The new report Impacts of Surveillance on Contemporary British Activism examines how recent revelations – notably the spycops scandal of Britain’s political secret police and the Snowden information on how we are watched electronically – have changed activism.
The report says the unmasking of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy in 2010 had significant negative impact on activists and on activism itself.
Kennedy’s main focus (in the UK at least) was the climate movement. Whilst his exposure undoubtedly affected people, it was far from the only contributor to the dip in UK climate action after 2010.
As the report notes, it came less than a year after the total failure of the Copenhagen climate talks. Additionally, it was only a few months after the advent of Tory rule. The immediacy of austerity’s impact made it an essential focus for social justice activists, meaning the relative abstraction of climate change was relegated. Many of the people spearheading UK Uncut had served an apprenticeship in the anti-capitalist end of the climate movement.
A further factor is one of the perennial problems of campaigning, the way movements tend to bloom for a period of about three years and then, irrespective of how well they tackle their issue, suffer a decline.
For example, the threat of nuclear weapons has been ever-present since 1945 and yet there was a huge surge in active concern at the turn of the 1960s, and again in the early 1980s, both of which dwindled after about three years. The anti-capitalist movement at the start of the century followed a similar trajectory. The reasons for this are a matter for speculation, and indeed one of them may be the time it takes for the state to become aware of a movement and organise effective repression.
The report also mentions the huge trust placed in a secret central group at Climate Camp who worked on the small number of issues that couldn’t be publicised. This something still very much in evidence, replicated in Climate Camp’s successor, Reclaim the Power, but with a new democratising twist that makes it extremely difficult for the police to get advance warning of actions.
The process is called “activist speed dating” – people fill in forms about their abilities and preferences, then they are matched up in a group with others of a similar level. Each group is given a relevant target but have autonomy about what the action will be. It’s a conscious, creative response that balances openness with effectiveness.
It’s difficult to know exactly how successful this is, though. Reclaim the Power’s actions have mostly been at the less controversial end of the spectrum where the state doesn’t usually seek to stop it happening. But the success of climate actions of the kind that have historically been prevented – such as the West Burton occupation in 2012 and the Heathrow 13 action last year – does show that optimism is valid.
If proof of infiltration was a major destabilising influence, you would expect the climate movement to be too jittery to function. On the contrary, it is seeing a sustained resurgence, and part of that was actually assisted by Kennedy’s exposure.
After Kennedy’s involvement in the attempt to shut Ratcliffe on Soar power station led to the collapse of the trial of activists, the state had to give back all the confiscated equipment. Everything you need to shut down a power station. With the same kit and many of the same activists, the same plan was used at another Nottinghamshire power station. In October 2012 a group of around 50 people effected entry to West Burton power station and shut it down for a week, exactly as planned at Ratcliffe.
The difference? People knew what to look for. Set aside your personal trust – because it will be someone you trust – and ask yourself about a prospective accomplice. The Undercover Research Group have been rigorously investigating and exposing more spycops, and they have come up with a list of fifteen indicators for people to assess suspected infiltrators.
By and large, the climate movement pre-Kennedy felt that surveillance was a fact of life but also something of a joke. We knew we were watched – though nobody grasped the extremity of the police tactics with long-term cohabiting relationships and integrating into families. None of us thought that would happen in this country. We didn’t realise that the state takes a threat to corporate profit as seriously as a threat to life and limb.
Now we know about it in detail we are able to prevent and respond. Before Kennedy, suggesting that someone might be an undercover cop would have been the most heinous insult. Whereas now, it’s fair enough to say “I want to talk to you about something but, well, nobody’s met your family and you have a decent income, so you see what it looks like?”
There is another important impact of openness to be aware of – the state can track your beliefs and interactions, and from there predict your actions – but the only way to fully avoid that is to never tell anyone what you’re thinking or believing.
Our ideas can only spread and movements grow if we tell other people. To keep quiet about our principles, to refuse to communicate in the media used by those not already with us, keeps us away from the spooks but also stymies the germination of success.
They spy on us because they recognise our power and they fear it. Perhaps they are being paranoid and we are just a few fairly fluffy complainers. But then again, every one of the historic successful struggles that we venerate looked like it was bound to lose at the time, then it won.
They didn’t face big data, mass surveillance and the Minority Report algorithms. But then, neither did they have the tools of rapid communication to organise, publicise, report and rebut.
If we look back at the movements infiltrated by Britain’s political secret police we see how they were curtailed but we also see how they achieved great things despite having those bastards right in the middle. Nowadays we are in the same position but newly able to spot infiltrators and do the inquiries. The police, knowing that we know what to look for and humiliated by the outcry, have seemingly had to back off a bit. The outrages being exposed – and more will surely come at the forthcoming public inquiry – discredit political policing and help create space for activism.
Of course, this doesn’t mean spycops have gone, it just means they will be coming up with new tactics. But for the time being, we are in a stronger position than many of the movements in whose footsteps we tread.