The Political Policing of Dissent in the UK

Just after midnight on Easter in 2009, 200 police officers forced their way into an inner-city school in Nottingham, England. They arrested the 114 people inside over plans to shut down a nearby coal-fired power station in a direct action climate change protest. It was one of the largest pre-emptive arrests the country had ever seen.

Among the 114 people was a man known to the other activists as Mark Stone, who had been a familiar face on the UK activist scene since 2003 and had helped plan the action. He led a reconnaissance mission, advised on equipment needed for the action, allowed his house to be used for planning meetings and had even paid £778 to hire a 7.5 ton truck to transport equipment needed for the operation. As part of the climbing team, he was to have helped stop the coal conveyors then prevent them from restarting by remaining suspended beneath a belt with another activist. While the case against 26 activists was pursued, charges against Stone, who had refused to use the same law firm as the others, were dropped.

In July last year, while Stone was holidaying in Europe after attending an animal rights gathering in Italy, his companion found a passport in the name of Mark Kennedy in the glove box of his van. In October, six of his friends confronted him and he confessed: Mark Stone did not exist.  Mark Kennedy was a policeman who had been working deep undercover for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). The NPOIU is one of three specialist police units, alongside the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) and the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET), dedicated to tackling what they label “domestic extremism”.  

In his seven years reporting to NPOIU, Kennedy had been involved in environmental, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist groups. When he was exposed he was attempting to infiltrate the animal rights movement, despite having left the police the year before. He had attended and participated in protests, actions and activist gatherings across the UK and in Germany, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, France and Italy. He attended and helped mobilize for major international gatherings including the G8 summits in Gleneagles, Heligendamm and Toyako.

He used his climbing skills and ability to drive large vehicles to ingratiate himself with activists and also often helped fund actions and protests. Steph (not her real name) is an activist who knew Kennedy well. She described him as, “One of those characters where you either liked him or you didn’t. A lot of people tolerated him because he was useful but we were good friends, people cared about him a lot.”  While Kennedy rarely participated in political discussions, he was always a ready volunteer and an enthusiastic advocate of direct action tactics. Steph said: “If he said something about politics it was about trying to raise the game, or promote militant responses.” He was also a wholehearted participant in the culture’s social scene and had several relationships with people involved in activism. Despite his denials in the press, a number of activists that knew him have commented he regularly used and even sold recreational drugs.

Activists are uncertain exactly what information he provided his handlers. “You can endlessly speculate” said Steph. “I guess [it was about] networking, certainly in the run up to big mobilizations, contacts, when specific things were going to happen and maybe techniques and broad ways of working, but not about solving particular crimes.” Kennedy also provided information to foreign police forces. The German police has admitted they invited him to the country to infiltrate the anti-fascist movement and anti-G8 protests and that they requested charges against him be dropped on two occasions. The Irish police have also admitted they knew of his presence although they deny any contact with him, while Kennedy himself claimed to have provided information used by the Danish police. The Icelandic government has also faced questions over its links with Kennedy during his time working with environmental group Saving Iceland, questions which they have so far avoided answering.

Although Kennedy was outed in October 2010, his role only gained national prominence at the start of this year when the case against six of the 26 people to stand trial for the Nottingham action mysteriously collapsed. While 20 of the activists admitted their part in the conspiracy but ran the defense that they were acting out of necessity, the other six were due to plead not guilty on the grounds they had only learned of the plans on the day of the arrest and had made no commitment to taking part. When the defense lawyers requested information about the role of Kennedy, the case was quickly dropped. Eventually, Kennedy himself confirmed that he had made covert recordings of the briefing of the activists at the school that supported the stories of the six defendants and that the police had withheld these recordings from the Crown Prosecution Service.

In the wake of the revelations an investigation by the newspaper The Guardian exposed two further police spies from the NPIOU who had infiltrated activist groups at around the same time as Kennedy: ‘Lynn Watson’ and ‘Marco Jacobs’. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Kennedy claimed he knew of 15 officers who had infiltrated activist movements during his time undercover and that at least four remained active. 

