Notes on Defending Dissent: organising effectively under police scrutiny

The following is a summary of a workshop presentation given at Reclaim the Power’s “Power Beyond Borders” mass action camp on 27 July 2019. Thanks to Seeds of Change for their clarity and support with developing the ideas it tries to convey


INTRODUCTION

A significant part of Netpol’s campaigning work seeks to help campaigners and their organisations recognise that:

  • Police intelligence-gathering is concerned with far more than investigating alleged crimes – it is about building profiles on movements, their growth, structures, prominent individuals and alliances.
  • There is ample evidence this intelligence-gathering is used to label as “extremists” and then actively disrupt the effectiveness of campaigners, in favour of maintaining the status quo – whatever the prevailing state and corporate interests are at the time, but always resistant to change.

In a post on our website in May 2019, we outlined what we called five paranoid reasons why the police label campaigners as “domestic extremists”:

  • ONE: Your campaign is challenging powerful state and corporate interests
  • TWO: You are part of a movement that supports civil disobedience or direct action
  • THREE: You are part of a campaign or movement that is new or emerging
  • FOUR: You are seen as a “leader” or holding an influential role
  • FIVE: You are young, or perceived as vulnerable

Police surveillance and crucially, what happens with the intelligence that is gathered pose risks to our campaigns.


WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

The following does not happen all the time and as individuals and groups they may not happen to you at all – but it is worth knowing that these risks exist and have been experienced by others.

Disruption to the campaign:

  • Although not exclusively, in some instances stopping actions from taking place at all, or at least limiting its effectiveness.
  • Discrediting of your campaign in the media.
  • Infiltrators sowing conflict in groups (also online trolls)
  • Making it harder to find resources: attacks on funders as “too political”, or the withdrawal of venue bookings for meetings.
  • Taking down a campaign Facebook page with no warning

Discouraging individuals from remaining active

  • Disproportionate charges/sentences – at the kind of action where campaigners might have reasonably expected a charge like aggravated trespass or obstruction of the highway, the police and prosecutors suddenly pull out obscure legislation and threaten people with an enormous fine or prison sentence.
  • Hassle and time-wasting (prolonged court cases where there’s a small chance of the conviction, prolonged bail conditions) that sap time and energy
  • Injunctions can also lead to disproportionate sentences for what are ordinarily minor offences such as obstruction of the highway. Corporations (in recent years, notably fracking companies) apply to the High Court for an injunction preventing people from certain types of protest outside their sites, either naming individuals or against ‘person’s unknown’. The scope of these injunctions is invariably very broad, but breaching one can lead to a prison sentence, an unlimited fine or the seizure of assets.
  • Psychological discouragement ranging from the severe damage to people who have been targeted by undercover officers, to lower-level intrusive surveillance and intimidation (campaigners having police follow them, police cars sitting outside their houses).
  • Actual violence – policing of actions and demonstrations varies widely, but officers have physically injured people or stood by while campaigners are physically injured by private security. To add insult to injury, people who are assaulted by the police are often then charged with assaulting the police.

Discouragement of individuals varies, but tends to be much worse for:

  • Small numbers of ‘core organisers’
  • Random people who are unlucky and they choose to make an example of
  • New people they think can be easily discouraged
  • People who face structural oppression (differential policing based in particular on race and class)
  • People who are in a vulnerable position – whether because their mental or physical health makes it harder to just tolerate police repression, or because they are in a situation where more is at stake, e.g. migration status, on benefits.

AVOIDING POLICE DISRUPTION

There are three main ways campaigns can avoid the prospects of police disruption:

ONE: Run a campaign that isn’t really effective

Not every campaign comes under surveillance, it is usually those that are making waves or challenging state and corporate power.

TWO: Play what some have called the “respectability card”

“Respectability” is often seen as a way of protecting campaigners from oppressive policing or state interference, by:

  • Building relationships with people who are powerful or famous.
  • Seeking the broadest possible base of support for your campaign, sometimes across the political spectrum.
  • Making concerted efforts to humanise campaigners in the media, at demos and actions, by presenting them as ‘ordinary people’ who the general public can sympathise with and sharing personal details publicly about their involvement in a protest.
  • As a consequence, distancing yourself from allies that the media are likely to label as “controversial”. One recent example of this is some Extinction Rebellion campaigners emphatically rejecting the suggestion they are “anarchists. Another ts the environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg feeling she had to apologise for wearing an “Anti-Fascist Allstars” t-shirt after considerable online pressure.

THREE: Take active steps to avoid the state and corporations gathering and retaining information

This includes information the police or companies could use against you, your campaign or individuals in vulnerable situations and is what is often called ‘activist security’ – a recognition that police and corporate surveillance gathers enormous amounts of data to profile networks and individuals involved.


