Three climate change activists who defaced an ANZ Bank found not guilty
Climate activists and pensioners Brian Wheeldon, Carillon Cowan and Gillian Coombes had their charges dismissed in court when they appeared for trial. Photo / Michael Craig They were three unlikely activists: old enough to collect the pension but so passionate about their message on climate change that they were prepared to be tried for their actions. The three members of the Extinction Rebellion protest group appeared in the Auckland District Court to stand trial for defacing an ANZ Bank branch. Today, after a series of delays, Judge Peter Winter found Carillon Cowan, 72, Gillian Coombes, 68, and Brian Wheeldon, 70, not guilty of the graffiti and dismissed the case. "I can understand your motives and accept they were out of concern," the judge said. In October last year Wheeldon, Cowan and Coombes, a registered nurse, were charged with intentionally damaging the entryway to an ANZ Bank branch on Queen St in Auckland's central business district. The group said they merely painted the pavement during a demonstration about climate change. The offending image, they said, was the words "Zero Emissions 2025" along with the group's logo. Representing themselves in court, Cowan, Coombes and Wheeldon claimed the paint they used was washable and was removed within 24 hours. They also said that paper they stuck on the door of the bank was adhered with flour and water and was easily removable with soap and water. Wheeldon, who said he was a former merchant banker, told the court how they had never denied stencilling a message on the pavement or sticking posters on the bank. "We targeted ANZ because between 2016-2021 they have funded approximately $18 billion to fossil fuel companies," he said. "I wrote to the bank, but was responded to by a senior member of the marketing team, which was totally inappropriate. "ANZ bank is enabling this problem by funding fossil fuels. I have known for more than three decades that there is a problem with the climate - it is heating rapidly." Prosecutor Alva Tohovaka-Staples asked Wheeldon if he accepted he could have done something different such as going to his local MP instead of defacing the pavement. He responded saying he had tried approaching his local MP but nothing was happening. "I have written to the Prime Minister, and Climate Minister, but the responses are not rational, they seem incapable. "Nothing is happening and New Zealand is accelerating towards a climate catastrophe." CCTV footage provided to the court showed a large stencil being laid out by the trio. The two police officers who attended the scene both gave evidence in today's judge-alone trial. Constable Thomas Atkin said the pensioners were arrested after they refused to make a formal statement. "They kept talking about the reasons for doing this and wouldn't give me their details." He said he didn't know what type of paint and glue was used but admitted that tests were not done." Judge Winter noted the police carried out their duty correctly. When the defacing happened, Extinction Rebellion referred to the co-defendants in a press release as "climate heroes" and the charges against them as "ludicrous", pointing to ANZ's investments in fossil fuels. "The ANZ Bank is a climate criminal knowingly causing ecocide," Cowan said. ANZ has been the focus of climate protests in the past, including a "refugee camp" that was erected at the same branch in 2015. In 2018, the company was forced to defend itself when Forest & Bird cited fossil fuel investments as a reason for switching its loyalty to Kiwibank. ANZ said at the time that fossil fuels were a very small part of its total portfolio, amounting to 0.24 per cent or $414 million, and that the amount had decreased over time. Plus, has Chris Hipkins finally found his mojo?