The combination of thinning hair on top and a pony tail at the back would be hard to forget: notes on the police infiltration of anti-fascist groups in the 1990s

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 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."
It is also worth noting that the anti-racism of 1993 was highly critical of the police itself. As Paul Stott puts it,
"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."

- Video above (Armstrong and Miller, hat tip Prianikoff) relates to the sartorial and sexual politics of Officer A.

- 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.


. said…
Good post, The Observer article was terrible - and not unprecetended. While the Guardian tends to be generally measured in its coverage, its Sunday equivalent has been churning out police hysteria about anarchists, leftists etc. for years. Remember its 'eco-terrorism' story in 2008, for which it later had to apologise, or David Rose's dubious tales about Class War. Anyway it makes me feel less guilty about sometimes picking up the Sunday Times instead when the magazine looks more interesting.
Neil said…
Socialist Party responds to Guardian article on police infiltration go online and post a comment.
bob said…
Thanks Neil. I'll link to Hannah Sell's CiF piece in the post. I left a comment there, summarising this post, but as usual the standard of "debate" at CiF is incredibly low, apart from the large number of SP folks who have of course steamed in in solidarity with Hannah!
bob said…
A couple more things I've been thinking, which I might paste into the post or into a new one:

1. The effect the BNP "bookshop" had: Although you wouldn't know this from the Observer article, the presence of the BNP's bunker in Welling had a palpable negative impact on outer SE London at that time, as anyone from the area can tell you. I think it has been established that there was a statistical curve in racist attacks in Greenwich and Bexley in the period the bunker was there. Its very presence was an insult to black people, and intimidating to many. The idea that a violent racist bunch of hatemongers could operate with impunity in a residential neighbourhood was intolerable. (Paul Halliday's 1994 film Living With The Bunker, a trailer of which can be seen here, shows this well.)

2. Democracy, openness, criminality, surveillance: As Hannah Sell points out in her CiF response, and as Phil says in his post at AVPS, YRE were a completely open organisation, although they were set up by and therefore dominated by the Militant. I do not think, however, that they were really democratic, although I might be wrong. Did YRE members, for example, get to vote for its national officers in genuinely fair elections? Possibly, but I doubt it. (The SWP's fronts, ANL and UAF, were/are similarly open and even less democratic.) This combination of openness and un-democratic-ness makes them easy to infiltrate: people who are keen and active swiftly rise to positions of responsibility, but there is no accountability to membership to keep them in check. However, the openness also limits the effectiveness of infiltration, and it certainly makes it rather pointless: Officer A, as many people have pointed out, could just as well read the YRE's leaflets and posters.

AFA in contrast was intensely democratic, at least from its 1989 relaunch up until its final months, but it was also very tight in terms of security, which limited the openness to some extent. This is of course necessary for a militant (small m) organisation, which includes illegal activity as part of its normal business. I'm not sure what implications to draw from this.
bob said…
3. Officer A as agent provocateur: This is Hannah Sell's most serious point:
More seriously, [SP/YRE members] also recall that Peter [Officer A] did not fully agree with our position on how to defeat the BNP. We explained that defeating racist and fascist groups is a political task which required patient campaigning in working-class communities, rather than street fighting. Peter wasn't as convinced of our position as he could have been and tended to argue for brawling with the BNP. Was he sent in partly as provocateur?

Of course, at the time I thought that the correct answer was a twin-track strategy, a physical and political response. But certainly, when a police office is pushing a line for street violence and against peaceful police protest, that's a bit worrying isn't it?

4. Poor journalism and dodgy exposes: Re Transpontine above,here are two other examples:

Swedes 2 Turnips 1
That Class War was behind the rioting in Gothenburg in 2001 at the demonstration against the EU summit (Jason Burke, Kamal Ahmed and Lars Bevanger, The Observer, 17th June 2001). Not one member of Class War, from either the UK or Europe was there. The price of a pint in Scandinavia puts us off travelling there. Some of us did watch the footage on telly though.

Who Do You Think You’re Kidding Mr Hitler!
Class War is a fascist organisation (David Rose in the Guardian, 30th September 1985) and Union Jack tattooed CW members provoked the 1985 Brixton riots. Handed to the Guardian by self-confessed spook Gerry Gable of Searchlight magazine, the paper was forced into a sorry retraction shortly afterwards.
bob said…
5. Why now? Harpy sez (of Hannah Sell's CiF):
But what also begs the question is why is the Observer highlighting this now, it seems to me to be less about investigative journalism more about discrediting anti-fascism and the Left?

I'd like to think she's wrong, but it is plausible. The anti-fascist movement is in disarray. Although there appear to be promising grassroots groups emerging in some areas - my provisional list might include Edinburgh Anti-Fascist Alliance, North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, Redbridge and Epping Forest Together - the domination of the national scene by the UAF is very bad for the anti-fascist cause. It is also likely that the poor leadership an ineffective tactics from the UAF/Scotland United will push "hotheaded" types into more and more militant actions, often independently, so it would make sense for the police to muddy the waters.

