The Special Branch has been an integral part of Britain’s police since 1887. Early officers of it make claims, familiar justifications of the Special Branch today, the Special Branch being an, “essential guarantor of stability in Britain”. According to these early sources back then it single handedly prevented dynamite atrocities, protected royalty and forestalled revolutions.
If you’re interested in the early history of the Special Branch and the justifications that went with it Bernard Porter presents them in, “The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch before the First World War” (You can read some of the book here).
Audrey Farrell describes the role of the Special Branch in Crime, Class & Corruption, as the political police for Britain, collecting information about ‘undesirable’ political persons and movements. Not to mention, “looking for conspiracy theories everywhere”. It’s also suggested; information gathered is used for wider political elite gains such as vetting juries.
Conspiracy theorists certainly came into my mind when I read that Special Branch unit “National Domestic Extremism Unit” [NDEU] has been ‘monitoring’ 9,000 so called ‘domestic-extremists’. To make this database it seems all you need to have are ‘radical’ political views. The benchmark of ‘radical’ is Jack Straw. Peter Francis mentioned in a Guardian webchat others targeted by his Special Branch unit (the Special Demonstration squad) include, MPs Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Imran Khan, the lawyer for the Stephen Lawrence family and human rights law firm, Bindmans.
Having said this, it’s too easy to focus outrage on law firms, MPs, campaigners ‘without criminal records’ being targeted by the Special Branch. This facilitates a divide between the notions of ‘good’ campaigning and ‘bad’ campaigning. It implies that the level of surveillance, which has taken place, is justifiable if you have a criminal record or if you are somebody who will take to the streets on a regular basis to protest. Are we really going to suggest the latter are fair game for surveillance?
We felt outraged watching Dispatches reveal how undercover officers were deployed to spy on Stephen Lawrence’s family, with the purpose of smearing them. But would we still have been a majority if the Special Branch had found anything that could depict the family and campaign as ‘bad’ campaigners? What if the Stephen Lawrence campaign could somehow have been linked to an eruption of anger in the streets, akin to the LA King riots? What if it was exposed that a similar operation had been conducted on the family of Mark Duggan? Where would the Daily Mail, The Sun et al have stood then?
Of course much of the anger at the treatment of Stephen Lawrence’s family is rooted in how much Stephen’s family have already been put through by the Metropolitan police. However the likes of the Daily Mail are already at work drawing a divide between the family of Stephen Lawrence and others who have been targeted by the Special Branch, for example look at this Daily Mail article.
We have a responsibility to focus attention on the real motives behind the police targeting those around the Stephen Lawrence campaign. Only then will there be the necessary unity to fight for justice for all victims of the Special Branch unit. The Special Branch’s motives are not rooted in a genuine concern for “local order” as Peter Francis suggests in Dispatches. Poet Michael Rosen has joined the dots elsewhere but it’s worth reiterating. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, this was a racist murder, which the police were unwilling to investigate because of their own racism. It then emerged there had been collaboration between local officers and the fathers of the suspects. The police then not only fail to investigate properly or promptly but begin to harass Stephen’s family and friends – including the bugging of meetings between Duwayne Brooks and his solicitor.
The case as a result of these failings became an increasingly political one. A mounting pressure on the actions of the police in the investigation ensued. These are the reasons why the police start to engage in surveillance of Stephen Lawrence’s family and their supporters. Whether the family of Stephen Lawrence were “good” campaigners is irrelevant because this was never about a concern for ‘order’. This was about the police trying to escape accountability for racism, incompetence and being in cahoots with local drug smugglers.
Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe released a statement in response to the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s family. You can predict it’s contents without reading. All you need to know is this was the *old* police but now we have the *new* police. No mention of the police smear campaign against Christopher Alder and his supporters from 1998, after his death in police custody.
Smearing and lies about victims of police violence, corruption or misconduct have become second nature to how the police ‘manage’ the situation. The police tried to rely on lies to smear Sean Rigg right up until his inquest, where were exposed. After Jacob Michael was struck with batons and restrained in the street, in full public view, an officer immediately searched Jacob’s bedroom. The officer found a small hammer and began to concoct a story of how the officers had been threatened by it, despite Jacob’s parents witnessing the police enter Jacob’s bedroom and assault him. Ian Tomlinson’s family has also endured their fair share of police lies and smears surrounding his death. Who can forget the double page spread in the Evening Standard, of a story leaked by a police officer, headlined, Police Pelted With Bricks As They Help Dying Man”?
