In the modern UK, there is the collective feeling among the general public that the state is there for our protection and prosperity. It is often difficult to convince the average person that this is not the case, when the burden of proof is so heavily on us who do not join in this illusion. The actions of the state are easily concealed to the public, both by dictating the lens with which we are shown our history, and also through the various media platforms which function as propaganda outlets for the state. While there is not much hope of there being a change to this any time soon, recent events and revelations may help push the wheels into motion.
This has come in the form of a scandal that came to light over the last decade in the UK, dubbed ‘spy cops.’ It has shown the British people that morality does not factor into how the UK state decides on its methods to keep the status quo running. Resistance is stamped out, progression is repressed, and those who have the good heart and motivation to fight for change are subjected to traumatic experiences, all in the name of control. As political movements grew amid the wave of activism characteristic of the 1960s, they attracted more and more members. Enter the so-called ‘spy cops’: undercover officers who managed to talk their way into these communities and organisations all over the country… Infiltration was the game, their goal being to watch and report the meetings and actions of activists, both present and future. While subjugation from the police and state are a well-known part of our lives, the public and even some activists might be under the misapprehension that state violence comes mostly by way of force, rather than through spying and secrecy. This is, unfortunately, simply not the case.
The police went to extreme lengths to infiltrate activist groups. They did not merely sit in meetings and take notes, or march in demonstrations and join chants. They took on completely new identities and became involved with the personal lives of many activists. This resulted in close relationships being formed between police infiltrators and their targets, many of which were of a sexual and even romantic nature. Officers, who often had families of their own, would take on a second life and mislead and abuse women activists for the benefit of the State. They would even go so far as to raise children with those they were spying on. Every step made possible by the UK taxpayer.
Ultimately, the police spied on over 1,000 protest groups and political organisations over the years, the vast majority of them leftist. In order to see the gravity of the situation the police and government have created for us, not just activists but for the people of the UK, we need to go back to the 1960s. A time of great political turmoil across Europe, the UK had its own iteration of this cry of revolt. While not as popular and robust as other movements in mainland Europe, there certainly was a sense that true change could come, if only radicals were to see it through and not lose sight of their goals.
Clashes in the Capital
London, March 1968. At the time, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) was likely the largest protest network going in the nation. The group put together a huge demonstration, drawing people from across the country. Its aim? To show the British government that there would be no support from demonstrators for its association with the US, and especially their apparent apathy toward America’s oppression of North Vietnam and its people.
Just weeks previous, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack throughout many parts of South Vietnam, with the idea of weakening them and sparking a popular uprising in support of the North and liberation for all of Vietnam. Naturally, at the time there was much hope from dissidents in the West that they would see an end to this brutal, unjustified war of imperial aggression. What made the protest in London especially noteworthy, however, was the show of militancy by the crowd, almost unheard of in those times, especially in the affluent areas of central London. The demonstration started in Trafalgar Square and the subsequent march led the protesters to Grosvenor Square, where the US Embassy was located at the time.
Daunted by the unusually large size of the crowd, the police attempted to keep order by engaging in their well-known violent tactics to quell the crowd. However, this of course made the protesters even more determined, and now wanting of retaliation as well. They attempted to storm the embassy, the idea being that they could break in, occupy the building, and even call Hanoi to express their solidarity, however unrealistic that may have been. The protestors ultimately failed, but sheer numbers and a clear show of force by the crowd left an impression on the police and government. One that heralded a new wave of left-wing action that threatened to overwhelm them — and thus bring about great things for the oppressed both inside and outside the country.
Terrified of this vision, those at the head of the Met Police and the Home Secretary, the later Prime Minister James Callaghan, had a meeting the next day to ascertain what was to be done to bring a halt to the rising protest movement. It was in this very meeting that the birth of what we know today as the ‘spy cops’ came about. Or, as it was called in its first form, the Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS).
A Special Branch officer who was present at the meeting, Conrad Dixon, made the claim that, if he were to be provided with £1 million a year in funding, ten “good men,” and the freedom to do essentially as he pleased with these provisions, a similar protest would never happen again. Throwing caution to the wind in their desperation for a docile public, the government granted his wish. Already the State began to cover its tracks, as the funding for this was transferred directly from the Home Secretary, rather than the general police budget itself.