As the disclosures of the police spies’ activities continued, the radical British weekly SchNEWS broke a story on what appeared to be further police infiltration – this time of activist media. SchNEWS published excerpts from postings on the open-publishing activist website Indymedia UK from an IP address that had been blocked following an investigation into the posting of persistent misinformation. The blocked server, called Gateway 303, was traced to a Government Secure Intranet – a state network which provides a secure proxy network behind which state agents can maintain their anonymity.  Some of the comments, left under a variety of pseudonyms, encouraged activists to take violent or illegal action. Two comments even included the supposed personal details of people involved in animal abuse and encouraged people to target them. Several times information was posted on arrests, police actions and ongoing court cases that was only known at that point to the police. Other posts targeted well-known activists, suggesting they were not to be trusted or hinting they were involved with the police. Many simply disparaged campaigns and protests.

In the weeks that followed, a number of other activist websites, including anti-police websites FIT Watch and NETCU Watch, reported postings from the same location. While those at SchNEWS have been unable to ascertain concrete proof of the exact origins of the postings, they strongly suspect the postings also come from the domestic extremism units. Jo Makepeace from SchNEWS said: “The postings displayed remarkably accurate and up to the minute information […that is] is not available to the public so our suspicion is that it is somebody closely linked to or is one of the national domestic extremism teams – they are the people who would be in the know, they’re the people whose job it is to monitor and be aware of this information, and suddenly it reappears in real time.”

Few UK activists have been shocked by the revelations about the actions of the police domestic extremism units. Jo Makepeace said: “It’s important to understand we’re up against quite serious people here. The type of changes we’re asking for are not easily accommodated by those in power, so the fact that they use infiltration, eavesdropping, agent provocateurs, proactive postings and so on doesn’t come as any great surprise.”

The domestic extremism units, the NPOIU, NETCU and NDET, are commanded by the National Coordinator for Domestic Extremism. None of the units are, technically, part of the police force – they are not even part of the public sector. The units are controlled by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – a private organization made up of top ranking police officers, which, in its official role, provides consultancy work to the various police departments and to the Home Office. As a private institution, ACPO is beyond the reach of Freedom of Information laws and public scrutiny. ACPO assumed control of the NPOIU and the newly created NETCU in 2004 and NDET in 2005. This operational change marked the beginning of a new era that would redefine protest and the policing of dissent. It would open the way to unprecedented collusion between the police and the private sector and allow policing to be openly political like never before.

The new units were primarily a response to a decade of militant and successful animal rights campaigning. In 2003, a number of large companies were threatening to withdraw from the UK following sustained animal rights protests that not only targeted companies involved in animal abuse but also their investors and suppliers. In an attempt to reassure the private sector, Tony Blair held a secret meeting in Oxford with representatives of large pharmaceutical companies and security forces to discuss a new strategy to tackle the movement, a strategy that was later applied to all forms of dissent and protest.  

With the aim of countering and marginalizing protest movements, the new plan called for the security forces to work actively with the media, lawyers and corporations to tackle “domestic extremism” – a new concept that re-branded direct action protest. While it has no legal definition, NETCU define domestic extremism as: “the activity, individuals or campaign groups that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.”

Through the police and the media, the new label has entered public discourse and it was to play a significant role in the reaction to the story of Mark Kennedy. Much of the press expressed outrage that Kennedy had infiltrated the “peaceful” environmental movement. The movement, which receives qualified support from much of the liberal press, was held up in contrast to “extremist” groups, such as animal rights campaigners or anti-capitalist protesters, even though they not only share similar tactics, but they are frequently the same people. Like many others, Steph crosses these networks, as did Kennedy. She said: “It’s been really difficult to see the reductionist stereotypes of “good” and “bad” protester, and the emphasis on environmentalism when in fact many networks have been affected.”

However, the change was not limited to discourse and perceptions, the period also saw major new legislation passed to aid the domestic extremism units. New laws such as the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act criminalized non-violent protest and protected corporations, arms bases and nuclear sites from protesters. SchNEWS has covered the protest scene since 1994 and witnessed these changes first hand. According to Jo Makepeace: “What has changed is the political environment, in which the Labor party passed a raft of legislation which meant the police didn’t have to contort themselves in the way they had to before to control peaceful protest.”

