Friday, 21 March 2014

Proudly Anti-Fascist - An Open Letter to Clapton FC's Chief Executive

Yesterday, Forest Gate based amateur football club Clapton FC posted a statement from its chief executive Vince McBean on its website saying that “over the last 48 hours” it had “received several emails from individuals stating their concerns about some of the supporters at Clapton” - notably, that Clapton's fans are left-wing, anti-fascist and that as a result, they might provoke “EDL style demos” at the club's home ground. McBean's response is completely appalling and so this is the letter I emailed to him this evening.
Dear Mr McBean

Today I saw the 'AntiFa' statement posted on Clapton's website and I was so appalled by it that I felt I had to write to you.

I am one of the new supporters who, as you mention, are joining the club all the time. I've lived in Newham, within walking distance of the Old Spotted Dog, for nearly 25 years but my first game was only a month ago. Like so many others, I found my way to the club through word-of-mouth, after pressure from an old friend who raved about the brilliant atmosphere created by the supporters. When I eventually made it to a match, it turned out that everything I'd been told – about how welcoming the fans are, about their principled stand against racism, homophobia and fascist extremism, about the wit and lack of bigotry in the chanting – turned out to be completely true. That's the reason why I now have a Clapton FC scarf hanging up the front door of my flat.

Your statement issued yesterday mentioned the club's “strong ethos... of not tolerating discrimination or racism of any kind”. It is an ethos I share: since 1992 I have been a management committee member of the Newham Monitoring Project, east London's oldest anti-racist organisation based just down the road from Clapton FC on Harold Road. Our work involves the kind of community-based advice and support for local people suffering racist hate crime that rarely receives enough publicity but it does mean that discrimination and racism are issues I feel extremely qualified to talk about.

And I can tell promise you this: when a bunch of far-right keyboard warriors start making unsubstantiated e-mail threats intended solely to provoke a reaction, the last thing you want to do is take them at their word and issue an apology over some non-existent 'offence' or inappropriate conduct you haven't even investigated.

Actually, that's not entirely correct – the last thing you want to do is to damage and debase your club's reputation by insulting, supposedly in the name of intolerance to “discrimination or racism of any kind,” your loyal and genuinely anti-racist supporters in an desperate attempt to try and appease some obnoxious right-wing extremists.

At the very least, your statement needs removing immediately and amending so that it makes clear that, as far as the club is aware, there is no basis for any of the malicious claims made in the emails you have received. However, I think you also owe an apology to Clapton FC's fans, old and new – the implication that there might actually be some foundation to these ludicrous allegations is an affront to all of us.

I look forward to the removal and amendment of the website statement as a matter of urgency.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Olympic Domestic Extremist - An Interview on NuSound Radio

This is an interview I gave today to Pete Day of east London community radio station NuSound 92FM, on the recent release of my 'domestic extremist' police surveillance file.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Secret Diary of an Olympic Domestic Extremist

This article first appeared on the Network for Police Monitoring website

After reports in June last year that Newham Monitoring Project, the east London community group I've been part of for over 20 years, was spied on during the 1990s by undercover Metropolitan police officers, I've wanted to find out if information about me is held on secret police databases. The Guardian reported estimates of up to 9000 people classified by police as potential 'domestic extremists' and so to find out if I'm one of them, I submitted a 'subject access request' under data protection legislation.

The Met were supposed to comply within 40 days but it has taken over six months and the intervention of the Information Commissioner's Office to finally receive a response. If the details provided are complete, they confirm that the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU), part of the Met's SO15 Counter Terrorism Command, began logging my activities in April 2011 because I spoke at Netpol's 'Stand Up To Surveillance' conference - ironically, an event debating the rise of unaccountable police intelligence gathering on protests and local communities.

What is a 'domestic extremist'? There is no legal definition: it's a term invented by the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) says it is "generally used to describe the activity of individuals or groups carrying out criminal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign". ACPO also claims that because the majority of protesters are peaceful, they are "never considered 'extremist'... The term only applies to individuals or groups whose activities go outside the normal democratic process and engage in crime and disorder in order to further their campaign". In 2012, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary said in a review of police intelligence units concerned with protest that "the term 'domestic extremism' should be limited to threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity".

