Scotland Yard
PHOTO: Netpol

Last week, the Guardian’s report on compensation paid by the Metropolitan Police for the mass arrests of anti-fascist campaigners in 2013 included confirmation from court documents of the deployment of covert officers at the demonstration in Tower Hamlets. 

Two officers infiltrated a group of demonstrators who had been kettled by police and both were subsequently “arrested” in a ploy to protect their identities. They were then released as soon as they were separated from the protest, with documents indicating the “extraction was achieved without incident”.

This is the most recent documented evidence of undercover officers targeting protest groups and took place almost three years after the unmasking of Mark Kennedy in October 2010 as a police infiltrator inside the environmental movement. 

it reflects just how little is available publicly about the secret world of so-called “domestic extremist” policing that we are only discovering new information now about a protest that took place six years ago

The officers deployed in Tower Hamlets would have been members of the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU), the successor to the clandestine unit that Kennedy had been a member of for seven years. In 2016, the NDEDIU was absorbed into the equally opaque National Counter Terrorism Policing Operations Centre. The Metropolitan Police has even refused to confirm its organisational structure.

Unfortunately, four years after it was set up, the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry that is supposed to investigate undercover police operations has provided no greater transparency or accountability. It has not yet held a single public evidence hearing nor disclosed anything to those who were spied upon by undercover officers.

Instead, the inquiry has refused to publish the cover names of any of the officers who like Kennedy were members of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and who had not already been exposed by journalists and campaigners. It has also helped to cultivate the impression – endorsed by some unexpected commentators – that the use of covert officers to disrupt political movements is an abusive police tactic from the distant past.

In reality, it reflects just how little is available publicly about the secret world of so-called “domestic extremist” policing that we are only discovering new information now about a protest that took place six years ago – and then only after a long, slow battle through the civil courts.

By its nature, it is virtually impossible to prove the existence of undercover infiltration into legitimate political campaigning unless individual officers are exposed. Campaigners are forced to rely instead on research into undercover tradecraft to try to confirm or allay their suspicions.

However, there is every reason to assume that political policing continues to conduct surveillance on a variety of existing movements including anti-fascists, animal rights campaigners, opponents of fracking and other onshore oil and gas drilling, Kurdish and Palestinian solidarity activists and on new and emerging climate emergency campaigns like the UK Student Climate Network and Extinction Rebellion.

This is never just about undercover officers: most surveillance is overt

This is never just about undercover officers: most surveillance is overt and includes gathering intelligence using Police Liaison Officers trying to engage in “friendly chats” with protesters, as well as from social media, by filming protests, by approaching individuals at their homes and, as we have seen recently with young climate strikers, through the cooperation of schools and colleges.

Although this surveillance is largely overt, it does not mean the consequences are not potentially severe, This week, Netpol has highlighted one case where a 14-year-old and his family from Derbyshire were hounded by counter-terrorism officers and have dropped out of politics completely. This was all because the teenager told a class discussion he is an anti-fascist and the school falsely claimed he and his father had attended anti-fascist “terrorist camps”, an allegation they were later forced to apologise for. 

This did not deter West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit officers from continually texting, emailing and phoning the child’s mother, even after she told them the school had provided incorrect information and even after they were asked to stop.

This is why Netpol is urging anyone who supports and takes part in the kind of campaigns that are targeted, especially if they participate in any form of civil disobedience or direct action protests, to take the issue of surveillance far more seriously.

It is also why, in a letter published by the Guardian last month, supported by over 150 academics, campaigners, lawyers and journalists, we have called an end to the “domestic extremism” label to categorise campaigners and the complete separation of public order policing from counter-terrorism. 

Police units concerned with terrorist threats have no business involving themselves in legitimate political dissent.

You can add your name in support of Netpol’s “Protest is Not Extremism” campaign here