on the world: a view on human rights
Once considered the domain of conspiracy theorists and the paranoid, in recent years, a growing body of evidence has emerged on the extent to which the police has been involved in spying on and monitoring activists in different fields, taking in not only political activity but the private lives of individuals. Although activism unto itself is not criminal activity, concerns for a fairer, more equal world and justice often collide head on with the interests of large corporations and the political establishment.
Police surveillance of activists has a long history in the UK and probably draws on policing methods used to quell anti-colonial activism. In 1968, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS – active until 2008) was set up to monitor demonstrations and left-wing groups in liaison with MI5. Various movements have been monitored and infiltrated. Political policing and surveillance has evolved as evidenced by the current debate over the government’s “Prevent” programme, targeting the Muslim community. It is unsurprising that one of the key “spy cops” from the 1980s, Bob Lambert, later reinvented himself as an academic teaching courses on terrorism and political violence.
To date, 17 undercover policemen have been exposed. On the other hand, only one former SDS undercover officer, Peter Francis, has blown the whistle on practices. His claims have in large part led to the Pitchford Inquiry into undercover policing.
At a public meeting organised by the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) in central London on 10 October, three speakers, from very different backgrounds, spoke of their personal experiences, demonstrating how deep the impact can be on individual lives and how diverse the movements targeted are. One common question all the speakers had was quite simply why?
Although speaking last, Tamsin Allen, a lawyer at leading law firm Bindmans, who represents a number of MPs who were spied on by undercover police, spoke about the Pitchford Inquiry and why it matters. The statutory inquiry was announced by then Home Secretary Theresa May in March 2015 with the aim of looking “into undercover policing and the operation of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).”
She stated that victims needs truth and justice. The main purpose of this inquiry is to find out the truth. However, while it offer opportunities to victims and the wider public’s right to know, it is hindered by two issues: the scope of the inquiry seeks to look at undercover policing in a broad range of areas whereas activists would rather it is narrowed and focused on political policing. In addition, the police are seeking to delay the inquiry and hinder progress. This has been done in various ways: through claims and requests that hinder proceedings and destroying evidence. As a result, more than a year on, the inquiry is no closer to dealing with the evidence.
The inquiry chair, Lord Justice Pitchford, is currently considering how to deal with restriction orders for information that cannot be made public. The police would like most information to remain confidential, but Pitchford has rejected that, firmly stating that the inquiry must be based on openness and acting in the public interest. The first applications for non-disclosure will be made in the next few months.
Allen stated that the strengths of the inquiry include the sheer hard work, bravery and perseverance of those who brought it about. The inquiry has a large number of core participants who cover a broad range of areas affected, and are united. In addition, the position of the chair has been strong and positive.
She said that it is hoped that the inquiry will deliver the truth and provide answers. She described it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to find out what has been going on for the past 50 years. She said it was likely that at best the inquiry would offer a “rough truth”, but which could then potentially lead to prosecutions and some form of justice.
The first speaker was Lisa Jones, who in 2010, discovered that her partner of 6 years, Mark Stone, was actually undercover policeman Mark Kennedy. In 2015, she and six other women who had had relationships with undercover policemen received an unreserved apology from the police for the deceptive nature of their relationships.
An environmental activist, “Lisa” started to doubt her boyfriend in 2009 and later found his passport with his real name and the names of his children in it; she had never been told that he was a father… or that he was married; ironically, part of the job requirement was that officers had to be married. For her part, she thought she had met a man who shared her interests, values and views. He was with her and supported her at her father’s funeral.
At first, she did not want to believe he was an undercover policeman and did not think that anyone else had gone through anything as far-fetched as her own experience. Having destroyed her confidence and her ability to trust in relationships, after meeting other women who had been through the same experience, she realised that it was not due to any fault of their own, but was part of an ongoing strategy used by the police to infiltrate movements and organisations. One particular similarity was for the officer involved to fake a breakdown and then disappear at the end of their assignment. The police did not think any of the women would pursue them.
In Lisa’s case, she was able to confront Kennedy about his lies after he had left the Metropolitan Police (Met) but many questions remain unanswered. She stated that the police had underestimated the women and that their cases demonstrated that the Met had systematically treated women with disregard, abuse and degradation and that it showed an institutionalised sexist attitude that needs to change. Having shown great courage in sharing her experiences publicly, she stated that she hoped by doing so it would not happen to anyone else.
Duwayne Brooks, then aged 18, was with his friend Stephen Lawrence on the night in April 1993 that he was attacked and stabbed to death by a racist gang in south London. A core participant in the Pitchford Inquiry, in the years following Lawrence’s murder, Brooks was only considered a witness to the murder and thus his side of the story and the impact it had had on him as a victim was not considered. At first, Brooks had been friendly and cooperative with the police, having nothing to hide and believing they were interested in getting convictions for the murder of Lawrence.
However, after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was published in 1999, which was critical of the police’s racist mismanagement of the case, Brooks found himself on the other side and subject to police harassment. Meetings and private conversations with police officers were reported to senior officers in order to find out information about the family campaign for justice. Meetings he held privately with his lawyer Jane Deighton at her office were also bugged. Brooks stated that he believes the reason the police chose to spy rather than simply ask for information they would have been given if they did was because they wanted to do something unlawful and thus had something to hide.
Brooks was more critical of the Pitchford Inquiry and stated that emphasis must be placed on the information and evidence of core participants if progress is to be made.
Actor Ricky Tomlinson also spoke at the meeting. Prior to becoming a well-known actor, he was a plasterer and shop steward. Unlike the other speakers he is not a core participant in the Pitchford Inquiry. In 1972, due to poor pay and poor working conditions, a nation-wide construction strike was organised, the first in the industry, which went on for 13 weeks. At the time, Tomlinson was working in Wrexham where he organised the workers and travelled around to get other workers in other parts of the country to join in as well. The strike was successful and the workers won all their claims, except for a shorter working week.
Five months later, 24 men, including Tomlinson were arrested and charged with 242 offences between them related to the picket in Shrewsbury on 6 September 1972. The charges related to violence and intimidation even though police at the protest had made no arrests. Of the six who went to trial on the same day, apart from Des Warren, he did not know the other defendants. Before trial they were asked to plead guilty and pay a fine. All the men refused and were instead subjected to a 55-day trial with a heavy police presence and little substantive evidence against them. Tomlinson was sentenced to two years and Warren three years; they were found not guilty on most of the charges. The politicised trial and heavy-handed treatment would provide a precursor to how the miners’ strikes would be dealt with and to deter further such protests for better working rights.
In prison, Tomlinson and Warren (known as the Shrewsbury Two) went on hunger strike and were placed in segregated units; Warren spent 8 months in solitary confinement. Des Warren was adopted as a prisoner of conscience in 1975 by Amnesty International; in the end, the decision was reversed after the British government wrote to Amnesty. Due to the drugs he was given in jail to pacify prisoners he was in poor health after his release until his death aged 66 in 2004. In addition to his health problems, he never worked after his release as he was blacklisted.
It later emerged that one of the six men on trial with them that day, John Carpenter, who was given a suspended sentence, was in fact a police informant. He was not a builder but a caterer. Tomlinson shared an anecdote that demonstrated just how politically motivated the case was: at trial, Warren told the judge that his telephone was tapped by the police. The judge told him that was nonsense because such things do not happen in Britain. He said they certainly did because he was still using his telephone even though he had not paid the bill for over three years. Almost 45 years on, the campaign for justice for the Shrewsbury 24, the disclosure of documents that reveal what the government knew and did, and for Des Warren’s conviction to be overturned continue.