How, then, does someone who has never been charged or convicted of any criminal activity - I've never even been arrested - end up on the 'domestic extremist' database? The answer seems to involve speaking and writing about the security preparations for the Olympics. The NDEU was evidently obsessed with the Counter Olympics Network (CON) and I was covertly photographed speaking at its conference at Toynbee Hall in January 2012. However, my police file also records a Olympics-related talk I gave at Netpol’s ‘Kettle Police Powers’ conference in May 2012 and recounts, in some detail, the comments I made on behalf of Newham Monitoring Project at a Save Leyton Marsh public meeting the following month. As a result, I was logged entering the Olympic Park with a day ticket at the end of July, with a thorough description and the comment “believed to be a member of CON”.

However, the ‘intelligence’ gathered at these events and or subsequently pulled from posts on my blog was either hugely inaccurate or simply fictional: at no time, for example, did I ever become CON’s ‘Security Advisor’ or ever suggest ‘shutting tube stations by triggering fire alarms’. The NDEU file also suggests I “openly stated that the Olympics are likely to be targeted by smaller, unpublicised affinity group style actions”, which is an mischievous spin on a piece I wrote in July 2012, on how the problems facing anti-Olympic campaigners who had bent over backwards to negotiate with the police had probably given the case for DIY affinity group protest “a tremendous boost”.

Having made it onto the police intelligence-gatherers’ radar, my file includes my email and phone details and an old photo taken in 2010 by my friend Louise Whittle (lifted from her Harpymarx blog) at the Trafalgar Square flashmob organised by “I’m a Photographer Not A Terrorist” – yet again, coincidentally, an event concerned with oppressive police surveillance. It also makes repeated mention of involvement in Netpol and records my participation in the ‘Save Wanstead Flats’ residents’ campaign that opposed the siting of a temporary Olympic police base on public land close to where I worked. Involving public meetings, lobbying MPs and even a legal challenge in the High Court, this must surely represent activities that are quintessentially within “the normal democratic process” and yet details of my employer, a respected Newham charity that supported local people to set up the campaign, were added to the file.

The thing that angers me the most, though, is that the Metropolitan Police had no compunction in sharing information with the NDEU that was received when I became the victim of a crime, after criminal damage to my home. The file notes that this confirmed my mobile number and address and added my landline telephone number.

As this information was gathered, the file notes: “there is no suggest (sic) that BLOWE has actively engaged in any Direct Action” but “takes up many forms of left-wing activism” and “is known for his involvement in Counter Olympics Network, Save Wanstead Flats and Network for Police Monitoring”. This, apparently, was enough to justify continuing surveillance (I get a mention for attending the UK Uncut bedroom tax protest in April 2013) but it’s a very, very long way from “threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity”.

Let’s face it: if I can end up with a National Domestic Extremist Unit database entry then almost anyone involved in any kind of ‘left-wing activism’ can too. That’s why I’m urging other campaigners to pursue the arduous process of their own subject access requests – and why the only way to stop the police from relentlessly gathering unnecessary 'intelligence' is to shut down the domestic extremist database completely.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Year in Film 2013

The close of 2013 approaches and, in keeping with previous years, it is time to review the films I've seen over the last twelve months.

As you can see, I let things get a little out of hand... I blame the unexpected free time provided by redundancy and part-time work, along with the gift by former colleagues of BFI membership that meant access to the London Film Festival.

This is an anniversary – the tenth year I've been posting an annual list after successfully completing the challenge to watch and review one film a week back in 2003 (see Last year's total of 74 films, up from 47 in 2011, looked like a tough target to beat – but this year I went to the cinema a staggering 98 times.

Incidentally, over the last decade I've paid to see 473 films. Blimey.

According to the wonderful Letterboxd, this year's film-going represents 182.6 hours of screen time, an average of 1.9 films a week (and believe me, around 14 this year were rather less than the full integer). This doesn't include the adverts and, for the record, if I never have to see that teeth-gratingly awful Volkswagon 'Silence of the Lambs' ad ever again, it will still be soon. Seventy four of the films I saw were at my local Stratford Picturehouse, which does insist on showing this ad all the time – please, you guys are brilliant, but just stop now.

In keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema - not films on DVD or BluRay - and as usual I've arbitrarily rated the films I've seen. You can find ratings for the last decade here. Here's the 2013 list:

5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

The Impossible (***)
Gangster Squad (**)
Django Unchained (****)
False Trail (***)
Lincoln (*****)
Zero Dark Thirty (****)
Beautiful Creatures (**)
Warm Bodies (****)
No (***)
Fire In The Blood (***)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D (*)
Stoker (****)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House or God (****)
Under the Cranes (**)
Robot & Frank (***)
Welcome to the Punch (***)
Trance (***)
Good Vibrations (*****)
Cloud Atlas (****)
Oblivion (***)
The Place Beyond The Pines (***)
Promised Land (***)
Olympus Has Fallen (**)
Iron Man 3 (****)
Byzantium (****)
Best Friends Forever (**)
Star Trek Into Darkness (****)
The Great Gatsby 3D (***)
Mud (****)
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone (****)
The Purge (***)
Village at the End of the World (****)
Behind the Candelabra (****)
The Iceman (***)
Man of Steel (*)
World War Z (***)
Much Ado About Nothing (***)
Now You See Me (***)
The Act of Killing (****)
In The Fog (***)
The Bling Ring (***)
Pacific Rim (***)
The World's End (***)
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (***)
Leave to Remain (***)
Wadjda (****)
The Wolverine (***)
Stories We Tell (*****)
Only God Forgives (**)
Frances Ha (****)
Before Midnight (***)
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa ((****)
The Night of the Hunter [1955] (*****)
Elysium (***)
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (**)
Lovelace (***)
The Kings of Summer (*****)
The Way Way Back (*****)
Riddick (**)
About Time (**)
Rush (****)
Hawking (****)
InRealLife (***)
What Maisie Knew (*****)
Prisoners (****)
Nothing But a Man [1964] (****)
In a World... (****)
Blue Jasmine (***)
How I Live Now (***)
Philomena (****)
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
[part of the London Film Festival] (**)
The Fifth Estate (***)
Kon-Tiki [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
Let The Fire Burn [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
11.6 [part of the London Film Festival] (***)
Trap Street [part of the London Film Festival] (****)
Drones [part of the London Film Festival] (***)
Drinking Buddies [part of the London Film Festival] (**)
Captain Philips (****)
Enders Game (***)
Nosferatu {1922] (***)
Thor: The Dark World (***)
Short Term 12 (*****)
Gravity (****)
Filth (***)
The Counsellor (**)
The Butler (**)
Utopia (***)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (****)
Parkland (***)
Computer Chess (*)
Nebraska (****)
Saving Mr Banks (****)
Inside Llewyn Davis (****)
Kill Your Darlings (***)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (***)
Blue is the Warmest Colour (***)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (***)

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

NMP Olympics Policing Report Highlights Reality of Stop & Search

This morning, Newham Monitoring Project published a report setting out  how it deployed close to a hundred 'community legal observers' (CLOs) during last summer's Olympics and how the experiences of these volunteers can help other organisations, both in the UK and abroad, to consider using a similar community legal observation model in the future. You can download a copy here.

I contributed to writing the report and recommend reading the daily 'timeline' appendix summarising some of the feedback from CLOs who were out on the streets. Amongst the stories is one incident, similar to so many others we heard repeatedly during the Olympics, that involved a young Asian man who chose to assert his rights when he was stopped and searched in Stratford. It illustrates how, even when someone is confident and knowledgeable about their rights, this is not enough to prevent a frustrating and intimidating encounter with the police:
While waiting for my partner at Stratford station, I was approached by three officers yelling 'take your hands out of your pockets'. As they gathered around me, I asked what they wanted and was told they had planned to just ask me some questions but because I was being ‘aggressive’ and ‘anti-police’ they were now going to carry out a stop and search.

One officer began the search without any explanation, so I asked why they were failing to follow ‘GOWISELY’ (an acronym used in police training as a reminder of information officers must provide when they perform a stop and search1). The officer was very unhappy I asked this and after consulting his colleagues, he said I was suspected of placing drugs in my socks. Officers were very rude as they then began the search and asked many questions, which I chose not to answer. They also threatened me with arrest when I refused to provide my name and address.