By October of 1968, the VSC had seen great gains in support across the country. Leading figure Tariq Ali was engaging in a country-wide tour in order to promote a new protest on the 27th of that month, with the aim of making it at least ten times bigger than the March demonstration. The signs were pointing to this being not only possible, but probable. Not only did the blooming support suggest massive turnout, but there was also a good deal of leftist unity for the cause, that much-sought-after but rare state of being.
The VSC held a vote to decide where the protest should concentrate in London. While some members of the VSC, mostly Maoists, wanted to go to Grosvenor Square again for essentially a repeat of the March demo, the majority ended up voting to congregate in Hyde Park for a show of strength, as they did not believe anything could be gained by another confrontation with police. Unbeknownst to the organizers, nine of Conrad Dixon’s undercover officers were in attendance at that meeting.
The Ways of the Unit
We know the undercover spying operation began in London, and by the 2000s had spread all over the country, but details of what exactly happened after the meeting around the October demonstration is unclear. We also do not know what the nature of the relationship between the Met Police and regional police has been over this time. The inquiry is in its very early stages and is scheduled to continue over the coming years. What we know so far has been pieced together from what little the public has been allowed to learn from the inquiry, certain isolated news stories over the decades that we now know have a connection to ‘spy cops,’ and survivors telling their stories.
Let us focus on what we do know. For instance, initially, officers within Dixon’s unit were meant to be deployed for 12 months; apparently, by the 1980s, they were doing 5-year-long deployments. They were also originally meant to be a part of general meetings and to try to work their way into private ones where they could learn more useful information. However, within a couple of years of their start, the undercover officers had instead taken on entirely new personas, made their way to positions of responsibility within the structure of target political organisations, as well as begun their engagement in sexual relationships with certain targeted members.
At the beginning, there were two women involved in the unit, though according to one, who is giving testimony to the inquiry, the deployment of women did not happen properly until much later. Known only to us as ‘Sandra,’ she claims that she joined a ‘small Maoist women’s group’ to begin with, and stated that her work did not result in little useful intelligence for the police. However, she is also forthright in claiming that, because of her actions over her time undercover, she ‘eliminated the Women’s Liberation Front from public order concerns,’ even though this was clearly a non-violent and harmless social movement. Despite our inability to see her expression or hear her words, one cannot help but notice the implied pride in them.
Through undercover work, the police built extensive collections of information, not only about the larger contributors to the movements, but also people who had only attended a couple of meetings. This included physical descriptions, although officers only recorded the women’s body shapes. Given the actions of the male abusers, the inclusion of women’s body shapes in the information they gathered has foul implications.
The officers saw relationships formed with women activists as integral to their work. Because of this, they put particular effort into being as perfect a partner as they could be, a specific design for whichever target each was given. They made sure to portray themselves as having the same interests and the same personality traits, which is to be expected. But they went much further: undercover officers pretended that bad events and experiences that had happened, or were happening, in their particular target’s life had also happened to them. The pretence of understanding through experience made their emotional manipulation all that much easier.
Decades after Dixon formed his undercover unit, and after years of target activists doubting their own suspicions and thinking they were possibly paranoid delusions, survivors’ worries were confirmed. They came together to form Police Spies Out of Lives, which has been working to bring the stories of the survivors of ‘spy cops,’ and the potential for more to suffer, into the public eye. One common thing among all ‘spy cops’ cases was that police masquerading as partners would suddenly up and disappear in mysterious ways. Understandably, this would cause trauma and emotional distress for the victims — perhaps a consequence that was always part of the plan. At the very least, the police chose a particularly sadistic end every time, often comprising an element of revenge. Actions such as this are something we can assume comes from the scorn police have always felt for activists.
Another aspect of this grim show is that some ‘spy cops’ stole the identities of dead children, obviously with no indication to the parents, in order to avoid suspicion and mask their true identities. Reports found that at least 42 officers used deceased children’s names, sometimes more than one, for this purpose, each one receiving fake passports, national insurance numbers, driving licenses, and other documents needed to pass as a true human being. Some of them have since expressed their supposed misgivings at the time and subsequent regret, giving heartfelt accounts feeling that they were using the children. They were, and refused to quit their job in protest or reveal what was going on, despite knowing how horribly immoral it was. One officer even went on to say that he felt like he was part of a secret police, comparing the operation to ones that would be conducted by the Stasi. At least they are self-aware.
