Britain: Police dirty tricks

A threat to democratic rights

The revelations that an undercover police officer was asked to dig for ’dirt’ that could discredit the family and friends of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence has caused mass revulsion. The government rushed to express its shock and to offer their support to the Lawrence family and to promise "zero tolerance" of police wrongdoing.

However, police attempts to discredit the victims of the Hillsborough disaster show that this was no isolated incident. And for those who were campaigning against racism at the time, this revelation is unfortunately not a surprise.

Lois Austin on Youth Against Racism in Europe lobby of the Home Office 25-6-93, photo Tim Bolwell

As Stephen Lawrence’s father Neville has described, the police at the time persistently asked the Lawrence family for a list of all the people visiting their house to offer support. The family courageously refused, unable to see what the names of anti-racist activists had to do with catching the racist murderer of their son. As a result they were told that they were hindering the police investigation.

Generations of workers and young people have gone through the experience of campaigning – peacefully demonstrating, protesting and striking – in defence of their rights and then being shocked to face police brutality, followed by lies being told about them being ’violent protesters’.

This was the experience under Tory governments of the miners in the mid-80s, of the millions who refused to pay the poll tax in the early 90s, and of the anti-capitalist protesters under a Labour administration at the start of the century.

It was also the experience of the many tens of thousands of young people who became active against racism in the early 1990s.

Whistle blower

Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and the Labour Party Young Socialists built a united community and trade union anti-racist campaign to drive the racists out after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, photo D. Sinclair

Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and the Labour Party Young Socialists built a united community and trade union anti-racist campaign to drive the racists out after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, photo D. Sinclair (Click to enlarge)

Peter Francis, the police spy asked to try to discredit the Lawrence family, has now turned whistle blower. He became disillusioned with the police because of his own experience as an ’anti-racist activist’. He says: "I had real sympathy for the ’black justice’ campaigns. I also witnessed numerous acts of appalling police brutality on protesters. I became genuinely anti-police." He was also impressed by the bravery of Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) activists in the face of police violence.

The government has promised a thorough investigation into what happened, but we’ve heard that before. A police investigation into the police will result in another cover up. Nor is a judge-led inquiry sufficient.

Peter Francis himself says he tried to report his role to the Macpherson Inquiry into police racism, and was ordered not to by his superiors. A number of court cases are currently underway relating to police infiltration of protest groups, but they are being heard in secret!

We demand a genuinely independent public inquiry made up of democratically elected representatives from the trade union movement and the anti-racist and environmental protest groups that have suffered infiltration.

Such an inquiry must not be limited to a supposed ’rogue unit’ but should demand access to all the information about where the orders came from, including the role of the government.

Nor should it just look at the past. The Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – which Peter Francis was part of – disbanded in 2008, but has been replaced by the ’national public order intelligence unit’ which still plays the same role. Under Tory and Labour governments police infiltration has continued unabated.

Today a new generation is becoming involved in campaigning against racism, and also against the government’s austerity policies. New Peter Francises will be sent to infiltrate anti-racist campaigns and left-wing organisations to try to cut across protest. They will not succeed.

But questions about whose interests the police act in, alongside demands for them to be made democratically accountable, and for the closure of all units like the SDS, will be an important aspect of future campaigns.

Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) and the Labour Party Young Socialists built a united community and trade union anti-racist campaign to drive the racists out after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, photo D. Sinclair

Spying exposé reveals capitalist state

Over the last month one news story about state surveillance has piled upon another. First was Edward Snowden’s exposé of the collusion between giant corporations such as Google, Apple and Facebook with the US intelligence services to allow mass surveillance. Then the news that the British ’spooks’ were tapping into fibre-optic cables to obtain vast amounts of data, and now the revelations of the ex-undercover policeman Peter Francis, who infiltrated YRE – a mass, democratic, anti-racist youth organisation led by Militant (now the Socialist Party) in the 1990s.

The governments of the US and Britain have defended their mass surveillance. As William Hague put it, law-abiding citizens "have nothing to fear". Mass surveillance, it is argued, is only used against terrorists and paedophiles. No one reading ’Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police’ by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, which details the activities of various members of the SDS, could believe Hague’s assurances.

The SDS was founded in 1968 in response to student radicalisation. Throughout its existence, and undoubtedly that of its successor organisation, its role was to infiltrate supposedly ’extremist’ organisations, the vast majority of whom were on the left.

It was not a rogue unit. Peter Francis describes being given a bottle of whisky by then police commissioner Sir Paul Condon to thank him for his role in infiltrating the YRE, despite Condon’s claims to know nothing. Nor were they alone. Peter Francis, for example, describes confronting MI5 because one of the spies they had sent to infiltrate Militant was, in his view, incompetent and endangering both their operations!

Nothing was gained by the state from infiltrating YRE or the Militant, other than, it seems, opening Peter Francis’s eyes to the reality of police brutality, and particularly deaths in police custody, which he says appalled him. YRE and Militant were open, democratic organisations which did not hide their activities, as the Socialist Party is today. The police could have found out what we were doing by reading our leaflets or attending our public meetings. Nor was it possible for police infiltrators to derail the movement against racism.