My partner arrived as the search was almost completed. As I explained what had happened, one of the officers called out to her: 'does he lie like this to you all the time?' They then said I was free to leave but I reminded them that they had forgotten to offer me a record of the search and I wanted one. The officers kept insisting to my partner 'he is free to go, he is a free man' but she politely said, 'I think he wants his receipt, even if we’re late'. One of the officers then filled in a search record and handed it to me, which said I had been seen pulling up my socks and had appeared agitated around a sniffer dog – which hadn't even arrived until after the search had begun. I immediately challenged the search record and said it was false. One officer again told my partner that I was a liar and walked away to write up his notes. Luckily I had paper and a pen with me and was able to note the officers' badge numbers. I am now pursuing a formal complaint.
What makes this young man different from many of his peers is that he happens to be a caseworker for Newham Monitoring Project and somebody who provides advice and training on police stop and search powers. He also has a law degree, but all the officers saw was a someone young and black, which was enough to make him a suspect.

As NMP's report notes, "It is hardly surprising that, in similar circumstances, someone who is far less confident about their rights would find those rights are ignored". And in this is the basis for everything we have argued about why the police are still not trusted by young people.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Students Respond To Police Violence With Call For #CopsOffCampus

These videos provide a good summary of Wednesday's student 'Cops Off Campus' protest in London against police violence, organised largely through social media.

Not everyone was convinced it was quite the 'victory for the student movement' that some have claimed

'The curiously all too quick 'victory' of #copsoffcampus' at The Multicultural Politic
'Student Demo a victory? Don’t make me laugh' at The Accidental Anarchist

See also:

Vice - London students reclaimed their campus yesterday
Channel 4 News - No arrests at #CopsOffCampus student protest
indyrikki - For once, a huge police mobilisation didn’t beat students up!
Manchester Evening News - Students occupy Manchester University office in policing protest

Monday, 9 December 2013

Metropolitan Police Fails to Respond to Seventy Percent of Personal Data Requests

More on the magical mystery tour I've embarked upon to prise personal information from the hands of the Metropolitan Police.

 Back in June, I wrote a piece explaining how campaigners, if they believed they may have been targeted for undercover surveillance, could submit a Subject Access Request under data protection legislation to find out what personal details are held about them by the police. My own initial submission to the Metropolitan Police, whose Special Demonstration Squad targeted the Lawrence family, their supporters and police custody death campaigners during the 1990s and who are now responsible for the National Domestic Extremism Unit, apparently went missing but a second request was formally acknowledged on 25 July.

Five months ago, when I said that despite an entitlement under the Data Protection Act to receive an answer within 40 days, no-one ever receives a response in that time, I had little idea just how prophetic that would prove to be. After chasing the Met's Public Access Office, I finally received a letter from them three months later, on 25 October, which apologised for the delay in responding but gave absolutely no indication when, if ever, it planned to respond to my request. I therefore complained to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), who told me in early November that they had written to the Met asking them to provide me with a full response by 9 December.

The ICO's deadline is today. It has been 138 days since the Metropolitan Police received my request for personal data, it has still failed to respond despite repeated prompting and now it has ignored the independent regulator set up to promote openness by public bodies.

Curious to discover whether police resistance to providing the data it holds about me is less wilful non-compliance and more staggering incompetence, I also submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for the number of Subject Access Requests received by the Metropolitan Police during the six months from 1 April 2013 to 30 September 2013 and how many were completed within the 40 calendar day limit. Remarkably, the Met replied last week refusing, initially, to answer these simple questions on the grounds of cost, because I had asked for the number of successfully completed requests. It claims it has no internal systems in place to monitor this and insisted it would need to check each of the 480 submitted in the six month time period that were simply completed. Eventually, however, the Met did manage to admit that it received 1600 requests between April and September this year.

So now I know my request is one of the staggering 70% (1120 out of 1600¹) that the Metropolitan Police has failed to respond to within the required 40 days during the six months from April.

This degree of repeated failure to provide adequate public transparency by any public body is shocking but to put it into some context, it's worth remembering that  for the first three months of the period from April, the ICO said it was monitoring the Met over concerns about its timeliness.

I have now asked the ICO to again intervene on my behalf but, when it is evident that the Metropolitan Police is neither transparent or accountable on the personal data it holds, the time has surely come for the Information Commissioner to begin regulatory enforcement action.

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) has produced a detailed guide to writing and submitting Subject Access Requests to check what information is held by the National Domestic Extremism Unit. It is available to download or online here.

