Policing came under intense focus last month, as Lush’s latest campaign in support of justice for victims of ‘SpyCops’ drew intense criticism from many corners of British society. Connor Hogan looks at the campaign, the ongoing inquiry into undercover policing of activist groups and explains why we need to support the victims and demand justice. [CONTENT WARNING: Psychological Abuse and Sexual Violence]
Last month, cosmetics favourite Lush launched a campaign opposed to police surveillance of political activists, the company was forced to temporarily halt the campaign in June, citing concerns for the “safety of [its] staff”, intimidation by “ex-police officers”, “unhelpful tweets from those in high office” and general bad press. Much of the criticism centred around (or purported to centre around) the controversial poster campaign (below). The posters have now been taken down, replaced with milder imagery when Lush restarted the campaign.
Lush’s #spycops campaign chiefly concerns the actions of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a branch of the Metropolitan Police who between 1968 and 2010 were employed to infiltrate and disrupt over 1000 political activist groups across the UK. In a British homage to the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme, methods employed by the SDS included stealing the names of dead children to create fake identities, deceiving women who were being spied on into sexual relationships (often long-term and sometimes including marriage and children), and faking psychological breakdowns when the time came to vacate. Some of these victims were men, but a clear majority were women. Furthermore, almost all of the victims never had a criminal record, and still don’t. Most of this was completely unknown until 2010, when former spy Mark Kennedy was unmasked by the protest group he was posted to infiltrate, initiating the scandal.
In considering the campaign, I implore the reader first and foremost to listen to the victims. Listen to the story of Jessica, who as a 19 year-old animal rights activist was manipulated into her first sexual relationship by a 24 year-old named Andy, who years later she found out was actually a 32 year-old undercover police officer with a wife (bonus fact: although he has resigned as deputy police commissioner in Peterborough, he is still a Tory councillor and a school governor). Or listen to the story of anti-war activist Andrea, whose fiancé Carlo abruptly left after a (faked) suicidal breakdown stemming from his (fake) father’s (fake) suicide, which in turn lead to his (fake) sister disclosing that their (fake) father had sexually abused her. Years later, Andrea found out that Carlo was an undercover cop who had been married with children throughout their two year relationship.
A public inquiry has been taking place since 2015, started by Theresa May after it came to light that Scotland Yard had been spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence, as well as campaigners fighting for justice. But many have a serious lack of confidence in this inquiry, and for good reason: it’s been plagued by allegations of incompetence, accreted delays and police obstruction. Most of the victims simply want a list of the names of the cops who spied on them (or their aliases), a list of the organisations they spied on and access to the files written about them. In March, at least 60 campaigners staged a walkout of one of the hearings, joined by spy-cop-turned-whistle-blower, Peter Francis.
One question being asked is whether engaging in relationships with activists was just one of the “perks of the job” as it were, or if it was in fact a known, codified and recommended spying technique. If you think that sounds far-fetched, know that the SDS Tradecraft Manual was written by Andy Coles, the aforementioned 32 year-old cop who manipulated a 19 year-old animal rights activist (and I repeat: is still a Tory councillor). In it he writes that:
“You should try to have fleeting, disastrous relationships with individuals who are not important to your sources of information.”
These are explicit instructions. It appears that the British state, using public money; paid and instructed men to manipulate activist women into having sexual, romantic and ultimately destructive relationships with them, to facilitate spying. I should mention at this point some of the dangerous groups being targeted: anti-war, anti-racism, anti-apartheid and anti-fascist groups, environmentalists and animal rights activists, civil rights campaigners (yes, in Northern Ireland), trade unionists, socialists and other left-wing organisers make up the bulk; the chief criteria seemed to be any group that was effecting any significant change. There’s a link to full list here (see how many far-right groups you can spot in-between the pages of anti-war and anti-racism groups).
It should be noted that we currently have no reason to believe that any of this surveillance or abuse has officially stopped, and it could well be continuing in activist circles around the country. Now police officers are essentially filibustering the inquiry by continually submitting legal applications to keep the identities of individual officers secret. It was meant to conclude this year, but now will not publish its final report until 2023, and will exclude Scotland and Northern Ireland. A Scottish COPS (Campaign Against Police Surveillance) has been launched in Glasgow, and Sinn Féin have called for the inquiry to be extended to Northern Ireland, but don’t hold your breath just yet.
“In any case, their success in sabotaging this campaign tells us one thing, and something that must be remembered by any future reformers (or indeed abolitionists) of the British police service. In the eyes of many (majorly white) UK citizens, the police are simply above the law. Moreover questioning the police, in any regard and on any level and at any time, is a treasonous outrage.”
