Chris Browne reports from the blockade of Scotland Yard by activists protesting against the use of sex by undercover officers who infiltrated environmentalist groups.
Every movement and social group has its own stories, the ones they tell, and retell, and that are gradually sculpted into little anthropological myths. The alterglobalisation movement is no different. Young, bright-eyed activists will hear the same stories of outrage and intrigue from the movement’s near past. Like the one where an anti-MacDonalds action group transpired to have been infiltrated by a number of undercover police. No real story there, perhaps, were it not for the fact that the number of undercover agents vastly outnumbered the genuine activists in the group.It is this marriage of our own self-image of incompetence with the validation of activists’ worst fears –surely too rational for paranoia– that lends the story its charm. But it is no isolated incident, even if that particular example is no more than myth. We need look no further afield than the streets of London; no further back than last week, to see much more outrageous acts involving police infiltration of activist groups.
It came to light recently that a number of undercover police officers in environmental groups had sex with female activists, as a tactic to blend in. One officer, Jim Boyling, went as far as to get married to, and have children with an activist before his identity was revealed. Needless to say his wife divorced him. The tendency in the press might be to portray the lie as simply acting in the line of duty, or, more likely, as a Bondesque triumph of subterfuge and libido, but the reality is quite different.
It is now coming to light that sex was authorised by senior commanders as a legitimate intelligence-gathering tactic. What makes this so wrong is that the women the officers slept with were unable to give their informed sexual consent, quite simply because the entire basis of their relationships was founded on a deceit. They had no idea the men they were sleeping with were police officers.
On Monday 25th January, I joined a group of around 35 protesters, congregating across the road from the New Scotland Yard in order to demonstrate our anger. We planned to quietly blockade one of the entrances to the building, in a dignified act of civil disobedience. By and large the group was comprised of female activists, with the men in the group taking a supporting role.
Contrary to popular stereotypes of activists as lazy, we assembled at 7:30am, so that we could protest before heading to work for the day. As for the cavalier assertions of activists’ promiscuity, –as though that were a legitimate justification for the undercover officers’ actions– protester Emily Armistead’s comments to The Guardian speak loudly:
“It’s so ridiculous … Just for the record I’ve been in the same relationship for six years, I don’t have nits and my kitchen is clean.”
Spending most of my time acting as a photographer with the group I was able to walk the length of the blockade. Once it became clear the police had no intention of dragging the blockaders off their premises, I set about documenting the event. The media attendance was respectable if not huge, and, in the absence of any scenes of conflict and violence, seemed content to conduct interviews and take quotes from the group.
One observation that was repeatedly made during our post-action debrief was how the press tended to circle in on the male participants in the blockade. The media’s prevailing logic, if not explicitly raised in the questions asked, clearly ran along the lines of “you’re a man: why are you here?” Not only did this serve to marginalise the voices of the women at the demonstration –by predominately taking the narrative from the men– but the media’s very curiosity in the men’s attendance merely reinforced the logic that this is an issue that only affects women, and that solidarity with them is something novel and peculiar.
As is attested to by the skulking figures of the Police’s intelligence gathering ‘FIT team’ at any demonstration, and the semantic maneuvering in politicised language like ‘domestic extremism’, the legitimacy and universality of our right to protest is under threat. So too is the crucial feeling of safety whilst expressing that right.
If by blocking the entrance to Scotland Yard we’ve managed to keep the story in the news for a little bit longer; keep people talking about the violation that these undercover police officers committed; and forcefully declared our refusal to be intimidated by the agents of the state, then it can only be considered a success. It was certainly a necessity.