¹ This includes any Subject Access requests received by the Met right up to 30 September: my FoI request was made exactly 40 days after that date.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Problem is Civil Obedience

This is terrific - Matt Damon, a lifelong friend of the American historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in January 2010, reads excerpts from a speech Zinn gave in 1970 as part of a debate on civil disobedience.
And our topic is topsy-turvy: civil disobedience. As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Spies in Blue Bibs

This is a comment piece I wrote for the Network for Police Monitoring

Are Police Liaison Officers – suspiciously friendly in their pale blue bibs and now commonplace at marches and demonstrations – really deployed simply to ‘facilitate protest’ and ‘ensure there are no surprises’, or is their role rather more duplicitous? For some time, campaigners from groups involved in the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) have suspected there is more to these officers, created in response to severe criticism by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s ‘Adapting to Protest’ report of intelligence gathering at the 2009 G20 protests, than their public image suggests.

In March this year, NetPol highlighted how Chief Inspector Sonia Davis, head of the Police Liaison Teams (PLT) unit in the Metropolitan Police, gave evidence as a prosecution witness in the trial of Critical Mass cyclists arrested on the evening of the Olympics opening ceremony. Under cross examination, Davis admitted that PLTs gather information on protesters and had even been covertly deployed at previous Critical Mass rides to try to identify ‘leaders’. This might sound a lot like intelligence gathering to most people, although Davis and other senior officers deny this. However, the standard operating procedures for the deployment of Police Liaison Officers had never been made available. Without greater transparency, it was difficult to been difficult to see whether the Met’s claims were truthful.

In early July, NetPol was approached by a constable from the Met’s Gateway Team, who coordinate and train Police Liaison Officers. He had read NetPol’s concerns about the Critical Mass court case on our website and, in the suspiciously friendly way we have come to expect, invited NetPol to participate in forthcoming PLT training, saying this would “offer a real insight into how we deploy Police Liaison Teams and may go some way to alleviating your concerns”. Collectively, NetPol members decided to politely decline, but asked for copies of the training materials and other policies and procedures that might provide some genuine insight without participating in what felt like a public relations exercise.

Incredibly, the officer told us the only way we could access information inevitably available at training sessions we had been invited to attend was through a Freedom of Information Act request. So in late July, we submitted one.

In August, the Met provided a surprisingly detailed response (summarised here by Statewatch). Amongst the training materials released was a presentation on Protester Tactics that contains a hugely disingenuous definition of people involved in protest: we know that the national domestic extremism database contains information on a far wider range of people than those described here as ‘extremists’:
Indeed, with recent demonstrations like the Tower Hamlets anti-EDL protest in September facing such intense restrictions that the Met has, for all intents and purposes, itself become an events organiser, this is probably far closer to the truth:
The document released by the Met on Crowd Psychology (PDF) is also interesting: it’s acknowledgement that crowds have “multiple and separate psychological groups” that “will not always be influenced towards violence by other groups in the crowd” is at odds with the Met’s use of mass arrests to sweep up and arrest protesters, the vast majority of whom later face no further action (as we have seen with cases from 145 arrests of UK Uncut activists at Fortnum & Mason in March 2011 to the 286 arrests of anti-fascists in Tower Hamlets in September 2013). In both cases, the claimed aim of PLTs to “differentiate between groups in the crowd, particularly when using force” seems to come a distant second to intelligence gathering. In the case of direct action at Fortnum & Mason, the then Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities”.

Most revealing are the Standard Operating Procedures (PDF), which specifically address the intelligence, acknowledging that “any suggestion that PLT’s are intended to be ‘intelligence gatherers’ is likely to undermine efforts to build trust and confidence amongst protest groups and individuals”. However, it goes on to say:
“recent experience does tell us that PLT’s do gather accurate intelligence in the normal course of their duties. This is mainly because, pre and post event they are engaging with protest groups and do elicit information in the course of these duties which could be regarded as intelligence . This could include : numbers attending, start and finish times, route, intentions of the group, others groups likely to associate themselves with the event, persons likely to attend, etc . Similarly, on the day of the event, the PLT’s are likely to be working inside or around the group in question and, as a result, are likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members [emphasis added].”

