It has been revealed that £9m of public money is being spent gathering details of political activists in a bid to monitor ‘domestic extremists’.(i) The project is managed by the ‘Terrorism and Allied Matters’ committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).(ii)
An ‘extremist’ is defined as follows: “The majority of people involved in animal rights, environmentalism and other campaigns are peaceful protesters and 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.”(iii)
To warrant inclusion on the database requires nothing more than a police officer having “‘more than passing contact’ with someone already known, or [making] a subjective assessment about the way someone is ‘behaving’ [at a protest or political event]”.(iv)
Those ‘extremists’ currently included on the database include a journalist stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act 2000 while reporting on the DSEi arms fair in Docklands on 9 September 2003; an activist acquitted of conspiracy to commit criminal damage after breaking into a military base to sabotage US bombers on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, even after the jury accepted that his actions had been intended to prevent war crimes in Iraq; and Comedian Mark Thomas who campaigns against the arms trade, amongst other things.(v)
Anyone who has attended a political demonstration or participated in direct action in recent years will be familiar with how this evidence gathering takes place. Police presence at such events, while disproportionately large and highly visible, appears more ‘hands off’, in that a considerable portion of officers on duty are devoted to constantly scribbling in pocket books, and intimidation of participants often takes the form of ‘in-your-face’ photography rather than a direct confrontation with a police officer.
Nevertheless, it is clear that such tactics should not be misinterpreted as evidence of a ‘change of heart’ within the police or a desire to facilitate peaceful protest. This is a deliberate and calculated policy aimed at increasing state control over the population and protecting the vulture-like imperialist system from overthrow.
In particular, the monitoring of political activity and creation of the database makes clear that:
The state fears the power of its citizens when militant, organised and determined to secure change.
At present in Britain, relatively small sections of the working-class, anti-imperialist and environmental movements are willing to work for political change though taking direct action to challenge and expose the state, often at great personal sacrifice. The state fully understands that if that section of the movement were able to influence the whole, we would see on the streets of Britain the kind of revolutionary movement that is capable of overthrowing capitalism.
The database is aimed at defeating that movement while still in its infancy, by facilitating the harassment, intimidation, discrediting and locking up of those who are taking direct action against the wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, Britain’s criminal role in the international arms trade, and the devastation of the natural environment, among other issues.
The public surveillance and monitoring of those who join protests and attend political meetings is also aimed at intimidating and discouraging newcomers to the movement, and at attempting to keep the movement isolated from and distrusted by the rest of society.
We can refuse to be intimidated by these measures. We must continue to assert our protest rights and educate the public as to the importance and significance of active opposition to imperialism.
We do not need to be passive victims in the face of increasing and constant surveillance by the state. We can ourselves transform the same advances in technology that allow this level of state intrusion into a powerful weapon in the hands of the organised movement. All of us have mobile phones, many of them equipped with our own personal recording equipment and often with instant access to the web. We can and should monitor state forces in the process of monitoring us.
It was only the publishing of journalists’ video footage of Ian Tomlinson’s vicious assault at the hands of Metropolitan Police officers that revealed the truth of the events that led to his death, where officers present and involved lied and closed ranks to protect the officer who dealt the deathly blows. Since those events were made public, there has been a large groundswell of public mistrust, demands for accountability and questioning of the power that police officers have in our society.
We should carefully record details of incidents where we ourselves draw the attention of police, including dates, times, events, police badge numbers and descriptions of the police officers involved, and we should take opportunities presented to us to oppose the criminalisation of protest in particular and of political activities generally.
(i) ‘Police in £9m scheme to log “domestic extremists”’, The Guardian, 25 October 2009.
(ii) ACPO, a body representing senior police officers, is itself a private company and therefore not subject to public scrutiny or legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which allows the public access to information held by government agencies and is designed to increase public accountability.
(iii) National Extremist Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU) website. This publically unaccountable police organisation offers assistance to private companies facing protest campaigns and is one of the bodies building the database on political activists.
(iv) Superintendent David Hartshorn of the Metropolitan Police, quoted in ‘My life as “suspect A”’ by Emily Apple, guardian.co.uk/commentisfree, 27 October 2009.
(V) ‘Police Spotter Card P: Penny Quinton’, The Guardian, 27 October 2009; ‘Police Spotter Card L: Toby Olditch’, The Guardian, 27 October 2009; ‘Doth I protest too much?’ by Mark Thomas, The Guardian, 25 October 2009.