Quote of the Day: On Police Spies and Personal Relationships

As a human being it is very difficult not to have sympathy for somebody that I cared about deeply, but it is also important to remember that that person that I cared about deeply did not in fact exist. I cared deeply for somebody whose life was intermingled with mine, and that person’s life story is a fiction.

These are the words of an activist, named only as Lisa, who gave evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee last month. Lisa’s testimony about her ex-partner is part of the Committee’s Interim Report on undercover policing, a subject which has rightly caused a great deal of outcry and controversy over the last year or so.

The collapse of a high-profile court case against a group of environmental activists in early 2011 revealed that a police spy known as Mark Stone (real name Mark Kennedy) had successfully infiltrated various activist groups over a long period of time, acting as what can only be described as an agent provocateur.

This case was just the start of a series of revelations concerning the activities of Kennedy and a number of other undercover officers – revelations which have left many within the activist community quite rightly shocked and angered, and have led to wider calls for public inquiries and investigations into the use and tactics of police spies like Kennedy and his colleagues (hence the Home Affairs Committee’s involvement) .

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‘Hackgate’: A New Media?

This is such a fast-moving and ridiculously complicated story that in all probability this post will be completely out of date the second it goes up – bear with me!

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last two weeks, you can’t fail to have noticed the distinctly disturbing rumblings emanating from the depths of the Wapping HQ of Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire. Or at least that’s where the rumblings started. Despite an investigation into whether the News Of The World had hacked the phones of various celebrities and politicians that goes back almost a decade, it seems that News International assumed they could keep the worst of it well and truly hidden.

Hidden until now, that is.

Since Nick Davies and his team at The Guardian revealed at the beginning of July that the News Of The World had engaged in some truly repellent behaviour in the shape of hacking the mobile phones of the families of high-profile murder victims, these long-standing rumblings have turned into a massive and seemingly unstoppable shitstorm which has managed to drag not only News International but also the government and the Metropolitan Police into its increasingly unpleasant wake.

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Justice for Ian Tomlinson?

I haven’t written anything of substance yet about the appalling decision recently taken by Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer and the CPS not to prosecute the police officer who was caught on camera at last year’s G20 protests attacking newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson – mainly because I’m still too angry about the whole business, and because much of what I want to say has already been said by more knowledgeable and articulate voices than mine.

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Raoul Moat: Hero or Villain?

After a week-long manhunt in the wilds of Northumbria, involving the RAF, search and rescue teams, Met police firearms officers and armoured cars sent over by the PSNI, Raoul Moat is dead.

What has interested me most during this whole sorry saga of guns and testosterone is the differing attitudes of sections of the British public towards this man.

There are some who appear to see Moat as a sort of folk hero (almost in the Harry Roberts mold) because he had a grudge against the police, acted on it, and managed to evade them for so long – although if the press blackout on Moat’s communications had been lifted sooner some of this group may possibly have changed their view on that…

There are others who are sympathetic to Moat’s actions because he had “issues” and clearly needed help. Ex-footballer Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, who has publicly battled his own demons, appears to have been one of this group, turning up in Rothbury last night with a dressing gown, a can of lager and a fishing rod in order to ‘save’ his pal ‘Moaty’.

When contacted on holiday abroad, Gazza’s manager Kenny Shepherd perfectly encapsulated most people’s bemusement at this peculiar turn of events with this astonished comment:

“He’s doing what? I am sitting having an evening meal in Majorca. I’m speechless.”

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Kew Bridge Eco-Village evicted

Sadly, Kew Bridge Eco-Village was evicted on Thursday 27th May. Police, bailiffs and security guards appeared in the village at 8am, quickly (and fairly peacefully – although there were no arrests) removing the residents – all except for one, who climbed a wooden tower on the site and refused to come down for about three hours!

Armed with my camera, I managed to get down to the site by about 9.30am and captured these shots of the stand-off between the Eco-Village resister and the (slightly exasperated) forces of law and order…

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Technology, Protest and the G20.

Yeah, I know I said that I wouldn’t be blogging again until after my submission date, but what are rules there for if not to be broken? I’ve spent much of the evening following the events at the Pittsburgh G20 protests online, unable to drag myself away from multiple Twitter feeds. Finally, Twitter is really making sense to me, after a long time being very dubious of why I would need to use something that was basically a Facebook status update – but without the other fun and stupid things you can do on the Book of Face (as my sister calls it).

The importance of technology in protest was actually very fiercely brought home to me at the London G20 demos back in April. Stuck in the huge police kettle by the Bank of England on April 1st, the Media Activist and I had no idea what was going on – and the Met police goons surrounding us weren’t exactly communicative. Enter the humble mobile phone, and text updates from people elsewhere (in my case, Leicester!), who were a damn sight closer to a computer and those informative Twitter feeds/news sites than we were. In fact, my mobile was a godsend during those two days; it got me a load of useful photos and it kept me in touch with my friends when we got separated in the chaos of April 2nd. And I wasn’t the only one: the vast majority of the overwhelming evidence for the police brutality inflicted on protesters over that 48-hour period came not from professional media photographers and cameramen, but from the phones and digital cameras of protesters and bystanders. In the days following the London G20 protests, more and more amateur photos and footage were being uploaded onto the internet, shared by individuals and groups, and forwarded to the mainstream television and print media. Indeed, if it wasn’t for such footage, the truth about the death of Ian Tomlinson would have probably never come out – the police had, in fact,  been publicly lying about Tomlinson’s tragic death almost from the moment it happened.

