An overview of the key issues central to understanding the significance of the undercover political policing scandal perpetrated by spycops and their managers.
Podcast with Donna McLean, Alison, Sara and Jessica discussing consent and spycops.
Podcast with Donna McLean, Alison, Sara and Jessica discussing institutional sexism and spycops.
Podcast with Professor Mary Davis, Dave Smith and Lois Austin discussing blacklisting and the right to protest.
Podcast with Donna McLean, Alison, Sara and Jessica discussing the issue of coercive control and psychological impact.
An article by Donal O’Driscoll about the rights to privacy highlighted by the political policing scandal
Privacy is a fundamental human right. Every human being needs a sense of privacy to be who they fully are. Most of us understand this instinctively. Less understood is how we are denied privacy, what actually removes it – surveillance. Undercover policing and the abuses it entails demonstrate what happens when a culture of surveillance is followed to its logical end. This is why spycops is such an important issue, it is the sharp point of a much bigger and very important discussion on privacy itself.
Surveillance is a fancy way of saying intrusion. It is going into people’s personal lives and using the weight of the state to deny fundamental rights to privacy. Surveillance is learning people’s secrets and what they want to keep intimate. It is reporting back on the personal and the embarrassing, gathering it up and recording it.
Surveillance is not just one person watching you. It is a collective endeavour. What is found is available not only to those doing the surveillance but also to those it is being passed onto.
It is easy to see how it goes. You are told someone new is at a meeting and the people over at Public Order want to know more about them. You go to that meeting. Your team follows them home, a group of mostly men following a vulnerable person. You want to know more, so you listen in on their phones and hear them gossiping with friends, giving you information you can use to get further into their lives, to disrupt groups. You hear their fears, those personal discussions only meant for one other ear. Things you cannot unhear, that are recorded, transcribed and passed along to who knows where.
You want to know more. Why? – well just in case you’re not getting everything. So you bug their car and house to hear what they are saying there, in the sitting room, in the kitchen. Even in the bedroom.
All privacy has been stripped away, the most personal of conversations are captured and recorded. Some might argue, that not many are really seeing such stuff and it all gets filtered out. We know that is not the case. Edward Snowden demonstrated that.
Or look at the case of undercover Simon Wellings, who accidentally caused one of his debriefs to be recorded in a voicemail. He was talking to his handlers who had a collection of photos of people to identify for other police units. He can be heard describing them, their hair colour and talking about their sexuality. These were people whose crime was simple to be passionate about social justice. Nobody in that conversation asked why this material was necessary in the first place.
To put an undercover officer into someone’s life just needs general authorisation by a high ranking officer who rarely sees what’s happening on the ground.
For those on the receiving end, the process is the same.
You report on someone at a meeting. You befriend them, convince them that they are genuine, get them to admit intimate things to you. Perhaps you are there when there is trauma or crisis in their life and report that back, confidential medical stuff perhaps. Or a defence strategy in a trial. You visit them at home, become ever more involved in their lives. You make it personal, deceive and make them feel you’ve connected. You find their way into their bed, just like the bug.
In a world where any surveillance is justified, such practices become justifiable and normalised. The State has been granted great powers, but too often even the weak safeguards are swiftly discarded for expediency. It is forgotten that those on the receiving end are people too, with rights and needs for privacy that is required to be respected.
To put a community under surveillance, to send an undercover into it, is to effectively criminalise that community. Once you see them as criminals, it is an easy next step to justify abuse of that community. Especially if you consider that their right to privacy is something from which you can easily opt out.
Privacy is at the heart of the undercover policing scandal. The right to have private moments and to have personal conversations with our closest friends, are fundamental to our humanity. There cannot be trust without the belief there will be privacy. Undercover policing has done so much damage because it has stripped from the most affected their ability to trust.
The undercover policing scandal emerged because the police had a wider belief, that it was acceptable to deny political campaigns the right to privacy by putting them under this sort of surveillance. This included campaigns that were seeking to hold police abuses to account. In targeting justice campaigns like those for Brian Douglas, Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel and Rolan Adams the police were not only intruding into personal grief of families, they were also deliberately undermining those campaigns’ attempt to hold the police’s vast powers to account.
Thus, the campaign for justice around spycops is part of a wider struggle to defend our human rights. It is not the only such fight. In 2019, veteran anti-war campaigner John Catt successfully challenged the police’s right to collect intelligence on protest activity in the European Court for Human Rights in a landmark victory for privacy. The case overturned an earlier decision where the UK Supreme Court had basically given ‘judicial approval for the mass surveillance of UK political activism’.
Too often we undervalue privacy, letting our defence of it slip as we surrender it in small amounts. We barely notice it being taken away from us. Remember though, that often those taking that privacy away are the same people who justified to themselves sending spies into grieving families and placing officers in the beds of political campaigners.