It adds that “all PLT officers must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint” (a criminal intelligence database) and all intelligence obtained during an event “is passed to Bronze Intelligence for analysis and dissemination to Silver and the rest of the Command Team (in the same way as any other intelligence)”. The document goes on to describe the deployment of PLTs as a “tactical option” to deal with identified ‘threats’ to an event, an alternative to deploying Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) spotters and photographers that is the “least intrusive” option.

This confirms what we have suspected for some time: Police Liaison Officers do have an intelligence gathering role and, in certain circumstances, this may become their main role. This means that if individual protesters chat to them, details of a conversation may end up on a Metropolitan Police database.


One a final note, at least the Met provided the information we asked for. A similar request to Sussex Police was refused. Despite the extensive use of PLTs at anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe and anti-fascist protests in Brighton, the force claims it has no agreed, formal policies, operational documents or standard operating procedures – a claim that lacks any credibility. Even if it is using national guidance produced by the College of Policing, Sussex Police is legally obliged to release this: the Freedom of Information Act covers information held by a public authority, not just data it creates or owns. Unfortunately, a similarly opaque response has been given by Thames Valley Police. NetPol is looking at taking this further with the Information Commissioner.

Meanwhile, NetPol is currently awaiting the outcome of an FoI request to the College of Policing, which is due in early November.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Resisting Police Surveillance - An Overview

This is an unedited version of an article I wrote that appears under the title "Keeping an eye on us" in the current issue of Red Pepper magazine. It aims to give an overview of the complex issue of police surveillance and undercover spies.

Surveillance officers at Kings Cross station for UKUncut protest, April 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
The existence of a secret Special Branch unit that had infiltrated and gathered intelligence on political groups has been known for some time: the journalist Peter Taylor spoke to a number of anonymous former members of the Metropolitan Police's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) from the 1970s and 1980s for his television series 'True Spies' as far back as 2002.

However, the unmasking in October 2010 of police officer Mark Kennedy, who had worked undercover for seven years in the environmental protest movement, was unique. For the first time, a police spy had been publicly named and it led to further revelations about other undercover officers, including 'Lynn Watson' in Leeds, 'Marco / Mark Jacobs' in Cardiff and PC Andrew 'Jim' Boyling inside the roads protest group Reclaim The Streets in London. It has also triggered an internal Metropolitan police review led by the chief constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, and a two year investigation by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, which has so far identified 12 police spies inside different protest movements. The publication in June this year of their book, “Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police”, with an accompanying Channel 4 Dispatches programme, has reignited public and media interest in the conduct of these officers and the lack of accountability of undercover police operations.

Unravelling the secret identities of men like Mark Kennedy has revealed genuine individual suffering that has resulted from their lies and deception, including the cynical sexual abuse of women activists, who have begun legal action against five officers, and the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry based on information passed to private companies by the police. However, much of the headline-catching and often shocking information from former Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis, the Guardian's whistleblower who is central to Lewis and Evans' book, focuses on the period from the late 1980s to 2000 when Francis was working undercover. His exposures include the key role of one former SDS officer Bob Lambert, now an academic at the University of St Andrews, in co-authoring the London Greenpeace leaflet that led to the infamous McLibel defamations trial in 1994. Francis has also revealed the targeting of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence and of anti-racist and black justice campaigns throughout the 1990s, including one, the Newham Monitoring Project in east London, that I was active in at the time.

However, keeping the spotlight on activities involving the now-disbanded SDS during the 1990s has, to some extent, allowed the Metropolitan Police to try and distance itself from what it is portraying as 'historical allegations' that are hard to investigate: in a statement, Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said, “finding out the truth about what happened 20 years ago is not a straightforward task”. Although the surveillance of the Lawrence family in particular is embarrassing for the Met, it has distracted attention away from undercover officers like Kennedy, Watson and Jacobs, who were active much later, during the last decade.

Until they were uncovered in 2010, all were part of a different and far bigger operation than the London-centred SDS, called the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which operated undercover throughout England and Wales. Until 2010, when it came under the command of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command, the unit was based within the Association of Chief Police Officers, a private company, which meant that it was largely exempt from any public scrutiny. As recently as 2009, Mark Kennedy's activities for NPOIU led to the arrest of 114 climate activists in Nottingham for conspiring to shut down a coal-fired power station and came close to creating a serious miscarriage of justice: evidence he had gathered that exonerated many of the arrested activists was not disclosed to the defence at their trial and 20 people were convicted of conspiracy. These convictions were only quashed when the case against six others collapsed after Kennedy has been exposed.