In 1993, Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man, was stabbed to death in 1993 in a racial attack by a group of white men whilst standing waiting at a bus stop in Eltham, London. The fallout from the incident threatened to reveal the entire ‘spycops’ scandal well in advance of the recent inquiry. The Lawrence family soon became frustrated by the incompetence and blatant apathy of the police in investigating the murder. The police took no proper action at the time, despite receiving a tip on the identities of the perpetrators the very next day, in the form of a letter left in a telephone box. An officer of the SDS then infiltrated the campaign started in order to bring about justice for the Lawrence family. The SDS was intent on finding anything that could possibly be used, or twisted, into smearing the Lawrence family. It was revealed by The Guardian in a 2013 exposé, 20 years after the murder, and 15 years after police admitted their incompetence and apologised to the family in 1998. Despite police being aware of the SDS surveillance of the family, they initially only chose to admit their indifference to the murder case, masquerading it as ineptitude. It was the Lawrence exposé, along with other revelations, that caused then-Home Secretary Theresa May to declare that there would be a public inquiry into the conduct of undercover police.
How the Levee Broke
The spark that could be said to have inspired these investigations was a woman who was in a relationship with a man named Mark Kennedy. Mark was a police officer who infiltrated the environmental protest group where the woman was a member, became her boyfriend, and went on to create one of the aforementioned double lives. They were on holiday in Italy when she came across his real passport in their van. The passport read “Mark Kennedy,” his actual name, rather than the “Mark Stone” she’d known for years. She also found a mobile phone that contained emails sent to Kennedy, addressing him as ‘Dad.’ The group deduced that he was a police spy, at a time when activists in the group were already dealing with legal charges for allegedly planning to take over and shut down one of the UK’s largest power stations. With new evidence about Mark Kennedy in hand, the group deduced that he must be a spy from law enforcement. These revelations caused the trial against the activists to lose all ground and crumble. The activists became the accusers rather than the accused, and the abhorrent actions of the police were shown to the public for the first time after decades of secrecy.
In the course of the inquiry’s proceedings, many expositions have demonstrated the officers’ lack of compassion towards the very people they supposedly mean to protect. As we could expect, the inquiry itself plainly showed its predisposition to protecting the accused officers, especially their identities, while casually overlooking their actions against the victims and their corruption. The chair of the inquiry, John Mitting, has insisted that a third of the accused remain anonymous, and even gone so far as to deny facts that have been released to, and are easily verified by, the public. One of these instances is of a particular culprit, Carlo Saracchi, who gave the fake last name ‘Neri’ whilst undercover. His real name was revealed on Twitter last year, but Mitting acts as if this is not the case, and in response has issued a restriction order that censors what survivors are able to say in court. Those observing the trial who empathise with and support the survivors, and the survivors themselves, have little confidence in Mitting, an establishment figure who epitomises the sort of character that an authoritarian conservative government would value. If there is anyone who you would expect to work to keep the very atrocities they have been tasked to expose hidden, it is him.
While every effort seems to be being made to help the officers in their fight against the charges — including potentially destroying evidence — the same cannot be said of attaining the exposition of their crimes. Soracchi, for example, attempted to entrap his victims by trying to incite them to fire bomb a charity shop. The activists refused, as it would obviously bring harm to innocents and would not even benefit their cause as anti-racist trade unionists. In contrast, it would appear Soracchi had no inner conflict over what the consequences of his attempts to goad them would be. In a further display of an overwhelming lack of empathy, Soracchi also had relationships with three women activists over his time undercover. One of these women was Donna Mclean, whose apartment Soracchi moved into, after only six weeks of being a couple. He told her that he wanted to have a child with her and also proposed marriage, all while secretly maintaining a marriage to his real wife under his true identity.
