Interview: Spies, surveillance and Cambridgeshire police

Cambridgeshire police tried to recruit an activist to spy on Unite Against Fascism, UK Uncut and Cambridge Defend Education, according to video evidence which came to light in November last year. Three more have come forward since then to say police tried to involve them in spying. Jamie Sharp* spoke to Amy Gilligan about these attacks on the right to protest.

rs21: Cambridgeshire police arrest people frequently on demos. They seem to enjoy it. Is this a Cambridgeshire phenomenon or more widespread?

JS: Surely it is more widespread. This government uses aggressive, violent, murderous policing. I just read this article that talks about how this government is trying to teach us that all-out social oppression is the status quo. It is on budget day that Boris Johnson tells us that he is buying water cannons.

The Millbank protest, or really the heavily policed protests at the University of Sussex occupations in 2010, these were the beginning of a practical political education for many students. Of course plenty of those students would have already had a radical understanding of history, but 2010 gave them actual experiences of the modus operandi of the police: physical brutality, opportunistic distortion of the law, divisive targeting of individuals, destruction of evidence, bribery, the list goes on.

After the last few years of withering Tory rule and police repression, the invasive actions of a provincial force like the Cambridgeshire police should come as no surprise. But those actions should be formally contested as the human rights violations that they are, and should be used by us as an incentive to pick up the pace and intensify our struggle.

rs21: The police asked to spy on quite a range of groups. We’ve also seen mass arrests on protests, for example anti-fascists on Whitehall and in Tower Hamlets last year. Why this range of surveillance and why this scale of arrests?

JS: Well they obviously want information. Even if they know the charges will be dropped, arrests give them names, mugshots, fingerprints, any incidental information an activist might let slip. Furthermore, repressive police tactics of all kinds, like mass kettling or the recruitment of spies, do more than produce information. They are a strategic deterrent from participation in political struggle.

I remember a cop in riot gear, as protesters were gathering on 9 December 2010 for what was about to kick off into the Battle of Parliament Square, telling me that we shouldn’t be there protesting, as if we had no claim to the right, to say nothing of the responsibility, to gather outside the building where that vote was going on, right there while it was happening, demanding our rights. It was clearly their intention to kick the shit out of us that night (just as the ConDems were inside raising fees and devouring the EMA for dessert), to kick the shit out of the teenagers who came with their school groups from all over the country, and in doing so to divide us from our future commitment to fighting the policies of this government.

Even if the Cambridgeshire police didn’t win a recruit from the four of us who we know that the police have approached, the cops were successful at sowing dissension, making us paranoid of ourselves and our comrades. That’s why it’s important to speak up, and make it known that the police are denying your right to protest.

rs21: Cambridge University refused to condemn the police for trying to spy on students, saying it was a police matter. They’ve also gone after student protesters, for example Owen Holland. How does police spying on students relate to wider changes at universities today?

JS: The privatisation of universities has certainly made them a more alienating place in which to study and to live. A lot of my student activist comrades don’t really feel that we have a place at the university. This is partly because the university has offered us no protection from the police.

Universities are being sterilised into training grounds for antisocial corporate obscurity. Activism hasn’t yet been eradicated, but the social means with which we have been trying to fight the growth and consolidation of capitalism are definitely being criminalised.

The #copsoffcampus demos last December seemed to be important for resisting the fear with which the police and the state are trying to discipline student populations. So it was a clear betrayal when, just days after those protests, the Cambridge University Students’ Union invited the Cambridgeshire police to talk to students. In the same way that students shut down David Willetts when he visited Cambridge in 2011, CUSU should have sent the police a clear invitation not to step foot on University grounds.

rs21: The police lied to those they tried to recruit as spies, threatening to prosecute a woman involved in UAF if she told anyone about the attempt to recruit her. Should others approached by the police come forward?

JS: What the police said to that woman is completely despicable. It’s really important that her story is finally coming out. The actions taken by the Cambridgeshire police are human rights violations, specifically violating Article 8 of the Human Rights Act of 1998. Unfortunately the statute of limitations for human rights violations is only one year. So not only is it important to speak up if you are being or have been approached by the police, but it’s important to speak up and come forward quickly. You only have one year in which to make a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, though missing the arbitrary one-year window shouldn’t stop anyone from coming forward.

Don’t let being approached by the police divide you from your comrades, or alienate you from your struggle. If the police approach you, it is a reflection of your strength and their weakness. And no matter how much money they have to offer, remember that their function is to divide the most vulnerable people from their common interest.

*Name has been changed to protect their identity


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