From around 1987 to around 2000 I was heavily involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, mainly in the now defunct Anti-Fascist Action (AFA). So I read with interest the account published in the weekend's Observer of "Officer A", who claims to be a former member of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a secret unit within Special Branch, who infiltrated far left and anti-racist groups in the mid-1990s, mainly focusing on Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE).(Key links: news article, in-depth account, video, reply by YRE, personal reply by a YRE activist who remembers Officer A, Hannah Sell of YRE replies at CiF.)
The first thing to say about the Observer's coverage is the poor quality of the journalism. Officer A's words are taken at face value. There is no fact checking, no attempt to get alternative accounts or give right of reply to the groups involved, very little context, and a number of minor inaccuracies. (Harpy is very good on how poor the reportage is.)
More seriously, the article raises major questions about the British state's attitude to the far left and to anti-fascism in that period. It is of course plausible that Officer A is a complete fantasist and that none of what he says is true. The rest of this post, however, is based on the assumption that he is telling the truth more or less.
AFA, in parallel with our political work which is rarely mentioned today, was involved in serious, violent, illegal activity against fascists (and I am not going to get in this post into the issue of whether we were right or not to do so). YRE, in contrast, were rarely involved in actions of that sort. There is no sense in which they constituted any kind of threat to society.
YRE was, as the article notes, a front for the Militant, which is now called the Socialist Party of England and Wales. There was never any secrecy about this; it was not some shadowy secretive relationship, as with some of the more obscure Communist fronts of the 1930s, but a completely open thing. There had been a period in the previous decade when Militant had wielded significant power within the Labour Party, and for brief periods had some control over a small number of local authorities. However, it did not wield this power in ways which challenged liberal democracy. Like most other Trotskyist groups, it considered itself "revolutionary", but was realistic that there was no immediate prospect for socialist revolution in Britain and did not involve itself in acts of revolutionary violence. In fact, after the poll tax riots in 1990, as documented in Danny Burns' excellent Poll Tax Rebellion, Miltant leaders Tommy Sheridan and Steve Nally denounced the rioters and said they would "name names" and "root out the trouble-makers". Hardly arch-subversives.
If the state was targeting groups like YRE, this says one of two things. Either they had an incredibly narrow view of what law and order and liberal democracy should look like, a view which excludes the mild-mannered socialism of Militant.Or, they were so stupid that they couldn't tell what was a threat and what wasn't. As Phil writes,
"these comrades should feel flattered that the state thought it was worthwhile doing a clandestine entry job on them. It'll be some time before the ra-ra-revolutionaries of the ultra left receive this sort of attention.It is also worth noting that the anti-racism of 1993 was highly critical of the police itself. As Paul Stott puts it,
It also raises the question whether there are a few state agents knocking about the far left today. I doubt it - the endemic sectarianism and pig headedness does a far better job of keeping British Trotskyism in check than agents provocateurs could hope to do. That isn't to say the state won't take an interest in future. As Greg notes in his reply, the best antidote to this kind of infiltration is open politics."
"What the issue really is about then is Youth Against Racism In Europe’s politics, and those of the various civil rights type groups Officer A also looked into. Here little or no criminal offences are being committed. Instead these groups wish to expose police malpractice, racism or incompetence. Such inflitration looks far more like the police covering their arses than doing anything positive to protect the public. As the old cliche goes, they should be out arresting real criminals."
There is also the issue of the extent to which the state effectively took the role of agents provocateurs. At the very least, Officer A had to show he was up for it, and therefore he acted excessively violently to prove himself, thus upping the ante. At most, the police may even have wanted to ramp up the violence to discredit the anti-fascists and isolate the more militant. This of course sounds paranoid, but is not implausible.
A key event in the story is the so-called Battle of Welling in 1993, a massive march in protest at the fascist BNP's Welling "bookshop". I was at the march and remember it vividly. (I went with a group of friends and not as part of AFA. London AFA did not join the march, seeing it as a waste of time, but went into the area independently on the look out for BNP members - according to K Bullstreet: "Apparently Red Action found the BNP hiding in a pub a few miles away that day, and had a ‘free and fair exchange of views with them". Some provincial AFA branches did join the march, however.) The event was truly terrifying. The police used an extraordinary amount of force to stop the march getting anywhere near the bookshop. Among the protestors, large numbers (but still a tiny proportion of the crowd) responded violently to the police, for example throwing improvised missiles at them, and the damage done was extensive. As Paul Stott puts it,
At that demonstration police halted the crowd at the top of a hill, before launching a series of baton charges into demonstrators. As few armies in history have won a battle fighting up hill, it was seen at the time as pre-empting violence so the police could have a riot on their terms, not the demonstrators. Perhaps the evidence of 'Officer A' rather confirms this? Where it leaves those convicted of committing criminal offences in those baton charges is of course another matter...The violence had absolutely nothing to do with the YRE or the other left groups who organised the march. The violence of the demonstrators was largely unplanned, and carried out by individual people and perhaps a few anarchist affinity groups.
