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The British campaign against climate chaos moved into a new phase on 4 August when Paul Morozzo became the first climate activist to be imprisoned. PN interviewed him after his release.

Climate prisoner

On 4 August, the first day of Climate Camp, Paul Morozzo, 41, was one of five environmental activists to publicly defy bail conditions banning him from attending the camp, knowing this could lead to days, perhaps weeks of imprisonment. Paul was arrested at an entrance to the Camp (the others were able to enter, apparently because of police incompetence) and served a week in prison. He was released by Selby magistrates on 11 August. He is believed to be the first person in Britain to be imprisoned for climate-related activism.

The bail conditions forbidding the 29 from going onto the Hoo peninsula in Kent (containing both the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station and the third annual Camp for Climate Action) were imposed on Paul and 28 others while they await trial for occupying and partially emptying a coal train headed for the Drax coal-fired power station on 13 June (see last PN).

When PN talked to Paul five days after his release, he was insistent that we place his short imprisonment in context: “There was another guy, James Thorne, who went to the Camp who broke bail conditions and who was in prison for six days. There are other people in the UK who’ve gone to prison for environmental actions, and there are currently lots of animal rights activists in prison. Globally, there are a lot of people involved in environmental activism who are in prison. Just before the first Climate Camp at Drax [in 2006], there was also a camp of peasant farmers who were blockading the building of a coal-fired power station. Their camp was forcibly evicted and seven of them were killed. In my case, my prison sentence was only seven days; I don’t want to make it more of a big deal than it was.”

We asked about the period leading up to his arrest. “To be completely honest, there was very little preparation for the consequences of breaking bail, because we were too busy discussing the whys and why nots of doing it. We took books, that was about it for preparation.”

Having announced their intentions publicly through a letter in the Guardian, the group arrived at Climate Camp on Monday 4 August just after 3.30pm. The police failed to recognise most of the bail-breakers, but they surrounded Paul.

“What was I thinking at that point? I was thinking: ‘Oh bollocks. I really wanted to go to the camp. I don’t want to be arrested by myself because it doesn’t really have that much impact.’ It felt a bit pointless…. But then I perked up.”

“Chatham police station was fine overnight. If I’m being completely honest, a night in a police cell is quite relaxing. You just sleep, and, if you’ve got a book, you read. You’re nearly always in a cell by yourself.”

“The next afternoon, I was taken to court and remanded. I was put in a van with other prisoners and taken to Wandsworth. If I’m being honest, I was a little bit nervous about it at first. You have this fear of the unknown. But it’s not that unknown. It’s just normal people in these slightly weird circumstances, and yet you get used to it pretty quickly.”

Despite the fact that this was his first time in prison, Paul said: “I’ve had friends who’ve been in prison, and I sort of guessed what it was going to be like. People watch films that tell them they’re going to be raped and beaten up, but it’s not like that. You arrive and then you kind of go: ‘I don’t know why I was so nervous. This is fine’.”

Perhaps the biggest fear people have is of how other prisoners might react to them. “I think that’s what I was nervous of, but I kind of think that’s a bourgeois fear of the mob. My experience is very limited, it’s only seven days, but my experience was that most people just want to do their time. They’re not going out of their way to cause trouble.”

“So long as you really respect where you are – you don’t just go up to people and ask them what they’re in for, for example – it’s fine.” As for the prison guards: “They pretty much treated everyone with the same level of contempt – with the odd exception.”

“The only thing I found difficult was the endless, endless daytime TV [there are TV sets in every cell]. I love telly, but I’m fairly choosy. The worst moment was the fourth day of Goldenballs, with the avatar of the living dead, Mr Jasper Carrott. It’s all about lying and getting money and doing people over. I started thinking: ‘I don’t know if I can handle this much longer. I’m going to have to destroy the telly.’ ”

The decision

Why did he choose to openly break his bail? “There’s 30, 40, maybe 50 people working on Climate Camp, and I was one of those people who put in quite a lot of time each week for nine months. The five of us who broke bail had worked on the Camp, and we really, really wanted to go to Climate Camp. It was an important political event where people discuss solutions to climate change and other crises we’re facing. We felt: ‘The bail conditions are politically-motivated and invalid and so we’re going to go.’ ”

“Secondly, the Camp was pretty much under attack from the police and the state, and the only thing we could think of to challenge that was to challenge the bail conditions. Both because of this camp and because, if we do a blockade of Kingsnorth, if they try to build it, then they may use bail conditions as a way to undermine that blockade, so we really need to get into the habit of being quite strong about challenging those kind of bail conditions.”

“We worried about getting the balance right. We didn’t want to be martyrs or macho. We just wanted to go to the Camp. We worried about whether it would inspire people, or whether people would be put off by the fact that getting involved in the climate change movement might at some level involve the risk of arrest and imprisonment. We were quite tortured about that question. In the end, we just had to do what felt right for us, and take a gamble on how the rest of it would play out.”

Paul expressed some concern about the way that peace activists treat prison: “We’ve got to not think it’s too much of a big deal, not fetishize the whole thing, but also make sure if people do end up inside, they’re really supported. I feel vaguely wary of the peace movement, a little bit of a martyrdom thing going on which it’s really important to avoid. The whole ‘bearing witness’ thing, which can be a bit individualistic.”

Something else that the group agonised over was breaking with the deliberately “anonymous” ethic of the Climate Camp. “We all understood and really like that anonymous thing. Climate Camp is a self-organised, autonomous space which challenges not just climate change, but also the ideas of hierarchy and domination that got us into this mess in the first place. It challenges personality and leadership. It creates a more flattened environment in terms of hierarchy, and avoids this whole bollocks celebrity thing. But with the bail-breaking, it was impossible to do anonymously. That’s one of the things we found difficult to think about. We wanted to remain anonymous and yet we wanted to make this point.”

The 29 coal-train activists have either pleaded “not guilty” or declined to plead, and are awaiting trial. Their committal hearing is on 7 October in York magistrates’ court. The bail condition banning them from the Hoo peninsula was lifted on 18 August, along with the extra conditions imposed on Paul when he was released from prison on 11 August.

You can watch the Peace News film about the bailbreaking on YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/peacenews001