Examples, which have followed Stephen Lawrence’s death, are not conclusive evidence of Special Branch undercover operations but they are indicative of a common trend of police lies and smears to avoid accountability. The police systematically rely on smearing victims of their misconduct on a daily basis. If you are unlawfully stopped and searched, assaulted in the street or on a demonstration it increases YOUR chances of being criminally prosecuted. When the police are not using the Special Branch to dig dirt up on people, they are able to use criminal charges as if it’s a tool equipped to them to use for their own personal agenda. The Special Branch is just one part of a continuous and reasonably coherent police strategy in avoiding accountability and responsibility for police actions.
So, it follows that the Special Demonstration unit deployed their undercover officers to become part of groups like Hackney Defence Group. Mark Jenner (Mark Cassidy) was deployed to penetrate the Colin Roach Centre, which the Hackney group operated from. Campaigners there worked with people who had been wrongfully arrested or assaulted by police in Hackney. Hackney Defence Group were also doing significant work on exposing police corruption and blackmail in Stoke Newington, specifically officer’s involvement in drug dealing (illustrated by this booklet from October 1992). The same motives existed for a Special Branch undercover operation here as they had around the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The Special Branch, namely the Special Demonstration Squad, has not just targeted those with an aim to hold the police accountable, their operations extend to targeting people who might want to hold the state accountable. Here’s just one example – undercover officer Bob Lambert (now found at St Andrews lecturing with a proclaimed knowledge of counter-terrorism) was deployed for five years to infiltrate the London Greenpeace group. During this time Bob Lambert, using the alias of “Bob Robinson” co-wrote a six page libelous leaflet highly critical of McDonald’s, which resulted in McDonald’s bringing civil action against two activists. McDonald’s eventually won and the activists were ordered to pay £60,000 in damages. Lambert is also accused of planting a firebomb at a London Debenhams store in 1987, as part of a protest against the selling of fur.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations of the Special Demonstration Squad is that Bob Lambert and undercover police officers had sexual relationships with women using their false identities (identities stolen from dead children!). 11 women are suing the police after being falsely led into having sex with men who have since been revealed as undercover police officers. Vera Baird has argued that this conduct fits the definition of rape. One intimate relationship Lambert had went as far as him fathering a child. The mother, Jacqui and her son only found out the true identity of Lambert last year. Jacqui describes the ordeal as being “raped by the state.” There have also been powerful contributions from people who have unknowingly let undercover police officers into their personal lives.
It is one year since The Guardian carried out an investigation exposing widespread sexual abuse by police officers to women who had been victims of crimes. Nick Herbert (the Home Office Minister) argued last week it is “important” for undercover police officers to lead women into sexual relationships. The fact that informed consent is still a non-existent issue for the police and politicians makes the latest revelations of sexual abuse even more sickening. It only adds to an already prevalent institutional culture of sexual abuse in the police.
Undoubtedly given the wide spectrum of people, groups and campaigns targeted by the Special Branch, it looks like there will be further revelations. You may be in a similar position to those in Newham Monitoring Project, who suspect they have been targeted, their statement here. If you are worried Kevin Blowe (@copwatcher) has put together this on how you can make a request on what secret police surveillance says about you.
Certainly in terms of making moves towards some kind of justice for those who targeted by the Special Demonstration Squad is a full, far-reaching, public inquiry into police spying. Eveline Lubbers has already been contacted by the Metropolitan Police for their ‘internal’ investigation who are suddenly desperate for an investigation, as long as they can investigate it themselves.
Inquest, Newham Monitoring Project, United Families and Friends Campaign and the Rigg family also call for an independent public inquiry in their letter to The Guardian. Neville Lawrence has also said, “I am convinced nothing short of a judge-led public inquiry will suffice”.
There is also this support group for 8 women deceived into intimate relationships with undercover police officers, “Police Spies Out of Lives”, which provides ways you can help with time and money.
* The full details of Francis’s deployment are charted in the book: Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police.
* George Monbiot: “How can we invest our trust in a government that spies on us?”
* Mark Steel: “Doreen Lawrence? Of course she was spied on”
* Rob Evans and Paul Lewis: “Scotland Yard Spied on Critics of Police Corruption”