It is also important to recall the context of this event. As Lois Austin and Hannah Sell note, this demonstration took place after four racist murders, including that of Stephen Lawrence, had taken place within two miles of the BNP Headquarters. Lawrence's murder, as we all now know, was never properly investigated, due to what has been correctly labelled the institutional racism of the force. Many people in the area felt that the police had actively colluded with the killers. Locally, it was widely believed that the police had links with the Clifford Norris, the father of David Norris, one of the young men believed to be amongst the killers, beliefs that seemed to be confirmed by a 2006 BBC investigation focusing on the murder inquiry's Det. Sgt. John Davidson. In other parts of South London and elsewhere, shocking numbers of young black men were dying in police custody (among a total of 380 deaths in police custody 1990-1996). Here are a fraction of them, from the months leading to the demonstration (the italics are the coroner's verdicts):
- Kimpua Nsimba, 24, 15/06/90, Zairean asylum-seeker found hanged in Harmondsworth detention centre; no-one had spoken to him in over 4 days, Suicide.
- Aslam Khan, 29, 12/10/90, Hanged himself while on remand in Brixton, Inquest verdict unknown
- Edwin Robinson, 28, 30/11/90, A suicide risk with a psychotic illness hanged himself in Brixton prison, Killed himself because of lack of care
- Delroy McKnight, 29, 19/01/91, Cut his own throat with glass from cell window and bled to death in Wandsworth prison, Killed himself while the balance of his mind was disturbed and death was contributed to by lack of care
- Kwaku Ohene, 30, 13/06/91, Had mental problems and committed suicide in hospital wing of Swaleside, Death aggravated by lack of care
- Ian Gordon, 24, 12/08/91, Psychiatric patient shot dead by Telford police, Lawful killing
- Orville Blackwood, 31, 28/08/91, Died after being given injection of 'calming' drugs in secure unit at Broadmoor, Accidental death; on appeal to High Court by Orville's family, verdict quashed and a verdict of accidental death recorded again
- Omasase Lumumba, 32, 08/10/91, Died of a 'heart attack' while being 'controlled and restrained' by 6 guards in Pentonville, Unlawfully killed using improper methods and excessive force in the process of control and restraint
- Arthur Allison, 50, 1992, Died four days after being arrested by Leicester police, Inquest verdict unknown
- Errol Commock, 24, 03/07/92, A known suicide risk committed suicide in hospital wing of Winson Green, Suicide
- James Segawa, 28, 28/08/92, HIV+ asylum-seeker died in Belmarsh after officials refused to believe he was ill, Inquest verdict unknown
- Leon Patterson, 32, 21/11/92, Died while on remand at Stockport police station, Unlawful killing verdict was overturned in 1994 and changed to 'Misadventure to which neglect contributed'
- Randhir Showpal, 43, 19/12/92, Died in Norbury police station after being detained under the Mental Health Act, Misadventure
- Joy Gardner, 40, 01/08/93, Died after being arrested by 'specialist' officers from the Extradition Unit of the Met; was gagged with 13 feet of tape, Inquest adjourned till trial of officers involved, officers later acquitted
There was every reason for us to be angry.
I'll leave the final word to Journeyman;
"It is scary and sinister stuff - but also laughable. Whilst they continue to be so amateur and inept we have little reason to be paranoid : As Lenin advised - the best thing to do with infiltrators and provocateurs is take their money and get them to do some of the donkey work."
- Interesting blog discussion: at A Very Public Sociologist; at Socialist Unity.
Background: BBC Subverting the Subversives (2002); the YRE account of their anti-BNP campaigns in Tower Hamlets in the same period. More background and links from Slack Andy.
- On AFA: Bash the Fash - Anti-fascist recollections, 1984-1993; Fighting Talk documentary (disable the mixtube to the right to silence the ska); A short history of AFA.
- On the fight against fascism now: SDL world pub tour continues; Who are the EDL?
- Previous posts: Policing the G20 protests; The Miners' Strike; Anti-fascism: where next?; Defeating the BNP and EDL.