The reason Lush’s campaign is so important (and has attracted such ire) is that unlike victims of abuse, police officers have the weight of the State behind them, and a large portion of the media. Tory MP Sajid Javid tweeted against the campaign for instance, calling it “not responsible”. The Police Federation of England and Wales said it was “poorly judged” and caused “offence” to police officers and their families.
It is a terrible thought: that these brave officers should have to endure something as odious and torturous as being offended, especially in the wholesale defence of greasy sociopaths who tricked women into sexual relationships. Now that the posters have been replaced by something more amenable to their thin skins, I wonder will we see an honest appraisal from these people on the issue of police surveillance? I doubt it.
Of course, I don’t even need to tell you who the tax evading, bigoted, mendacious cowards at the Daily Mail, the Mirror and others are choosing to support in this fight. It would have been encouraging to see the predictable hyperbolic moral outrage that is so characteristic of these publications directed at these so obviously despicable human beings, these spy cops, and in solidarity with their many victims, but such was not the case. Pages and pages of manufactured scandal, interwoven with maudlin, irrelevant cop worship.
(A very special shout-out also has to go to the absolute frog people of Bomb Cosmetics, a competitor of Lush who took the occasion to launch a pro-police fundraising campaign.)
All of these responses should be seen for exactly what they are: an attempt to muddy the waters and protect police officers, and on a deeper level to defend the ill-gotten respect and authority of the institutions they represent.
Yet with such blatant attempts at smokescreens (and such arrogant scorn from the tabloids), come the devout Facebook authoritarians. Check for yourself, look under any post Lush has made in the last few weeks. Reponses run the gamut of the well-known and oft-sighted “police risk their lives” and “who will you call if your house gets burgled” (both of which have nothing to do with spy cops) to hopes that anyone who dared support the campaign would get burgled and assaulted, and of course the classic clarion call of bootlickers the world over: “if they had nothing to hide, what are they worried about?”.
The hordes of commenters slapping their hooves on keyboards and oinking in dismay at Lush have at best no idea what they are actually defending, or are just happily yapping and baying in support of a fully matured police surveillance state. In any case, their success in sabotaging this campaign tells us one thing, and something that must be remembered by any future reformers (or indeed abolitionists) of the British police service. In the eyes of many (majorly white) UK citizens, the police are simply above the law. Moreover questioning the police, in any regard and on any level and at any time, is a treasonous outrage.
Here are some useful links for those interested in supporting or getting involved in the wider campaign against spy cops:
- Police Spies Out of Lives (PSOOL). Support group for legal action against undercover policing, who partnered with Lush in the campaign: https://policespiesoutoflives.org.uk/
- Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS). An alliance of people spied on by Britain’s political secret police: http://campaignopposingpolicesurveillance.com/ (some fascinating, if harrowing reading).
- A group of activist investigators uncovering information about spy cops, to create ‘an online one-stop resource on political policing and undercover surveillance’: http://undercoverresearch.net/
- Link to the inquiry’s website: https://www.ucpi.org.uk/
- Andrea’s story: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/15/undercover-officer-police-grooming-state-abuse-women; http://player.lush.com/channels/soapbox/radio/andreas-story-spycops
- Jessica’s story: http://player.lush.com/channels/soapbox/radio/jessicas-story-spycops; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/12/cambridgeshire-deputy-police-commissioner-facing-calls-to-resign-over-spy-allegations
- Alison’s story: http://player.lush.com/channels/soapbox/radio/alisons-story-spycops; https://uk.lush.com/article/soapbox-police-spies-out-lives
This is part of the reason why this campaign deserves all of our support. The UK is in desperate need of a public conversation on the nature of policing itself, but a whole lot of work will need done before then to deconstruct long cherished notions of authority and violence, criminality and poverty, race and class in the public mind. General police surveillance itself is the stuff of pure dystopian nightmares, and must be resisted at every turn. In the more immediate term however, we owe to the victims of spy cops our solidarity and support, even more so because they swim against a tidal wave of populist bile and the muscle of the State. This should only be the beginning.
To be clear, there are still no ‘good’ corporations. No matter how ethical the public face of their campaigning may seem, all multinationals, even Lush, rely on some amount of exploitation. But there are good people, and clearly some of them work at Lush (and in its higher echelons to boot). Yet as a result of the true snowflakes in the British police service, their masters in the Tory Party and the sycophantic sea slugs that defend them both, the integrity of this inquiry and thus the chances of justice and closure for the victims are in serious danger. The police will continue to obfuscate, delay and cover-up in increasingly desperate attempts to protect themselves from accountability. But surely, if they’ve got nothing to hide, what are they worried about?