FIT for purpose?

SchNEWS swings a long lens towards state surveillance

December 1, 2008
4 min read

If you’re on a demonstration and you see some cops with ‘blue-topped’ hi-visibility jackets and long-lens cameras, then you’re probably looking at the FIT – and they’re are probably looking at you.

The FIT (Forward Intelligence Teams) are at the vanguard of policing protest. They are uniformed officers whose job on demos is to build profiles of the people who turn out to protest. The same few officers from a variety of police forces show up at anti-capitalist, anti-arms trade and animal rights protests, as well as squat evictions, the climate camp and other activist gatherings, and so on. By taking literally hundreds of photos at mostly innocuous events, they build an understanding of ‘activist networks’, and pass it on to agencies such as the Public Order Intelligence Unit and the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit.

Their methods could be charitably described as ‘pro-active’ – they follow and harass activists who have the misfortune to make it onto one of their spotter cards. One individual who has made his way up this ladder of surveillance told us: ‘Total strangers accost you in the street by your first name, trying to give the impression that they’re “on to you” in some way. You get singled out for stop-and-searches, and on big demos you might even get the pleasure of your own police escort. You don’t have to be convicted of any crime to end up on the list – mere suspicion is enough.’

The FIT teams were first deployed as a police tactic against football hooligans, with officers travelling to matches around the UK and Europe to spot known ‘troublemakers’. Announcing she intended to extend FIT operations to use as a form of social control on council estates, home secretary Jacqui Smith said she wanted targets ‘harried and harassed’. As our surveillee told us: ‘This is exactly what they are doing on demonstrations – they are trying to harass people enough so they no longer attend, and it works.’

Despite the use of the term ‘intelligence’ in the title, the FIT’s real role is one of deterrence. Sergeant Gerry Parker, in an interview with The Law (Essex Police’s in-house magazine), said: ‘It [the FIT] mainly acts as a deterrent … once they notice the cameras they tend to stop what they are up to.’ That might be uncontroversial when it comes to ‘street urination’, perhaps, but when what you are ‘up to’ is exercising your right to free speech and assembly, it’s a different matter.

One of the FIT’s spotter cards fell into the hands of activists at the DSEi 2003 arms fair in London, revealing the wide range of people considered potential sources of disorder – including comedian and activist Mark Thomas. The FIT has also been criticised by the National Union of Journalists for cataloguing photographers who regularly attend demonstrations.

For a long while, activists didn’t really deal with the issue, almost adopting a policy of ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ and not letting them know the chilling effect they were having on political activism. During the past year, however, the tables have been turned, and no street action is now complete without FITwatch, a group who block off the cameras with massive black banners. The group follows and films the FIT officers, in effect doing to them what they have been doing to protesters for years.

With these tactics, FITwatch has been honing the art of creating blind spots in the police’s intelligence and making spaces in which activists can feel safe. And, ironically enough, it turns out that FIT officers are rather coy – they don’t like being filmed, and they even get other officers to make their arrests to keep their names from becoming public knowledge in court cases.

Until the arrival of FITwatch on the scene, a couple of coppers with some oversized camcorders sometimes seemed to be enough to put the frighteners on activists. But after a year of disrupting their invasive strategies, FITwatch says: ‘FIT no longer feel safe on our demonstrations. According to their own statements, they have felt “intimidated” by our tactics, and we have at times, rendered their intelligence gathering operations “ineffective”. We have seen several demonstrations where the cameraman has had to be withdrawn, and we have shown we can do this even when our numbers are small.’

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in SchNEWS

The FITwatch campaigners have a blog with ‘ideas for FITwatching’ and photos of FIT officers

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