An article by Donal O’Driscoll
Resistance and Resilience
An article by Donal O’Driscoll about the impact of undercover political policing on the protest of resistance and the importance of resilience.
Spycops are unnerving. There is no way of sugar-coating what they mean for us as individuals and our freedoms, or the impact they have on our ability to campaign. However, if we give up or let them disempower us, then they’ve won.
Those who were targeted by spycops were chosen precisely because they were campaigning to make the world a better place. So it bears repeating that the best way to show solidarity is not to let them win, but to continue fighting injustice wherever we see it.
To resist and be resilient in the face of state abuse such as that perpetrated by the spycops, requires facing the consequences of their existence straight on. We must acknowledge and confront what they did in order to protect future generations. Those of us who have been spied on know this is not trivial; it is a difficult and horrible process at times. But we also know it is one worth the effort.
There is no right or wrong way; each person is different in where they find strength. For some it is to go out and fight head on; for others, it is to create a base around them where they can feel secure and grounded. For some, it is realising that the victory is in staying with the battles that the spycops tried to destroy and to find strength in our political movements; others focus on rebuilding their lives, slowly repairing the damage and fixing the memories with friends and colleagues.
We all have a role to play in this, supporting those most affected and accepting that they are following what is best for them, not patronising them or being condescending. Too often what compounds the damage is thoughtlessness from comrades downplaying or being unthinkingly judgmental about what happened.
Spycops gives rise to a fear in people. The knowledge that we can be undermined in such insidious ways is challenging and disempowering. By their very existence , spycops can have a chilling effect on what we do and how we trust others. However, we must remember that for most cases, that disempowerment comes from fear, projecting onto the spycops and their masters more power than they actually have, while underestimating our own strength.
When fear becomes paranoia they have won. Yet, for all that the spycops’ boasting that once they got into a group it was destroyed, this was not true. Yes, we can point to examples where that did happen, but we often forget the hundreds more where it didn’t. The heart of resilience is knowing that they are not all powerful, that they can be resisted.
Resilience is based on understanding that we might be targeted, and facing it with a strong heart even when we feel uncertain; resistance is being ready to fight back, both personally and in our real strength as political activists – our communities.
There are some reactions to spycops that masquerade as resistance that we want to challenge. Our concern is that some of these positions do more damage long term – if our reaction is what ultimately destroys us, then the spycops have already won without lifting any more fingers.
Don’t think that what you are doing will never be targeted. Don’t imagine that you are too insignificant or your cause too righteous or obvious to be targeted. A common mistake is to believe police think like we do, that they have the same objectives or care that your ideological basis is peaceful. Get past the notion that police are only there to stop criminals. What the spycops scandal demonstrates, is that as far as they are concerned, exercising a legal right to protest or just demanding change is a good enough reason to come to their attention; their agenda is alien to ours.
Don’t imagine it won’t happen to you. Your group is not too strong, and it’s not too secure to ever be affected. If you think it is, you’re in denial. There is no such thing as 100% security. The spycops scandal has taught us the degree to which the state will go to get inside a group. But the scandal has also taught us the limitations of the police. We must remember, that for all the undercover officers there were, they were still only a small fraction of our number, and the grim reality is that there were far more informers than there were police among us.
To think the converse is paranoia. Seeing spycops all around us, pointing fingers and mistrusting everyone. This is neither security nor movement-building. Too often it is simply a way of seeking control over a situation, or a cover for personal agendas, or simply a mistrust of anyone who does not completely fit the mould.
Too often we assume the risk to us in only the most general terms, or that the likes of police or other agencies see the world with a broad, monolithic agenda. The reality is often very different and we assume too much or in the wrong direction. One lesson from spycops is to give us much clearer insight to how the state approaches protests – let’s make the most of the opportunity!
There is no one size fits all. Each group and campaign has its own needs, and what works for one will not work for others. The important thing is resistance is not about waiting around for things to happen and then reacting. That’s generally too late. Resistance is deciding to move forward on our terms and reshaping the terrain to meet our needs.
Central to this is building up effective networks of trust. Though don’t forget that trust needs to go both ways: you also have to be open to helping people trust in you, even if that is sometimes uncomfortable. Processes of security and trust work best when they are open and everyone is treated the same, when there is consensus around what they mean and a collective agreement to abide by the ground-rules. However, we have to be clear about what these ground-rules are as too often such things are left unspoken.
The state wants us to believe it is an all-powerful, all-seeing monolith with an ability to destroy groups with a flick a of pen. Our greatest tool of resilience and resistance is the truth that while movements have been given setbacks, they’ve never been destroyed. The state cannot erase determination to end injustice.
The state and spycops are not all powerful; they have weaknesses and they have their own divisions. Recognise that, use it and stay strong.