It is important to emphasise that a desire for “respectability” and what is called “activist security” are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Most campaigning movements start with the aim of building broad-based support and gathering positive media attention.

What are the pros and cons of “respectability” versus “security”?

  • A desire for respectability can limit what actions you can take.
  • If it is all you do, it excludes (or causes problems for) anyone who wants or needs to be more secure.
  • Respectability as a strategy may stop working the more effective you become at challenging powerful interests. – efforts to discredit you may succeed in demands for even greater “respectability”
  • Once you’ve given away all the information about the structures and participants of your movement that the police want to build their profiles, you cannot then take it back.

On the other hand:

  • Acting extremely carefully about the protection of data takes a lot more time and effort.
  • ‘Activist security’ can create a culture which is seen as exclusive and off-putting.
  • It can also lead to campaigns limiting themselves or driving people away through increasingly debilitating paranoia (as accusations start to fly about corporate or police infiltration / so-called “controlled opposition”.
  • Even if you are really secure, the state can find ways to gather information about you – it is impossible to guarantee 100% security.

How do we balance broad-based support for campaigns and still recognise police and corporate interests are seeking to actively disrupt our efforts?


ONE: THINK ABOUT YOUR INTERACTIONS WITH THE POLICE

You can find more on this on our website in Talking to the Cops – A Guide for Protest Groups, but the key things we want to emphasise are:

  • A primary role of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) is to obtain information and intelligence about protest and the people that participate in it.
  • During a protest, part of their role is to direct police surveillance and target coercive policing measures on anyone they think might pose a ‘risk’ of any kind.
  • PLOs gather some intelligence through negotiation with protest organisers, but mainly by embedding themselves within protest crowds and by seeking to establish personal relationships with both organisers and participants over the longer term.
  • Our view is that because of their primary intelligence-gathering role, both individual protesters and protest organisers should seriously consider whether it is safe to engage with PLOs at all.
  • If the police want you to agree to ‘liaison policing’, you can instead insist on nominating your own liaison person to communicate directly with the senior officer on the day – or choose not to liaise with the police at all.

TWO: PLAN AHEAD

Once information about your activities or your campaign is out in the public domain, it stays out.

So it’s important to decide on what information needs greater security early on or even before you start organising.

Information that is on searchable online is far more open than information that the police have to actively go out and seek.

Making a security plan

  • What information could be sensitive?
  • What are the potential risks?
  • What do you need to know more about to improve security?
  • What steps can you realistically and consistently take to protect sensitive information?

As an individual:

  • consider the impact of no security whatsoever on your future
  • make a plan you can realistically stick to

As a group:

  • Come to an agreement about your collective plan, based on a (roughly) shared understanding of the risk. Honesty and consistency are really important.
  • Encourage everyone to see complying with this agreement as a way of caring for the safety and well-being of fellow campaigners and allies.

Our Anti-Frackers Guide to Resisting Police Surveillance covers some of these issues in more detail. Issues to consider include:

Thinking about how your group communicates

What is for external and internal use – it is always more likely that your ‘overt’ data security is compromised by inexperience and lack of preparation.

Thinking about how your campaign uses Facebook

Facebook posts have been used by fracking companies in court and are regularly monitored by the police.

For organising collectively there are far more secure alternatives, such as Basecamp, Crabgrass, Stackfield and Loomio.

When using Facebook as an individual, you need to consider: are all your posts available publicly? Are you accepting “friends” that you actually know and do you need a separate group of trusted friends for some conversations?

Avoid incriminating others

Information shared on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and live streams have all have been used as evidence by the police because of a lack of thought about the impact of sharing photos or video publicly.

Equally, this information is also useful not just for making arrests or supporting prosecutions but for profiling campaigning movements and groups. It often includes a blow-by-blow account of real-time events that helps place individuals at a particular location.

If you are arrested, your smartphone may include huge amounts of data about you and your friends, all of which is accessible to the police. Ask yourself: it is safe to bring your phone with you if there is a greater possibility of arrest?


A couple of examples for campaigners to consider and assess the risks

A database of your members and supporters

  • Where is it kept?
  • Who has access?
  • Is it secure? – including passwords and who has them.
  • What information does it include? What information is sensitive?

Planning a public action that relies on advance secrecy to ensure it is effective

  • Where to meet? In the same place every time?
  • Who meets – a secure planning group with limited responsibilities? Trusted people?

RESOURCES


A FINAL REMINDER

If you are engaged in challenging some of the fundamental pillars of capitalism – like unconstrained growth, fossil fuel extraction or barriers to migration – then knowing you are on the right side of history doesn’t mean state and corporate interests lack a strong ideological motivation for ferociously fighting back against you.

If you want to ensure your campaigns are effective, you need to consider – and plan for – efforts to disrupt and undermine your activities.