The subsequent scandals surrounding the police behaviour at G20 seems to have made them rethink their protest tactics – I’ve been on a number of demos in London since G20, the most recent being an impassioned Disarm DSEi anti-arms trade protest in the City of London earlier this month, and the police have, without exception, very ostentatiously been distinctly hands-off in their approach. Despite the continued presence of the FIT (cops with cameras who seem to enjoy photographing and harassing known activists), and the distinct impression amongst many groups that these new softly-softly police tactics won’t last, I suspect that the Met has been quite severely shaken up by the fact that they’re not the ones in control of the technology any more….

And that’s true in other parts of the world too. The mobile phone footage and pictures that emerged during the protests over the result of the Iranian election earlier this year (and the fact that ‘IranElection’ has been a trending topic on Twitter as recently as this week) showed a face of the Iranian people that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t want the rest of the world to see, for example. The demonstrations in Pittsburgh today were all over Twitter (and you know things have got truly international when you re-tweet a link from London, only to find it being re-re-tweeted by a Pittsburgh TV station a few minutes later, as happened to me earlier!), which gave the protests far more solid coverage than the vague paragraph or so they seem to be getting on the mainstream news websites. Tales of tear gas, rubber bullets and ‘military sound weapons’ being used against the Pittsburgh protesters hit Twitter long before the mainstream media picked up on them, showing just how central citizen journalism can be to the newsgathering process these days.

The power of such technology in the struggle to hold the authorities to account for abuses of position is only growing in strength. The police still have the ability to record and track the movements of activists (although why they bother half the time is a bit beyond me – they’re more of  a threat to public order than we are…), but they are beginning to realise that we are fighting back with the same weapons. And they really don’t like that. They can no longer hide behind the anonymity of removing their numbers, or the illusory strength of photographing demonstrators to be put ‘on file’. The files are now on them, as organisations like FITWatch amply prove – and these files grow thicker and thicker with every demonstration, with every cameraphone wielded in anger, with every image or video uploaded to the internet…..

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But is it Art? Probably not, Damien…

Nice to see the art world bitching at each other again. In the funniest story of the week, ageing enfant terrible Damien Hirst is engaged in a handbags at dawn confrontation with a teenage graffiti artist who he has accused of stealing…. a box of pencils. Worth five hundred grand, apparently. Yes, you read that right. Five hundred grand for a box of HBs.

It seems that the 17 year old artist, known only as Cartrain, incurred Hirst’s wrath last year by using an image of the YBA’s infamous diamond-encrusted skull in one of his own works, which was then put up for sale on an art website. Hirst flipped his lid, and lawyers got involved, resulting in Hirst claiming ownership of the offending work and demanding an apology from the website.

There it might have ended, except for the fact that Cartrain spotted an opportunity for revenge on a visit to London’s Tate Britain gallery earlier this summer. As part of their ‘Classified’ exhibition, the Tate were showing Hirst’s ‘Pharmacy’ installation (reputedly worth £10 million all told), which included the offending pencils (apparently a “very rare” box of Faber Castells from the early 1990s), and Cartrain couldn’t resist. Swiping the box, he then issued a ransom note poster, which read: “For the safe return of Damien Hirst’s pencils I would like my artworks back that… Hirst took off me in November. It’s not a large demand… Hirst has until the end of this month to resolve this or on 31 July the pencils will be sharpened. He has been warned.” I must say I particularly like the threat to sharpen the pencils, very creative – I bet Hirst (and his famously oversized ego) were quaking in their boots at this hilarious display of youthful nerve. If he wasn’t, he bloody well should have been. Bested by a teenager. How embarrassing.

However, Hirst has proved himself to be distinctly lacking a sense of humour over this incident (which is clearly an artistic statement in and of itself, something that Hirst himself should recognise from his own works – take a look in the mirror, Damien!), because, several weeks later, Cartrain arrived home one afternoon to find New Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad waiting for him with a warrant for his arrest clutched in their hot sticky paws. They even nicked his dad on suspicion of “harbouring the pencils”, quite possibly the most hilarious non-crime ever (not) committed. Cartrain is now on bail, and should he be convicted it will go down as one of the most expensive (and over-priced) art thefts in British history, although it’s not as if Hirst needs the money – he’s worth several hundred million at least. To me, this smacks of both a sense of humour bypass and an element of pettiness, as well as Hirst bullying a much younger and less famous artist just because he can. Artists have been pinching ideas off each other since… well, since art began (although I can’t imagine the prehistoric cave painters sinking so low as to sue a young Neanderthal artist at the beginning of his cave-painting career for nicking their expensive mammoth hair paintbrushes). This whole incident doesn’t make Hirst look at all good, but, with any luck, it may just make Cartrain’s name…