Units like NPOIU that were created in the late 1990s represented an expansion in tactics by the police. The last decade has seen a significant shift towards gathering vast quantities of intelligence data and sifting it for patterns and connections to predict how individuals and groups will act, the basis for the National Intelligence Model originally developed in 2000 for tackling serious organised crime. The same approach has been adopted wholesale by officers monitoring protest movements and the result is that, with little democratic debate or accountability, large numbers of people who have been engaged in legitimate campaigning, many with no criminal records, are now on secret police databases for opinions or activities (like non-violent civil disobedience) that were once seen as “normal” in a free society. A recent estimate suggests there could be as many as 9000.
Police Liaison Officers at the anti-EDL protest in Tower Hamlets in September [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
Whilst there are almost certainly still undercover officers at work, collecting data on an industrial scale involves more visible and far more invasive methods. Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) police photographers target 'persons of interest' at protests. Officers make widespread use of stop and search powers, as was evident at the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth in 2008, or refuse to allow demonstrations to leave a police 'kettle' until they provide their names and addresses. It can even mean mass arrests as a form of intelligence-gathering, which according to testimony given in Parliament by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, seems to have been the main reason for the detention of UKUncut activists who briefly occupied the Fortnum and Mason store in London in March 2011. A recent Freedom of Information request about Police Liaison Officers, the officers in blue bibs who have appeared at demonstrations since 2009 and whose role is supposedly facilitating protest and improving communication, has confirmed that they are "likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members" and “must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint" [a Met police database]. During the trial of a number of cyclists arrested at a Critical Mass on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year, a senior officer revealed that at least six Police Liaison Officers had attended the previous Critical Mass in plain clothes and on bikes to 'identify organisers'.

Coupled with the use of technology to monitor social media by the successor to the NPOIU, the National Domestic Extremism Unit, the police are aiming to build a detailed picture of individuals that involves far more than investigating and prosecuting offences. According to Val Swain of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), which brings together a number of groups concerned about the rising level of protest surveillance, “while ostensibly acting against criminality, intelligence-led policing of protest has the potential to disrupt and deter the act of protest itself”. Put simply, its origins in tackling organised crime mean it is almost designed to frighten people into avoiding the exercise of their right to protest and worse, says Swain, it operates “away from the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, there are no checks and balances, no public visibility, and no effective accountability”. NetPol argues that it is this lack of accountability that protected undercover officers like Mark Kennedy for so many years and ensures that almost anyone can be treated as a potential criminal if they participate in many forms of protest. It is calling for the abolition of the National Domestic Extremism Unit saying, “we do not accept that the case has been made for the necessity of continuing the activity of a unit that has been associated with unethical and possibly unlawful behaviour, nor any other that specialises in the surveillance of dissent”.

FIT photographer at Occupy's 'Meet The 1%' protest, May 2012 [Photo: Copwatcher on Flickr]
But while the surveillance of protest continues, what can individuals do to protect themselves? There are some simple steps: avoid talking to Police Liaison Officers, for example, would seem sensible considering what we now know about their intelligence role. The campaigners from FITwatch recommend using face coverings to ensure police Forward Intelligence Team officers cannot photograph you: masks are always legal to wear, although in certain circumstances a police officer may arrest you if you refuse to remove one. It is probably a good idea too to avoid carrying a mobile phone with every personal contact you have if there is a possibility that you may be arrested. NetPol is also arguing that protesters should avoid agreeing to leave a police 'kettle' in exchange for providing personal details to officers, particularly now that the High Court has ruled that it is “not lawful for the police to maintain the containment for the purposes of obtaining identification, whether by questioning or by filming [and] not lawful to require identification to be given and submission to filming as the price for release.”

It is important to remember, more than anything, that almost every effort to gather more and more intelligence on protesters has been successfully resisted by activists and their lawyers. Meanwhile, if you want to find out what data the police already hold on you, consider making a Data Protection Act subject access request to find out if you are on the “domestic extremist” database. Guidance on how to do so is available from Guardian or here at Random Blowe.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.