Peter Francis did, at least in part, attempt to do so, acting to some degree as an ’agent provocateur’, encouraging YRE activists to take part in individual vigilante actions against the BNP, rather than the organised and democratic mass movement which YRE argued was necessary to defeat the BNP. He had no effect.

On the contrary, years of mass campaigning by YRE and other anti-racists succeeded in getting the British National Party (BNP) HQ closed down, following the four racist murders that took place within two miles of it – including of Stephen Lawrence. YRE also succeeded in building a movement across Europe, launched with a 50,000-strong European wide demonstration in Brussels.

Such was the scale of the anti-racist movement – organised by YRE, alongside others – under the slogan ’jobs and homes not racism’ that the BNP were completely marginalised for a decade, before they reappeared, under an anti-working class Labour government, having replaced their skinheads with suits.

Youth Against Racism in Europe protest, photo Richard Newton

Whose interests?

However, the decision to infiltrate YRE raises an important question. In whose interests do the police and other forces of the state act? The police force claims to be neutral, acting in the interests of the majority. If the ’majority’ were consulted, however, they would undoubtedly have opposed trying to smear the Lawrence family or infiltrate YRE, and would have argued for the resources to be put into trying to catch Stephen’s murderers.

In reality the police play a dual role. When workers suffer crime they turn to the police. As Neville Lawrence put it, while not completely trusting the police because of racism his family had no choice but to rely on them to investigate their son’s murder, no other possibility existed.

However, the police are also part of a state machine, which has the role, ultimately, of maintaining and defending the dominant interests of the capitalists. We live in a society where a tiny number of giant corporations – probably around 120 – dominate the economy. The state plays a vital role in defending the rule of this tiny elite. This does not only apply to the police.

No one who has experienced Britain’s vicious anti-democratic anti-trade union laws could doubt that the courts are used to try to prevent workers fighting in defence of their interests. Unelected high court judges are overwhelmingly drawn from the ’1%’ with over two thirds of them educated at public schools. Even the minority that come from other backgrounds are thoroughly inculcated with the attitudes of the capitalist class.

Today, even more than in the 1990s, the most thinking section of the capitalist class is terrified of the potential for mass growth in support for socialist ideas, including of the Socialist Party. No wonder. Their system is in its worst crisis since the 1930s. The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level since World War Two. The number of billionaires increased from 77 to 88 in the last year alone, while the average wage has fallen by over £3,000 a year in four years. Mass movements – like in Turkey and Brazil – will also erupt here.

No amount of police infiltration of left-wing organisations will prevent this – it will take place because of workers’ and young peoples’ own experience of austerity and the inability of capitalism to meet their aspirations. Such movements may start from anger at capitalism, rather than seeing the possibility of a socialist transformation of society, but on the basis of workers’ experience there will be opportunities to win millions to a socialist programme.

In preparation for such movements the capitalist class is also preparing increased state repression. One recent sign of this was the brutal arrests of anti-G8 protesters in London days before the protests were due to take place. The surveillance revelations show that the state has, in reality, largely prepared the apparatus for a police state behind the scenes. This does not mean they can move in this direction at this stage. Even their ability to employ repressive methods depends on the balance of class forces in society. It is not a coincidence that the massive trade union demonstrations against austerity were not attacked by the police. A major reason for this is that to attack such popular demonstrations would have immediately led to an escalation in the anti-austerity movement.

Such is the overwhelming opposition to austerity in Britain that the rank and file of the police has been affected. Unlike the Thatcher government, who stuffed the police’s mouths with gold, Cameron and Co have stupidly imposed the same austerity on police as on other public sector workers. It is very significant that a majority of the Police Federation voted for the right to strike. Socialists should encourage these nascent class splits in the police force, which will strengthen the hand of the workers’ movement in the battles to come. We put forward a programme for democratic control of the police, including demands such as:

For a genuinely independent public inquiry into the ’infiltration scandal’ made up of democratically elected representatives from the trade union movement and the anti-racist and environmental protest groups that have suffered infiltration

  • The abolition of the Territorial Support Group and other similar units
  • The abolition of the Special Branch, including the national public order intelligence unit and the destruction of political files and computer records not connected with criminal investigations
  • For repeal of all laws that trample over civil liberties, including the anti-trade union laws.
  • For the police to be accountable to local committees, made up of democratically elected representatives of trade unions, local community organisations and local authorities
  • The right of the police to an independent, democratic trade union organisation with the right to strike

Such demands are a vital part of the struggle against austerity. This does not mean that it is possible to gradually democratise the state, so that it becomes a genuinely neutral tool of society as a whole.

A decisive break with capitalism is necessary, and the development of a democratic socialist plan of production that would rapidly be able to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority – that capitalism is increasingly unable to do – such as decent housing, a good job, a dignified retirement, free education. It is the capitalist class’s fear of the ideas of socialism – of a society for the millions and not the millionaires – that ultimately drives police infiltration into the left. They are right to be afraid!

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June 2013