Impacts of police infiltration on the UK climate movement

The past few years have seen a change in the UK climate movement. Though all signs point towards an exciting resurgence of direct action on climate, until a few months ago there was a distinct lull in radical grass- roots action on climate change, dating back to the failed COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen (December 2009), where the movement's biggest mobilisation ended in disappointment and despair. For a movement in turmoil, the 2010 revelations that it had been infiltrated by undercover police officers contributed to the confusion, frustration and anger prevalent in the movement over the past couple of years.

Late one evening in autumn 2010, several hundred people received a text message: 'Bad news. Mark Stone/Flash [later revealed as Mark Kennedy] was confronted by people, turns out he’s a copper. Please forward to anyone who might have known him. If you need to talk about it ring: ---'. Dutifully, I forwarded it and went online to see what other news there might be. An article outlining the situation, with pictures of Mark, appeared on indymedia – soon to have several hundred comments from activists, observers and trolls, all disgusted, shocked and fascinated by a man who had lived undercover as an activist for nearly nine years.

The story took a couple of months to reach national media; those who had been closest to Kennedy, and consequently were most affected by the revelations, took great care to limit the sensationalisation of this extremely traumatic event. When the extent of the damage was revealed, however, the story dominated the mainstream media for quite some time. The public outcry and subsequent inquiries led to the exposing of several other undercover police officers, all of whom quickly disappeared from the activist scene – as did a number of other activists, about whom there remains uncertainty as to whether they were working undercover as well.

The specifics of the work they were involved in and the damage they caused has been chronicled numerous times elsewhere. Without dwelling on specifics, Kennedy’s involvement with the climate movement led to the biggest pre-emptive arrest in UK history when 114 people were arrested the night before the planned shutdown of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in 2009. Twenty of those arrested stood trial and were found guilty of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass after a lengthy and costly legal process. Their convictions were later dropped, as the Crown Prosecution Service considered them 'unsafe' because the prosecution concealed evidence gathered by Kennedy that had led to the initial arrests.

Unfortunately, several of those involved had already served their community service and compensation for the group is still pending. A further six had their cases dropped just days before they were due in court following a request by the defence to see all evidence relating to Kennedy.

However, not even this gross miscarriage of justice compares to the personal trauma he, and other undercover police officers, put activists through by engaging in personal, emotional and sexual relationships with them. The campaign 'No Police Spies' calls for an end to ‘political policing’ and highlights the consistent and systematic sexual misconduct of those working in the field. Five women who had had relationships with undercover police officers have since attempted to sue the Metropolitan Police following the psychological damage they have suffered after the officers were exposed. They describe how, given the person they thought they were having a relationship did not actually exist, they cannot have given consent to having any relations with them. This means that the government and police are complicit in – and possibly even encouraged – statutory rape.

Two years later, issues remain as to how we - as a movement, and as a group of people who trust and care for one another - continue to deal with the knowledge that infiltration has already occurred and may be ongoing. The first, and most pressing, is the need to continue to support those personally affected by the traumatic experience of losing someone they loved, and the absolute betrayal by a police force and government that at no point gave a second thought to the welfare of the innocent people they were investigating.

Second to this comes the issue of how to continue to organise and take part in radical, direct action on climate change given the possibility of continued infiltration. The answers to deal with this are multiple, but underpinning all of them is the need to assume that there is always a possibility that an undercover police officer is attempting to gather information on us. Security is therefore important; using tools such as the Activist Security Handbook can help overcome potential security risks. Sadly, this does mean there is a need to not take anyone absolutely at face value – to question whether we know the people we organise with well enough to rule out the possibility of whether or not they are police officers. This must be done in the knowledge that the best infiltration could well provide backstories for any of the markers we might use to establish how well we know someone; such as meeting their family, visiting their workplace, knowing their university or school friends.

However, this leads onto a final, major issue: how do we do this whilst remaining an open and accessible movement – a network that anyone with the desire to take radical, direct action could be a part of? There are no easy answers, and one of the traces that the Mark Kennedy operation has left is that newcomers are sometimes viewed with suspicion. I’ve witnessed meetings where people (particularly those who are young-ish, self-employed and energetic) have been made to feel extremely unwelcome at the hand of activists who question everything they say and refuse to enter smalltalk that might reveal personal information with them. I’ve seen how those people have often not returned to meetings having failed to make a personal connection with anyone there, and deciding that it might not be worth the effort.

Somewhere there must be a balance. If we refuse to open our arms to newcomers - people who are steadily becoming radicalised and feeling the need to take action against a system that is driving us towards catastrophic climate change - then we are not a movement. Instead, we will have become a cliquey group of friends and associates more interested in ourselves than the bigger picture. We should remember that the years when Mark Kennedy was working amongst climate activists also saw some of the best and most inspirational climate activism in the UK – direct action campaigns that contributed significantly to the shift away from a new wave of coal-fired power stations and the shelving of the third runway at Heathrow. Even when the state is throwing hundreds of thousands of pounds into stopping us, amazing actions are still possible. We should be safe and secure in how we organise but it should never come at the cost of preventing people getting involved.

We can only do our best to safeguard against infiltration disrupting the necessary action we’re taking, and accept, unfortunately, that sometimes our best might not be good enough, given the immense resources of repression that the government has at its disposal. The most important action we can take is supporting those most seriously affected emotionally by the experience. Following this, we just need to get on with doing what we need to do: keep on taking action.

Will McCallum