John Catt was an 87 year old peace activist with no criminal record. He went to protests organised by the Smash Edo campaign and made sketches. Yesterday the high court said the police were perfectly justified in keeping personal profiling information and details of his political activity on a domestic extremism database. The compilation of police records was, the court said, a ‘predictable consequence’ of taking part in public protest.
For the time being, at least until the appeal, the law is now settled. Any involvement, no matter how slight, with groups classified as ‘domestic extremist’ (and that includes any group making use of direct action, civil disobedience or non-authorised protest) can mean the police will keep a record of you. These records are not merely a name, address and a photo – they include information with which the police can profile you….what you wear and how you look, who your friends are, where you go, what you say and what you do, your attitudes and opinions… the list goes on.
These are ‘secret records’ maintained by one of society’s most powerful organisations. They are used not only to monitor and investigate, but also to undermine and disrupt the functioning of protest groups. Adrian Tudway, the former head of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit NPOIU (now subsumed into the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU)) gave a statement to the court. One of the key functions of the ‘fundamental tool’ of intelligence, he said, is to provide “the ability to identify relationships within protest groups.”
Having identified the relationships, it is perhaps then a relatively straightforward matter to disrupt and manipulate those relationships. It was Tudways organisation, the NPOIU, who carried out the infiltration of protest groups by undercover officers. It is now known that an NPOIU officer known as ‘Marco Jacobs’ infiltrated a Cardiff based anarchist group for four years. Activists from the group have spoken openly about the ruinous effect Marco had on the group, particularly the way he disrupted communications, stirred up conflict and personal differences, and attempted to break apart long-standing close personal relationships.
The National Domestic Extremism Unit operates without any system of public accountability, and it has become even more opaque and secretive now that it has moved to the Met from its previous position as part of ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers). ACPO, as a private company, was not best placed to manage domestic extremism, but there was at least some transparency. We know, for instance, that whilst under ACPO the NPOIU, the largest of the three domestic extremism units had an annual budget in the region of £9m per year. Requests by Netpol under the Freedom of Information Act to find out the current budget of the NDEU have been firmly refused. Putting such figures into the public realm, the Met have told us, would assist terrorists.
This is the type of organisation that the High Court have permitted to keep unrestricted and detailed records of any person engaged with any form of disobedient protest. There was no assessment in the judgement of the ways in which this data would be used (something little is known about), or the threat it posed to civil rights and individual freedoms. The fact that the Smash EDO group were categorised as ‘criminal and violent’ appears to justify whatever level of intervention the police consider necessary.
Interestingly, in highlighting the criminal nature of the group, reference was made to £300, 000 of damage that was inflicted on the factory by anti-EDO activists. Most of this damage was done in a single act at the height of an appalling bombing campaign by Israel on Gaza. What the Catt judgement failed to refer to, or take account of, was the fact that all of those involved in that action were acquitted and allowed to walk free by a Crown Court on the basis that they were acting to prevent war crimes. This indicates that there is at least some evidence to substantiate the activists view that the company is a far greater criminal than any of the protesters who congregate outside. But I very much doubt that any of the directors of EDO will ever find themselves on a domestic extremism database.