In autumn 2010, an article was published on UK Indymedia, a now-defunct alternative news site, sending shockwaves through activist circles across Bristol and the UK. An activist I knew as Mark Stone had been outed as an undercover police officer. His real name was Mark Kennedy.
Shortly afterwards, I was told by close acquaintances in Cardiff that another activist I knew as a friend, Marco Jacobs, had also been confirmed as an undercover police officer. The revelations began as a slow trickle before turning into a torrent. It confused, appalled and shook the small world that was radical activism in the UK in the early 2000s. For many of that generation of activists, things would never be the same again.
Six months earlier, in April 2009, when I had travelled from Bristol to Nottinghamshire in preparation for a direct action to disrupt the coal-fired power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, I was woken up when the police raided the school where I was staying.
Alongside 113 others, including many of my friends from Bristol, I was arrested. One of the 113 was Mark Kennedy. A subsequent trial in January 2011 collapsed due to Kennedy’s involvement in the planning of the action. This precipitated the undercover policing scandal, which became widely known as #spycops.
Jacobs, who I ‘knew’ better than Kennedy was not involved in the Nottinghamshire event, but he was involved in another action against the extractive fuel industry in 2007 – a blockade against the Liquid Natural Gas pipeline which starts at Milford Haven and continues through South Wales into Gloucestershire. Despite his involvement, the convictions of some activists still stand. Although Jacobs mainly worked in South Wales, it is known that both he and Kennedy collected intelligence on Bristolian activists. To what extent remains unknown.
Ten years later
Ten years later, in late 2020, the Undercover Policing Inquiry public hearings finally got underway. The Inquiry, tasked with investigating undercover police activity from 1968 onwards, was beset with multiple delays, in no small part because of police delaying tactics.
The Inquiry had been called in 2015 by then Home Secretary Theresa May, under pressure from campaigners. Before it started, a litany of abuse and scandalous misconduct committed by police had been alleged and identified. Undercover officers had engaged in long-term sexual relationships with members of their target groups, among them several women who I knew. At least two undercovers had fathered children with these women under false pretences.
Further, it was revealed that officers had taken part in crimes, and like Kennedy had been arrested and sometimes put on trial, without revealing their real identity – contributing to miscarriages of justice.
It also became apparent that undercovers had stolen the names and identities of dead infants for their cover personas. These revelations greatly distressed surviving relatives. Former undercover cop turned whistle-blower, Peter Francis, revealed that he spied on the Stephen Lawrence family and their justice campaign. And undercover officers had spied on workers who had been ‘blacklisted’ (denied work) due to their trade union activity.
What have we learned since?
As the Inquiry slowly trundles on, I have been researching for the Undercover Research Group how covert police officers infiltrated and disrupted political groups over the decades.
The Inquiry has divided the hearings into several parts. Autumn 2020 and Spring 2021 reviewed police deployments stretching from 1968 to 1982. To date, in 30 days of hearings over 20 witnesses have appeared, and 3000 documents released. On completion, it will likely be the second longest-running public inquiry after the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which lasted 13 years. Summarising the sea of information in an article is tricky, but here are some of the ‘headlines’ we have found.
Special Demonstration Squad
The police unit responsible for the initial infiltrations were most commonly referred to as the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), based in London. Almost all of the groups it targeted were left-wing. Several police witnesses from the SDS stated that during the 1970s, the unit’s concern was not with the fascist and violent National Front, but instead with the anti-fascists who opposed them. One given reason for this was that neo-Nazis were not considered ‘subversive’ given that they opposed communism just like the British State. This, of course, was within the context of the Cold War. For similar reasons, anti-apartheid campaigners were heavily targeted by the spycops while the activities of South African secret service agents in the UK were ignored, and even possibly aided and abbeted.
Later, the Inquiry will deal with the unit that spied upon me and my contemporaries – the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (1999-2011) which operated nationally. This will likely not happen for another two or even three years.
One of the surprising revelations is the extent to which MI5 was involved in tasking the SDS. The security services made hundreds of requests to the secret policing unit for intelligence. This included the names, addresses and occupations of branch members of small left wing parties like the Socialist Workers Party (previously the International Socialists). Chillingly, a handful of MI5 documents revealed that where the SDS did not have ‘coverage’ – MI5 would seek to recruit or place informers in those groups itself.
Spying on Minors
As well as fathering children, spycops also spied on children. A friend of mine, whose dad was a well-known activist from the 1960s onwards, had his birth recorded in a Special Branch report. Another woman during the Inquiry expressed her anger that a spycop attended meetings at her home at around the same time when she gave birth to her daughter. Meanwhile, children who were members of the ‘School Kids Against Nazis’, an Anti-Nazi League youth intiative, were also logged in Special Branch files. Another activist, ‘Madeline’, was duped into a relationship with undercover ‘Vince Miller’ in her twenties but had a Special Branch file opened up on her when she was just sixteen.
These are just a handful of examples contained in the thousands of police reports. When discussing the Undercover Research Group’s work, I often find myself tempted to focus on the more risible and absurd aspects of the undercover deployments. From the spying on the women’s liberation group’s bake sales to the undercover who formed his very own three-person Trotskyist faction or the undercover officer who deluded himself he was an anarchist! To some extent, these cases allow for some brief respite from the more damaging aspects of the police operations.
We now know that progressive campaigners’ attempts to change the world for the better were closely monitored and often interfered with by the state. Intrusion into the most private and personal matters was simply seen as fair game for the surveillance state.
If activists, campaigners and wider communities thought the hostility perpetuated by the state would cease with the start of the Inquiry, they would be mistaken. I have, for example, found the Inquiry chairman Sir John Mitting’s treatment of those affected to be substandard, to say the least. Engaging with a Home Office commissioned Inquiry is a controversial and fraught process for many of us. Yet, despite its shortcomings, I am certain that the police and security state would benefit most if we were to boycott proceedings, and for that reason, we will continue to campaign for transparency and justice.