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The vague, highly subjective label “domestic extremist” has a new name, but the same purpose – justifying surveillance on campaigners.

Coming hard on the heels of new government legislation to crack down on protests, the release of the much anticipated thematic review on “how effectively the police deal with protests” by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), provides a green light for a renewed expansion of surveillance on political and social movements.

The HMICFRS report confirms what Netpol has long suspected: that the new name for “domestic extremists” is “aggravated activists”. There is a section of the review on the importance of gathering intelligence on campaigners who have been categorised in this way. It confirms that the National Police Chiefs Council has quietly adopted the following definition:

activity that seeks to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality, has a negative impact upon community tensions, or causes an adverse economic impact to businesses.

Within this there are two levels of aggravated activism: low and high. Low-level aggravated activism is supposedly:

activism which involves unlawful behaviour or criminality. This criminality is local or cross regional and potentially impacts on local community tensions.

High-level aggravated activism is described as:

activity using tactics to bring about social or political change involving criminality that has a significant impact on UK communities, or where the ideology driving the activity would result in harm to a significant proportion of the population.

It also confirms that, whilst high level aggravated activism intelligence gathering remains with Counter Terrorism Policing, the focus of campaigners defined as more frequently “low-level” was transferred to a new national unit, the intelligence and briefing team of the National Police Coordination Centre (NpoCC-SIB).

Under a new name, this is essentially the return of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which employed the undercover officer Mark Kennedy whose unlawful activities helped to trigger the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry.

HMICFRS reports that this new unit has “provided good-quality and useful intelligence in relation to protest activity, including from Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion”, adding:

One intelligence manager told us that, during the Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the country in summer 2020, the NPoCC SIB held national telephone conferences with forces to report on events and share information.”

Looking at how this intelligence is managed, the review says senior officers want to “improve arrangements relating to the identification and targeting of the most prominent aggravated activists” – individuals most likely to attract the most attention.

It adds that when alleged aggravated activists “travelling significant distances” to attend and speak at demonstrations, “better co-ordination of police operations to target them, through disruption of travel, arrest, and co-ordination of bail conditions, would likely have reduced their criminality.” This is a genuinely alarming public call for the disruption of entirely lawful activities.

So who is an aggravated activist? It means anyone who risks arrest by taking part in a protest, using the kind of direct action of civil disobedience tactics that the government’s proposed new legislation is trying to crack down on. However, it potentially anyone who is also caught up in arrests and accused of unlawful behaviour or criminality – or is simply present when their friends are arrested.

The emphasis in the definition of aggravated activism on “adverse economic impact to businesses” is telling. This is aimed squarely at protecting corporate and business interests against challenges from campaigners over their lack of action on catastrophic climate change, their sales to repressive regimes that disregard human rights, or their undermining of workers rights.

If these issues matter to you and you are concerned enough to take to the streets to challenge them, then you may become an “aggravated activist” too.

Once labelled in this way, it will provides the justification for extensive – and for HMICFRS, better coordinated – intelligence gathering on individual campaigners.

Once again, it is important to remember that every historical campaign – from the suffragist movement to trade unions and equality protests – have involved actions that at the time were considered criminality or unlawful behaviour.

Under the new definition, everyone who has fought for rights that we now take for granted would have been called an “aggravated activist”.

The HMICFRS thematic review, Getting the balance right? An inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests, is available here.