It’s actually been quite a week for silly people lacking in art appreciation skills, what with Hackney Council going straight to the top of the list (alongside Damien Hirst) for their attempt to destroy a much-loved Banksy mural by covering it in a thick layer of black paint, much to the distress of the wall’s owner. Despite the fact that this particular mural was doubly famous, having been commissioned by Blur’s Damon Albarn for use on the cover of the band’s 2003 single Crazy Beat, and that it was on private property (meaning that the council needed permission to remove it, which they attempted to obtain by sending letters to an address that the property owner hadn’t actually lived at for 25 years), Hackney Council went ahead nonetheless. This isn’t the first time a Banksy has been destroyed in London and nor will it be the last, despite the growing value of his works and their massive popularity. I really don’t mind seeing bits of a Damien Hirst get nicked, but will the councils of London please leave Banksy alone????

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Climate Camp ’09: A View From Below

So yesterday I ambled down to Blackheath in south-east London to check out the goings on at Climate Camp. For a variety of reasons (such as not actually owning a tent or sleeping bag, and the horrendous events at the G20 Climate Camp), I hadn’t originally been planning to go, but a friend and fellow activist invited me down, and I decided to take a look….

The idea behind Climate Camp is a simple and effective one – to bring together environmental activists from all over the country in order to give them the information and practical help they need to take direct action on climate issues. In the past, the camps have been at places such as Heathrow airport, and at the Drax and Kingsnorth coal-fired power stations in Yorkshire and Kent respectively. This time round, the site at Blackheath has been chosen, in clear view of London’s financial sector at Canary Wharf. Blackheath is also a highly symbolic site in the history of protest and rebellion, being a rallying point for Wat Tyler’s 1381 Peasants Revolt and for Jack Cade’s 1450 Kentish rebellion, as well as having strong connections to the early 20th century suffragette movement, making it emblematic of past struggles.

Only being there for the afternoon, I confess that I didn’t make it to any of the very effective and practical workshops on various activism-related subjects that were going on all over the camp, or sample any of the food being prepared communally in the regional kitchens across the site. Instead, we spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting drinking cheap cider in the sunshine while watching the world go by, marvelling at the lack of cops anywhere, and discussing the big news issues of the week: how, where and why had the mighty SpaceHijackers managed to get hold of a helicopter (and, more importantly, what are they planning to do with it?), and what on earth was that strange-looking middle-aged man over there in the orange gym slip and green tam o’shanter hat actually doing, because that sure as hell wasn’t Irish dancing (sorry, no photo of the alleged ‘dancing’. It probably would have cracked the lens). In fact, I suspect the heated debate over whether he was actually wearing anything under that skirt is still going on somewhere!

Despite my laziness, I came away with a big pile of helpful and instructive literature on crucial issues for any activist; such as direct action, the law as applied to activism and loads of information about the UN climate talks in Copenhagen later this year. That was useful. And the workshops run on subjects as diverse as economics, carbon trading, photography and media for activists, non-violent direct action, legal observer training and pedal-powered sound systems are all examples of the kind of practical information that can make a difference on many and varied levels. As I wandered round the site, it was clear that there was a lot going on, and that many of the people involved were engaged in and committed to what they were doing (although points are lost for the jugglers I spotted as I was leaving – as the sign says at the gate: ‘this is not a festival’), making the camp a positive and friendly space.

However, I have some reservations (and these, I would like to make clear, are just personal observations, not criticisms of Climate Camp and its structure). It seemed to me that there were an awful lot of those ‘the rules don’t actually apply to me’ types on site – for example, despite the Climate Camp website asking people not to bring their dogs with them, there were hounds of all types everywhere. If people are prepared to ignore such a simple and basic request, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a direct action with them. I have no desire to be arrested or injured because someone else can’t be bothered to follow instructions in a situation where instructions are often needed. Most of the people on site were clearly and genuinely committed to their cause – but I also got the impression of quite a few of the ‘middle class webel’ type (there’s often overlap with the above archetype too). You know the sort, the ones who go all out to shock mummy and daddy (who probably did the same thing back in the late sixties/early seventies, and with whom they probably still live) by wearing daft clothing, getting their hair put in ‘designer dreads’ and talking very loudly about what rebellious anarchists they are and how many times they’ve been arrested, although they still, hypocritically, go to Starbucks for those nasty lattes. These people are usually more of a hindrance than a help, and generally (although not always) are completely ignorant of anything other than the basics of what they are supposed to believe in and be fighting against. Now, I’m not criticising all young activists here (nor all middle class activists); we were all young and relatively politically naive once, whoever we are and whatever our respective backgrounds, and we all matured or are maturing at different rates. The criticism comes when one has to deal with the dilittantes, the ‘lifestyle’ anarchists/socialists/whatevers (and they do exist) who see the whole thing as a fashion statement, as a way to look ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’. The problem is, I feel, that you’re going to get idiots like these in any mass-movement (political or otherwise) that has its core amongst predominantly young (and, admittedly, sometimes also not so young) people –  until they grow up and realise that activism isn’t a game.

And the climate crisis certainly isn’t a game either.

Because nature doesn’t do bail-outs.

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