Anarchist Bookfair workshop supports call for celebration of all the “Aggravated Activists”

This article first appeared on the Freedom website on 22 September 2022

Participants at a workshop organised by Netpol at this year’s Anarchist Bookfair in London have supported a proposal to take on, own and embrace the new police label of “aggravated activism” – by proclaiming and promoting 15 February 2023 as Aggravated Activist Day.

This is a call to publicly celebrate the many campaigns and community initiatives, influenced by anarchist principles, who are trying to assist working class and racialised communities to survive and to resist a government that is interested only in the interests of the rich and powerful.

The idea is to challenge state propaganda portraying this kind of practical organising as automatically a threat – what the police are describing as “activities in furtherance of ideology”.

Lost in the Matrix

Netpol has always believed in talking directly to campaigners at risk of becoming the targets of intensive police surveillance.

That is why we held a workshop, on Saturday 17 September at Toynbee Hall, to share information at Britain’s largest anarchist gathering. Netpol explained how the Matrix – more precisely the “threshold and terminology matrix” – is the method the police have adopted for determining who is categorised as an “aggravated activist” and at what level: low, moderate or substantial.

As we first highlighted in March 2021, the labelling by the police of campaigners as “aggravated activists” is the replacement for “domestic extremists”, a wholly discredited categorisation that was eventually abandoned in 2020 after a sustained campaign of opposition by Netpol.

In July 2022, Netpol published Lost in the Matrix”, showing how the police make highly subjective judgments to plot different “activities in furtherance of ideology” (campaigns) against their supposed “ideological framework of intended outcomes” (political aims).

Decisions about how campaigners are categorised are made by political policing units who will inevitably dictate the kind of policing operation and the level of surveillance these groups can expect to have used against them. Historically, these are the same units have been the most antagonistic towards groups challenging state or corporate interests,

The long war on anarchism

The particular reason for Netpol talking to campaigners who identify as anarchists, however, was because the Matrix specifically identifies and mentions “dismantling of the state or rule of law (eg anarchism) [our emphasis] as an immediate “substantial” political objective (or “ideological outcome”) and therefore “high-level aggravated activism”. This higher level of “threat” is handled by Counter Terrorism Policing, a network of regional police intelligence units coordinated by the National Police Chiefs Council.

Ludicrously, this places the broad sweep of anarchist ideas on the same level, according to the police, as far right groups seeking a violent race war.

It is undoubtedly true that anarchists share a belief in the abolition of the state as an “intended outcome”, but there is a wide range of perspectives on what a decentralised society based on free association and self-governance might look like. Equally, there is many ideas about how anarchists most effectively organise to achieve this kind of society.

In practical terms, however, anarchists share a rejection of both capitalist solutions and existing state institutions, in favour of encouraging working-class communities to take the initiative and organise things for themselves. That is why “activities in furtherance of ideology” are currently rooted in everyday practicalities: through mutual aid projects such as local food banks, through renters unions, in workplace solidarity and in anti-raids or police monitoring groups.

The police view this combination of anti-capitalism and a rejection of the state with deep suspicion. This is primarily because it leads anarchists to advocate for direct action rather than compromise within industrial and political struggles and for self-defence, rejecting uncertain and arbitrary promises about state ‘protection’, as the most effective way of dealing with attacks by the far-right.

The police’s obsession with anarchism is reflected by a long history of state harassment, surveillance (including the targeting of Freedom) and criminalisation. It also stems in part from the outright rejection of policing itself as an instrument of state violence. Anarchists’ refusal to talk to or negotiate with the police invariably leads, as Netpol has documented for many years, to a different, more aggressive style of policing.

Aggravated activism – taking it and owning it

The discussion at Netpol’s workshop first looked at how to build practical solidarity against harassment and disruption by the police and how to keep each other safe. This included increasing awareness of basic security – particularly the amount of information campaigners tend to share online.

However, the workshop also debated whether anarchists may have an image problem. There is often a tendency for individuals to downplay or even hide their anarchist beliefs in the course of their campaigning, because of the state’s success in negatively portraying those beliefs as implicitly associated with violence or even terrorism.

Many lack the confidence to challenge this very effective state propaganda because doing so may prove disruptive to the already difficult task of community or workplace organising.

However, while the organised anarchist movement in Britain is relatively small, workshop participants felt that the spread of broadly anarchist principles for everyday campaigning has gained increasing support over the last decade.

These include challenging the need for hierarchies, leaders and ‘representatives’; shifting energy away from parliamentary politics towards building power locally; offering practical solidarity rather than charity or ‘entrepreneurism’; exposing injustice rather than making backroom deals; and showing communities how to organise for themselves instead of telling people what to do.

So how to promote and protect these principles in the face of the new police threat-label of “aggravated activism”?

To quote from the wonderful 2014 film Pride, “there is a long and honourable tradition in the gay community and it has stood us in good stead for a very long time. When somebody calls you a name, you take it and you own it”.

That is why Netpol is calling on anarchists to mark Wednesday 15 February 2023 as “Aggravated Activist Day”.

It is a chance to celebrate the many examples in Britain today of anarchist-influenced organising on everything from mutual aid during the pandemic, the impact of rising food and energy prices and on the immediate consequences of the climate crisis, to action against growing bigotry and intolerance and against new laws and oppressive police tactics intended to crack down on dissent.

It is also an opportunity to show how ridiculous it is to use this politicised label to describe activists trying to help working class and racialised communities to survive after more than a decade of austerity and collapsing state support for the most vulnerable in society.

Everyone has every right to feel aggravated. Let’s make 15 February the day when we celebrate Aggravated Activists who choose to stand up and resist.