However, the law that has been most effective in suppressing dissent was not originally about protest at all. The 1999 Protection from Harassment Act was supposedly introduced by the government to protect women from stalkers. However, not long after the act became law, one of the lawyers involved in drafting it began to offer his services using the act to protect companies from the ‘harassment’ of protesters. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden helped companies apply for civil injunctions under the terms of the act, which placed severe restrictions on protest, such as limiting numbers of protesters, the time they could demonstrate for and even how long they could use megaphones for. Breach of these injunctions was a criminal act and an arrestable offence. NETCU, which had a webpage dedicated to the passed injunctions on their site, stated: “High Court injunctions have also provided clarity to protest groups and activists by defining what constitutes an acceptable level of protest.” Activists took a different view.

Andrew Beckett is a spokesperson for Smash EDO, an anti-militarist group and subject of an injunction. He said: “That legislation was driven entirely by the need to protect private profit. NETCU make no bones about the fact that they are there to protect corporations from individuals and campaigns. They are very blatantly a political police force.”

The injunctions have been primarily used against animal rights groups but have also been deployed against a broad range of campaigners including environmental and anti-arms protesters. The injunction taken out against Smash EDO in 2005 revealed just how close the police were working with the private sector on the civil injunctions. Acting on behalf of arms components manufacturers EDO/MBM, Lawson-Cruttenden applied for an interim injunction that would reduce protest to a limited number of people, who couldn’t make noise, for two hours, once a week. The interim injunction they obtained was less draconian but still confined protest to a 2-metee-wide grass verge across the road from their targets and banned filming. Just prior to the application for the injunction there were a spate of arrests, many on serious charges such as assault police.

The majority of those arrested, whom video footage shows being hauled out of a crowd for little visible reason, were named in the injunction shortly after. The activists considered the charges spurious, the arrests targeted and the timing suspicious. As the hearing for a permanent injunction and the trials of 13 activists approached, the defendants’ lawyers applied for the disclosure of correspondence between a senior policeman and Lawson-Cruttenden, of which they already had Lawson-Cruttenden’s side. Police tried to prevent disclosure by claiming a ‘Public Interest Immunity’ – protection usually used for police informants. This failed, and when it did, the 13 cases were dropped one-by-one and the injunction application failed. Andrew Beckett said: “Lawson-Cruttenden was very clearly picked as the police’s point man within the civil legal system. He clearly had access to reams of information that were coming directly from the national domestic extremism units, and he worked hand in glove with them.” 

The blurring of the line between the police and the private sector is also reflected in the growing private security industry that has grown around the concept of domestic extremism. Companies offering corporations security, surveillance, infiltration, and intelligence services targeting protest movements have proliferated. Many of these companies actively recruit from the ranks of the police. After leaving the police in 2009, Mark Kennedy was headhunted by Global Open, a company offering intelligence services covering activist activities. Shortly after, he registered his own security company, Tokra Ltd, at the address of a former Global Open director. When his Mark Kennedy passport was discovered, it contained a work visa for the United States and activists are speculating he had planned to operate privately from there.

Those working for these private companies operate with almost no regulation or restrictions. After the media furor over Kennedy’s private life, especially his relationships with women, ACPO president Sir Hugh Orde made a speech in which he said he was “staggered” that espionage by “completely uncontrolled unrestrained players in the private sector” hadn’t provoked the same level of outrage.

The era of the ACPO controlled units, the NPIOU, NETCU and NDET, is coming to a close. A combination of budget cuts and criticism over their unaccountability led to a review of the units and the decision to disband them. However, with the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government is showing little interest in fulfilling their pre-election promises to roll back New Labor’s assault on civil liberties, the new National Domestic Extremism Unit will be created from their remnants and placed under the control of the Metropolitan Police. Despite the controversies, it seems the openly political “domestic extremism” policing that is the units’ legacy is set to continue.

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in the UK.