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Honouring Unfree Friends

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Issue: 75 Section: Canadian News Geography: Canada Ontario Topics: indigenous issues, Prison solidarity

January 19, 2011

Honouring Unfree Friends

Prison solidarity for man charged in RBC arson

by Sara Falconer

Matthew Morgan-Brown's experience in prison for charges relating to the May 2010 firebombing of an RBC branch has transformed his work. A member of the Ottawa Movement Defense, he is committed to solidarity with political prisoners in Canada. Photo: Ottawa Movement Defense

TORONTO—It’s two days before Christmas, and it's Matthew Morgan-Brown’s birthday. It’s hard for him to celebrate, however; his friend, Roger Clement, is being transferred to Millhaven Institution, where he will begin serving the rest of his three-year, six-month sentence for the firebombing of a Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branch in Ottawa in May 2010. No one has heard from Clement for over a week, which isn’t unusual during transfers, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Morgan-Brown.

“It’s that time of year,” Morgan-Brown says. “It’s difficult to be separated from family and friends.”

Clement, a 58-year-old retired civil service employee, is well known to local activists from years of social justice organizing. He was sentenced on December 7, 2010, having pled guilty to the RBC arson, as well as breaking windows and ATMs at a different branch in February 2010. It’s an unusually harsh sentence for property damage crimes, given that both the defense and Crown attorneys acknowledged he took great care to eliminate any possible injury to people.

Morgan-Brown’s own arson and mischief charges in the May 18 RBC firebombing were stayed due to lack of evidence. He is now taking an active role in Ottawa Movement Defense (OMD), a group originally formed to support the three people arrested on June 18: himself, Joseph Roger Clement, and Claude Haridge. Haridge, who was never charged with arson but with careless storage and handling of ammunition, had his final day in court postponed in December 2010.

In addition to returning to his job at Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG)-Ottawa and devoting his spare time to OMD, Morgan-Brown says he is grappling with the psychological scars of the arrest and months of uncertainty. “I often put my emotions on hold, and then try to find time to deal with them later,” he says. “It’s just not a skill that I have. I don’t know how to deal with what happened. I know that it was a traumatic experience.

“It was also a learning experience. It was the first time I’d ever been in prison...other than two or three days when I challenged some conditions I’d been given. That was scary in itself, not knowing what was going on, what it would be like. I’d be a lot more prepared if I had to go to prison again.”

Morgan-Brown spent two months inside, including the addition of a 20-day sentence for participating in a Barriere Lake First Nation blockade on Highway 117 in 2008. Algonquins from that impoverished community in north-western Quebec are struggling to protect their land and environmental resources.

Morgan-Brown has long been an active member of Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement (IPSM)-Ottawa, a grassroots organization that directly supports Indigenous peoples in diverse struggles for justice. “Not being able to organize was really shitty. It’s very important to me,” says Morgan-Brown, who had limited communications with colleagues due to his bail conditions. “The day they lifted my conditions I started organizing again.”

His number one priority these days is supporting his friend Roger Clement. Morgan-Brown encourages activists to write to Clement and connect with him, as a way of showing support. “[Clement is] quite limited about what he can say,” he says. “I expect that he feels he can’t comment about his politics, which I know are super-important to him.”

One way to honour Clement, Morgan-Brown says, is to learn about and discuss subjects that are important to him. As a communist, he is passionate about the Cuban revolution. “I know that he’d like to see people becoming engaged, learning about different issues,” says Morgan­-Brown. “He’d be happy if people were finding out about what’s going on in Cuba now and how to support [the Cuban people].” In this way, supporters can keep Clement involved in everyday organizing and dialogue.

As with writing to any prisoners, it’s extremely important not to speculate about illegal activities, or to act on behalf of a prisoner without their guidance. “He’s got a parole board hearing coming up,” Morgan­-Brown cautions.

Complicating matters, the issue of police infiltration in Ottawa activist groups has been a source of rampant rumours. "As far as we know from the disclosure the lawyer saw, and from what we heard in [our] bail hearing, there’s no evidence he was involved in either of the actions Roger pled guilty to,” says Morgan-Brown.

Meanwhile, Morgan-Brown still finds it challenging to speak freely, although a publication ban on the case has finally been lifted. He’s on a relatively short leash, as his charges have only been stayed, not dismissed; the Crown still has a year in which it can reinstate them. “It’s definitely something I’m more mindful of than I usually am,” he says. “Hopefully I can find something positive in it, step back in certain situations where I would usually step forward, and encourage people to take on roles that I enjoy.” An avid public speaker, he is working to help other group members develop those skills.

Morgan-Brown was already familiar with prison issues through his activist work, but witnessing first-hand the ways in which imprisonment is so blatantly tied to race and class, he says, was eye-opening. “So many guys were in there just because they didn’t have the resources to get bail.”

Moving forward, Morgan-Brown aims to link his Indigenous solidarity and prisoner justice work more closely, starting with support for people arrested from Barriere Lake. “There are so many Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, and so many people being arrested for resistance,” he says. “I feel more emotionally connected to prisoners than I did [before], and I hope that Ottawa Movement Defense will find a way of connecting with other people who are supporting political prisoners, and the G8/G20 defendants.”

Sara Falconer is a Toronto-based journalist. She helps publish Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar and is a member of Toronto Anarchist Black Cross, which produces www.4strugglemag.org, a zine of analysis by and for political prisoners.

For more information about supporting Clement and Haridge, visit http://www.exilebooks.org/en/links/ottawa-movement-defense.

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Wow, I don't know how to react. We hear of these types of groups in the news but actually reading one of these stories makes it all seem too real. I wonder if people in today's world really understand what the term "communist" really means.

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