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.

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