Soracchi’s behavior shows the extent to which institutional misogyny is embedded in this system, rearing its head when it serves the purposes of State oppression. Perhaps one of the most shocking and detestable statements we have heard in the inquiry came from one of the abusers themselves:
“If you ask me to infiltrate some drug dealers, you can’t point the finger at me if I sample the product. If these people are in a certain environment where it is necessary to engage that little more deeply, then, shall we say, I find this acceptable…”
The ‘product’ this man, only known to us by his cover name Peter Fredericks, is talking about are the women activists he was sent to spy on, and subsequently tricked and sexually abused. Need there be any more indication that this manner of State control will only lead to suffering? Is it not clear that officers are allowed to essentially do as they please under the guise of protecting the people?
The Heralding of the Police State
The government, and many MPs outside the government, aren’t showing any real signs of shying away from this paradigm. Across the decades, the success of undercover operations has lent credence to their utility, in the face of the suffering they cause. At least, from the government’s perspective. They have obviously become too used to the ease at which they can tear down movements from within. If anything, they have gladly set in motion a burgeoning police State with the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, known as the ‘spy cops bill,’ that makes the activities of ‘covert human intelligence sources’ — the term ascribed by the government to infiltrating officers — free from any scrutiny or punishment, essentially legalised. Their justification, as always, is supposed national security and the protection of the people.
The bill goes beyond the pretence of false humanity, providing immunity from the law to undercover actors for a range of governmental organisations, primarily the police and MI5. The provisions allow a number of acts as long as they are in the pursuit of their assigned goals, even allowing for murder, torture, rape, and the use of under-18s as informants. The mind reels at the thoughts of the continued mistreatment of innocent activists, unhindered by any threat of punishment.
MPs attempted to rush the legislation through the Commons, but when it reached the House of Lords, critics waged something of a battle there after amendments were proposed to the bill. These would specifically ban the use of the extreme acts, but otherwise leave the bill intact. Certain peers, across all parties, tried to put through these amendments, but when these proposals were passed back to the House of Commons, they were rejected by a wide majority of MPs. The bill now stands to go into law, currently awaiting royal assent. How did it pass so easily with barely any resistance, you may wonder? The answer lies in Labour’s current leadership, which, as we know, lacks almost any hint of socialism entirely, instead choosing to sabotage itself in its attempts to rid the party of any leftism.
Labour MPs found themselves whipped by Starmer into abstaining on the bill, something that is horrendously contradictory to how he cultivated his image as a ‘man of human rights.’ Most MPs followed his direction and abstained, though a minority of MPs — including Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, and John McDonnell —— were forthright in their opposition, voting against its passing. Seven Labour frontbenchers, including two Shadow Cabinet Ministers, also resigned back in October of last year in response to the whip. After looking into Starmer’s past, one could not help but be led to expect his actions. As Director of Public Prosecutions, he prosecuted those he had previously defended when he was gaining his reputation as an altruistic human rights lawyer. He was also head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) when the ‘spy cops’ scandal first started coming to light, and thus potentially confused allegiances to those involved. Indeed, his actions at the time raise a number of questions.
During the trial where environmentalist activists were accused of attempting to shut down a power station, prosecutors forced the CPS to release audio tapes that indicated they had covered up evidence that would have implicated Mark Kennedy. This only came out after the prosecution demanded information on what Kennedy’s role was in the whole affair. After the supposed “previously unknown evidence” was presented, the CPS threw out the trial in a pathetic attempt to hide their obvious involvement in covering up the actions of undercover officers. With Starmer at the helm of the CPS, we can only guess his involvement in this decision. It is clear, however that this is not the man of democracy and equality that he so wants us to believe he is, but rather a beacon of authoritarianism and oppression. To think that such a person could be the leader of the Labour Party is a brutal tarnishing of this organisation which, if it is to exist, should serve as a vehicle for the empowerment of the working class. If he is apathetic to such abhorrent acts against people who only wish to do what is good and right for society, then he is antithetical to common decency and morals themselves, never mind socialism. Even sadder is that this is just one of a long list of behaviour, both as leader and before, that show he is nothing more than our enemy.
So where are we now? The past week tells you all you need to know. As we are horribly used to hearing by this point, the police officer Wayne Couzens murdered a young woman named Sarah Gerard. Despite efforts to paint Couzens as a lone wolf, his actions both present and future — which include exposing himself to women in public — belie the systemic misogyny that is so intensely ingrained into the police. A vigil was held a few days ago for Gerard on Clapham Common in London. The police attempted to ban the event, but people turned up in the hundreds anyway, as should be their right. It was completely peaceful until, naturally, police arrived. They violently put down the vigil, resulting in backlash across the country. The mainstream media, of course, assisted in spinning the story and covering up their brutality in the process.
