As the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) launches its campaign to end the labelling of campaigners as domestic extremists, The Canary is hosting this guest post from Netpol coordinator Kevin Blowe.
It’s unclear exactly how many people have their personal details included on the police’s secretive “domestic extremist database” – or to give it its full name, the National Special Branch Intelligence System. This database holds records identifying campaigners as either ‘nominals’ (with their own detailed profile) or as one of the much larger numbers who are connected to those with detailed profiles or mentioned in data gathered from social media.
In 2017, the Metropolitan Police said there were 2,690 nominals. But this figure has changed widely over the years. In 2014, they said it was 2,627; and in 2013, the Guardian reported a total of 8,931 individuals with their own records. This sudden drop in ‘nominals’ may be the result of negative publicity in 2014 after the police included a member of the House of Lords, Jenny Jones, on its database.
Netpol has long argued that police decisions about whom they target are subjective and political. But they are also not entirely arbitrary. There is a definite pattern to how units within the National Counter Terrorism Policing Operations Centre – the latest name for the part of UK policing responsible for gathering intelligence on protest movements – decide on who is a ‘person of interest’ and more likely to face surveillance in the future.
So who are the police most likely to target? Based on Netpol’s decade of experience, here are five ridiculous reasons why the police are most likely to categorise you as a ‘domestic extremist’; and why you should therefore consider making a ‘data protection subject access request’ to see what information is held about you.
ONE: Your campaign is challenging powerful state and corporate interests
From 2001 to 2005, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) was particularly focused on mass demonstrations against the Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEI) arms fairs in London. It was also busy spying on Smash EDO, the campaign against a Brighton arms manufacturer. This is the campaign that John Catt, who took a successful legal challenge against this surveillance all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, was targeted for.
And it was political pressure from the pharmaceutical industry that helped to drive the creation of the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit back in 2004. Five years later, its concern was to protect airports and the airline industry.
In 2011, the NPIOU was sharing “the available intelligence on the risk to the new [nuclear] build programme from environmental activism” at a ‘stakeholder roundtable’ with nuclear energy companies, including EDF. In 2012, attention also fell on opponents of the massive security operation at the London Olympics.
Bringing us right up to the present day, we know from court documents made public by fracking company INEOS, that counter-terrorism officers met with the trade body United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOG) in 2017. It advised it on “the use of injunctions through the civil courts”.
Time and again, there has been close collaboration and intelligence-sharing between the police and powerful corporate interests – particularly those involving key infrastructure or energy provision – to target surveillance towards allegedly ‘extremist’ protesters.
TWO: You are part of a movement that supports civil disobedience or direct action
Protests that involve either civil disobedience (disruption intended to put pressure on the state to negotiate or to change policies, such as the closure of roads and bridges) and direct action (deliberately obstructing corporate interests, such as shutting down an open-cast mine or a fracking site) are almost always non-violent. But they always involve campaigners risking arrest for breaking the law.
Both also represent a deliberate challenge to public order and to what the police see as ‘legitimate’ protests. ‘Legitimate’ protest includes marches and assemblies with routes and times normally agreed in advance.
The use of tactics such as blockades and disruption of suppliers is why the opponents of the arms trade, anti-fracking campaigners, other environmentalists, and animal rights activists have been targeted for surveillance over the years.
THREE: You are part of a campaign or movement that is new or emerging
Faced with any perceived new threat to public order, the police’s first instinct is to gather as much intelligence as possible. This is evidenced in the growth of the network of anti-fracking groups around the country and emerging solidarity in Britain in support of Palestinian rights or the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. While groups often start out relatively small, it is their unknown potential that means they are seen as a ‘risk’ and therefore worthy of greater scrutiny.
While Extinction Rebellion made efforts to actively placate and even praise the police when climate activists used civil disobedience to occupy parts of London, there seems little doubt that the new Extinction Rebellion movement is now of intense interest to the national and regional counter-terrorism units. These units will decide who is labelled a ‘domestic extremist’, just as they did with the emerging anti-fracking movement in 2014.
The number of arrests, the public criticism of the police’s response, and demands by the home secretary for officers to use the “full force of the law” inevitably means senior public order commanders are now seeking more intelligence on Extinction Rebellion so they can plan for the ‘threat’ of future protests.
FOUR: You are seen as a ‘leader’ or person holding an influential role
As the film Netpol released in December 2018 highlighted, campaigners seen as regularly attending protests organised by movements under police surveillance, or who are perceived as holding a prominent public role in a campaign, are far more likely to become a target for intelligence-gathering.
The experience of protesters in the past indicates a greater likelihood that this will lead to routine harassment. This includes visits to their home or vehicles stops, as well as an increased risk of arrest.
The label of ‘domestic extremist’ provides a justification for these police tactics. It also provides an excuse for the active disruption of protests deemed necessary to ‘restore public order’.
Invariably, the categorisation of prominent figures as ‘domestic extremists’ is not based on actual criminal behaviour but on a subjective assessment of individuals or groups and a conflation of protests that are not ‘lawful’ with illegitimacy. Many who have found themselves on the domestic extremist databases have no criminal record.
FIVE: You are young, or perceived as vulnerable
We have heard repeatedly about young campaigners or their families being targeted because of their alleged ‘vulnerability to radicalisation’ by alleged ‘domestic extremists’.
If you suspect you’re categorised as a ‘domestic extremist’, the first step is to try and find out whether the police hold any information about you.
Our guidance on making a subject access request should help – but others who have tried will know how frustrating this often is.
Netpol is calling for the complete end to labelling campaigners as ‘domestic extremists’, and we urge you to add your support to our campaign.
Featured image via Emily Apple
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