It is interesting that in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the police are explicitly adding anti-fascist "extremism" to their agenda.

6. The pernicious effect of the BNP presence: Further to my comment no.1 above, the Guardian reports this:
Reports of racial and religiously motivated crime rose following the election of British National party councillors in several far- right strongholds, police statistics have revealed.

Complaints of hate crime increased in wards in the West Midlands, London and Essex after the election of a BNP member, in spite of declines in reported hate crime in the wider police areas. In other wards race crime reportedly rose in the runup to BNP election victories, according to the figures, obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act.
bob said…
Jogo just asked me by e-mail (if I can summarise his e-mail to its pithy core):
What did your vaunted illegal violence (the rightness/wrongness of which doesn't matter) accomplish?

There is still a BNP, and it is less marginalized than in Days of Yore,
and has a weird new respectability that it did not have in the time of your romanticized Golden Youth,
when it was just a bunch of Ugly Mugs.

This was my response:

Quick answer, as I'm off to the pub.

In one sense, I wonder if we accomplished the opposite of what we meant to. We drove the BNP off the streets, and in 1994 they announced "no more marches, no more meetings" and turned from street politics to door to door community work, which led to their success today.

In 1995, in response to the BNP change of strategy, the group I was involved in produced this document: indicating our turn away from street fighting, and in 2000 we wound up the organisation following that logic.

I no longer fully subscribe to what we said in 1995, but a lot of it holds true, and I have no answers about what is the right thing to do now.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the link Bob.

I hope I am wrong too but it did make me think why now?!

And that line in Hannah S's piece about the undercover cop going on about brawling with the BNP, I found that worrying as well. To me it sounds there was an attempt to discredit left groups....'violent thuggish trots' etc.
Ross said…
"I wonder if we accomplished the opposite of what we meant to. We drove the BNP off the streets, and in 1994 they announced "no more marches, no more meetings" and turned from street politics to door to door community work, which led to their success today"

looking back over the wider period however, i think it's important to frame the street political activity of the right (starting with NF post 1979 election) as not an end in itself but purely a means - i.e. there was a sense that controlling the streets was a prerequisite for regaining political credibility and influence. so this street violence was seen as necessary to clear the way for re-emergence as a political force. If that premise was true then clearly it's inverse would also hold true, which was what legitimised political violence as a tactic of anti-fascism at the time (and pretty much what rules it out as a credible tactic in the here and now)

That its success forced a change of approach from the right (from a position of weakness, not strength) which through a mixture of luck and design have been hugely successful shouldn't really be used to turn anti-fascism's success in that period into something that is responsible for the success of the BNP today. it just demands an equivalent change of tactic to once again neutralise the threat at source, and not indirectly. That no such tactic has emerged or been able to have been deployed on a suitable scale/sustainable basis says more about the politics of 21st century britain than that of the politics of anti-fascism in the 80's/90's

and like you I don't have any answers

(p.s. i find the notion that the officer A stuff coming out now is an attempt to 'discredit the left' pretty laughable - what is there to discredit?)
. said…
Violent right wing nationalist populism (latterly fascism) has been around for centuries, so I can't see how the anti-fascist movement could have permanently vanquished it. But whatever the mistakes that were made in the 1980s and 1990s, the fact is that the far right were kept very marginalised.

Even though I retrospectively cringe slightly at all those demos with thousands of people heading into parts of SE London they knew next to nothing about (me included at the time), they did at least show to people there who opposed the BNP that they weren't alone. And in fact, after being driven out of Welling, they have never gained a significant foothold in SE London.

I was talking to some people who have worked in Welling schools for many years last week, and their perception was that things were much better there than 15 years ago, with racism undermined by the changing population as much as by agitation. While some politicos agonise about the 'white working class', people move around the world in search of a better life ('autonomy of migration' as some people call it). In the process they make BNP majorities unlikely -the BNP could never win in most parts of inner London unless they persuaded all white people and some black people to vote for them - and a party that can't win seats in the capital has no realistic chance of power. In the process they also undermine the notion that there is such thing as a separate white community. In schools and workplaces, most white working class people get on with it, in a few areas some of them rally behind the BNP. That is my slightly rose-tinted perspective, but let's not underestimate the capacity for most humans to find common ground around their kids and their work.
darren redstar said…
of course police infiltration of the ANL/SWP was completely unnecessary.
in Leeds in the early 1990s there was a string of attacks on SWP members by the dregs of C18. One attack on the car opf local CC member sue Clegg resulted in the plain clothes coppers popping round
"Wev believe this to be a political act, are there any of your colleages who may be at risk of similar attacks?"

"oh yes, here you are"
Ms clegg then hands over to Special branch the membership list of the whole of west yorkshire ANL.

True story.

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