10 January 2011

Police spies, agent provocateurs and rape in Britain

British police have infiltrated civic organisations with agents, who operate undercover for years as spies and agent provocateurs.

The police infiltration of environmental organisations in Britain is an attack on the civic right of freedom of assembly in a country which is supposed to be a liberal democracy. It undermines the very fabric of civil society when at any public protest meeting what you say is fed by spies into police records and any protest you suggest, however legal, is interfered with by police agent provocateurs.

British environmental groups either act within the law or engage in non-violent direct action (NVDA), which in practice means that they eschew acts of violence and engage from time to time in minor or symbolic acts of vandalism. Lawbreaking is no more of feature of their activities than it is of any average business in Britain. In that context, the infiltration of police agents, costing some quarter of a million pounds per head, is not only disproportionate and inappropriate, but a squander of resources driven by police and government paranoia.

But there is another aspect to this. Long term spies, in the case of Mark Kennedy working undercover for seven years, violate the personal rights of all those whose lives are interfered with by these agents. The worst violation is obviously against the women, and perhaps some men, who were wooed into bed by the agents. But wrong was also done to all the activists who befriended the police spies, trusted them and shared their personal lives with them. Every single environmental activist affected in this way has a legitimate claim against this disproportionate stasi-style form of policing.

The case against this kind of repressive, disproportionate and manipulative policing is so strong that it would be a pity to deflect the argument, as some insist on doing, into one about whether the male agents committed rape. They did not; the fact that the women did not know the backgrounds of the men with whom they freely consented to sex does not mean that there was no consent to the act of penetrative sex.

These women, and maybe some men, were, nonetheless, violated by the state, which set out to entrap them, and they deserve an apology and compensation. The police officers, both the agents themselves but more particularly their commanders, deserve prosecution, although we know that will never happen. The claim of rape, however, will just deflect the argument away from its true strength.


1. Some say we shouldn’t be surprised that the state infiltrates civic organisations. I agree; I am not so naïve as to be surprised. Yet, it still remains the case that according to the norms of liberal democracy much of what the police have done is wrong. Socialists are on the strongest ground, not when they decry the limitations of liberal democracy, but when they point out that the existing state is far from liberal and far from democratic.

2. Some are surprised that the environmental movement was specifically targeted for infiltration. (Strictly speaking we don’t know, as any number of other organisations may be infiltrated and we don’t know about it). I am less surprised, though. By the mid-2000s, save for the ephemeral anti-Iraq demonstrations, all progressive opposition to Blair’s status quo had withered away, except the anti-globalisation/environmental protesters. New Labour was an authoritarian totalising project, so it is no surprise that these political activists should be re-branded ‘domestic extremists’ and subject to infiltration, surveillance and repression.

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