It is a sight we are familiar with as activists ourselves, whether against our own persons or seeing the stories of others. However, under the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, we can assume that no demonstration, no matter how watered-down and liberal it may be, will be safe from a crackdown by police. The bill — more work by the Home Secretary and relentless arbiter of injustice, Priti Patel — gives law enforcement yet more powers and the means to further repress those who would dare to commit the, I’m sure we would all agree, heinous and extraordinary act of expressing disapproval of the government’s actions.
Framing all protests, even those that are peaceful and non-violent, as likely agitation to the general public would allow police to impose conditions on demonstrations based on whatever the Home Secretary defines as ‘serious disruption.’ The impositions could be brought on by as little a pretext as a demonstration being ‘too noisy for those in the vicinity.’ In a blatant display of authoritarianism, there is also the added ability for the Home Secretary to define what constitutes ‘serious disruption’ unilaterally, without the consent of Parliament. Police would then be able to impose conditions on protest according to whatever definition the Home Secretary gives. There is a lot of ambiguity in the wording of the bill, which means that the police and government have the latitude to imprison people for even up to 10 years based on what could be simple harmless acts of protest. Indeed, one of the obvious fundamental points of protest is to be a visible display of solidarity for the general public. These policies will effectively allow any form of protest to be banned. Opposition to, or criticism of, the government will be the sole domain of those very few who are allowed to serve as supposed representatives to every person in this nation.
We see once again the importance of public demonstration in this very case. For once since the new leadership, the Labour Party has done the right thing and will vote to oppose the passing of the bill. This, however, only came about as a direct result of the police attack on the Sarah Gerard vigil. Prior to this, the party leadership was actively whipping its MPs to abstain. The fact that the party now only chases good optics, and has no actual good will or integrity, could not be more plain — and further demonstrates how essential public protests are.
It is not like this is an isolated case, unique to these isles. As mentioned before, an officer correctly compared their activities to those of the Stasi, but there are also examples that resonate more in this instance, such as the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, as it is more commonly known. It was established by the US government to spy on targets it deemed ‘domestic terrorists’, using the FBI as its means. Over the years, the loose definition of this term has allowed for a wide range of different people and organisations to be targeted. COINTELPRO built a tradition of tearing down of leftist political movements, or just anyone the US government saw as a threat to the status quo in its paranoia, through law enforcement. Because of this, the US is full of these kinds of stories, both in the past and today, which help to better illustrate the gravity of what we have experienced, and what we will have to look forward to in this country. Should we merely leave behind all that has been learned this past century, from this world’s wealth of regimes that have engaged in such oppression of its peoples?
The wave of calamities that we have been, and are to be, witness to show plainly that any government hailing from the halls of power that is Westminster would be complicit in creating the odious reality that is our country. The UK, which projects an idea onto its people that it supports freedom of the individual and the right to pursue the prosperity of oneself, and others, in kind. The complete decimation of these rights in our land of supposed liberal democracy — rights that should be inherent and fundamental to the nation’s existence — through its very own channels, not only serves to further shake activists’ already eroded confidence in such a system, but also fills us ever more so with a will to oppose it in all ways.
In the face of such terrible actions, we are left wondering where our society could have been had the destruction wrought by undercover policing never happened. Infiltrating and dismantling activist efforts, whether they were non-violent or militant, has led to protest movements having little sway over the course of our society. Now we find ourselves with a broken country, a seemingly never-ending austerity, a working class torn apart by differing views on membership to the neoliberal capitalist wannabe superstate that is the EU, thousands upon thousands dead from COVID-19 whose lives could have been saved, and now the culmination of a fascist police State. And that short list only covers some aspects of recent times; it does not include the menagerie of oppression the working class has suffered at the hands of elites, both in these times and over the decades.
However, it is not beyond the realms of reality that a vision of justice and equality could have been ours. If activists had been allowed the freedom to organise consistently in pursuit of change since the 1960s, what would we have now? Perhaps things would not be much different, but we have no way of knowing. It is a gruelling punishment in itself that we can only dream.
Image from David Mirzoeff.
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