine Action,” Ammori said. “They put a lot of resources and effort into bringing these charges and intimidating us” – and for good reason.
Public enemy number one.
Though countless environmental, anti-racist and social justice groups have been swept up in the Conservatives’ protest crackdown, few have been targeted as relentlessly as Palestine Action. The upcoming trial is one of five that PA and its activists are standing or due to stand.
The group has even attracted the attention of the Israeli state. In August, the group obtained correspondence between staff at the Israeli embassy and in the attorney general’s office (AGO) that suggested Israel asked the AGO to intervene in ongoing criminal cases suspected to involve PA.
PA has drawn UK and Israeli state scrutiny in part due to the outsize impact of its actions. In December last year, the ministry of defence announced that Elbit was to lose a £160m contract to train submarine crews after failing “operational sovereignty standards”.
Many attributed the news to PA’s ongoing campaign against the company, which has to date caused tens of millions of pounds worth of criminal damage and majorly disrupted the company’s supply chains.
Now a political fixture in the UK, the group is expanding internationally: within a few days of launching, Palestine Action US had temporarily halted operations at Elbit’s Boston HQ. Meanwhile, activists in Australia have staged copycat actions at Elbit’s Melbourne office. PA Italia is also in the works.
To many, the blackmail charges are an attempt to deter participation in a group that is beginning to represent a serious threat to multiple state interests. It wouldn’t be the first time.
If PA is the bete noire of the government’s current protest crackdown, in the early 2000s that title was held by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC).
Founded in 1999, the animal rights group aimed to disrupt the operation of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLC), the largest laboratory company in Europe known for its vivisection and mistreatment of animals. By the end of the decade, over a dozen of its activists were locked up on what they claim were trumped-up blackmail charges. The parallels with PA are striking.
Like PA, SHAC gained rapid momentum following its launch thanks to its use of secondary targeting, applying pressure not only to HLC but also to its supporters and subsidiaries – their banks, insurers, the companies that supplied their toilet roll and vending machines. “We removed everything they needed to stay open, and it was a very effective approach,” Harris said. Much of the PA playbook has been cribbed directly from SHAC.
The state’s response to SHAC was similarly repressive: just as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2023 was reportedly drafted to deal with groups including PA, so did SHAC prompt changes to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in the UK, and in the US, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The FBI investigated SHAC, as did the Metropolitan Police – SHAC members are among the named victims of the government’s undercover policing inquiry.
With both the PA and SHAC, the state faced significant pressure from outside actors: in PA’s case, from Israeli officials; in SHAC’s, from big pharma. In 2006, Tony Blair met with the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, which threatened to shutter its UK operations if the country didn’t get a grip on its animal rights activism. A year later, it did.
On 1 May 2007, 700 police officers in three countries broke down 32 doors to arrest SHAC activists. Operation Achilles saw 16 people imprisoned for a range of offences, most including blackmail. Many were given anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) banning them from participating in animal activism for between five years and life.
Tom Harris served two years of a five-year sentence at HMP Winchester. Speaking to Novara Media, he maintains his innocence: “We hadn’t blackmailed anyone. Some people in our case, a very small minority, were accused of actually carrying out criminal damage attacks, but everyone else, the other 13 people in our case, weren’t.
“We were accused of going on ostensibly lawful protests, often protests arranged with the police, and producing a newsletter that was checked by a barrister – in fact, one of the barristers that checked our newsletter and website was Keir Starmer.”
What the case taught him, Harris said, “is that everyone has the right to protest until you upset the wrong person”.
While history appears to be repeating itself, Harris reckons PA has a better chance than SHAC did, thanks to its public perception. “They [the government] were very effective at isolating us. At the time, animal rights activists were viewed by most of the public as an extremist fringe, loony brigade kind of stuff.” PA, on the other hand “[has] the support of the radical left […] I think they actually probably have the support of most of the public at this point.”
The group has certainly captured the public mood, particularly in light of the recent events in Israel and Palestine. While once viewed as the militant wing of the pro-Palestine left, the group is beginning to go mainstream: according to Ammori, sign-ups have spiked since 7 October, with more than 100 people joining the group each day. This reflects a shift in public attitudes more broadly: support for Palestine is up 26% since 9 October.
With just days to go until the trial begins, Ammori is quietly confident. “If you’re seeing what’s happening in Palestine […] I don’t understand how any normal person would not be more understanding or sympathetic or even encouraging of taking direct action against Israeli weapons companies. But at the same time, there has been a lot of […] propaganda from the Israeli military.”
She hopes that her jurors will see past the smoke and mirrors (it helps, she said, that the trial is being heard at Snaresbrook crown court in east London, an area with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities). “The reason you fight a cause is because you feel it’s necessary, but also you have to have some sort of faith in humanity, and in normal people. And so I’ve always been of the belief that normal people will not side with the interests of the powerful.”