United Friends and Family Campaign procession. Credit: Newham Monitoring Project
Today’s new development in the long-running exposure of undercover police targeting campaigners has suddenly became very personal. The Guardian reported that covert officers from the former Special Demonstration Squad had spied on a number of organisations concerned with corruption and harassment within the Metropolitan Police, including the east London community group Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), and on justice campaigns for people who had died in custody. I have been an activist for NMP for 23 years and from 1997 to 2007 was the secretary of the United Families and Friends Campaign, an umbrella group of custody death families. It seems likely my name appeared in some of the secret so-called ‘intelligence’ reports.
I’m disturbed that NMP was targeted but not entirely shocked. In some ways it might be seen as a positive reflection on our effectiveness in exposing cases of police misconduct and how worried senior officers had become about the damage that the actions of some of their officers was inflicting on the Met's reputation. I certainly know the police have never been able to get their heads around what motivates independent grassroots activism: how campaigns emerge from practical casework rather than, say, an attempt to recruit people to a party and how supporting individuals and families suffering injustice makes the anger that drives a desire for answers feel very personal.
Furthermore, the fact that a decision was made to spy on an organisation whose events were open to the public and whose activities were reported in great detail in our annual reports and publicity says more about the Metropolitan police than it does about NMP: it illustrates the deep level of resistance to accountability within London’s police during the period when the Special Demonstration Squad were snooping around our activities.
However, I’m appalled and angry too, that campaigns NMP advised and supported that were set up and sustained by bereaved families struggling for justice for their loved ones after a death in police custody – always in the face of overwhelming hostility from every part of the criminal justice system – may have been targeted for covert surveillance, for no other reason than to try and undermine them. I can only imagine that, in the absence of any actual ‘plotting’ by these campaigns, undercover officers were simply busy trying to find out more about families' legal strategies or looking for gossip and rumour that they could use to smear ordinary people forced into extraordinary circumstances by grief and the need to find the truth.
On top of the allegations of serious sexual misconduct and betrayal by undercover police and the stories of identities stolen from dead babies, the shameful targeting of the bereaved now means the case for an independent public inquiry is overwhelming. The Home Secretary’s insistence that the current investigation by Derbyshire’s Chief Constable is adequate lacks any credibility. We need a far-reaching and robust inquiry to find out what so-called ‘intelligence’ was gathered by officers, who ordered the surveillance and how it was used. Just as importantly, we urgently need to know to what extent the successors to the Special Demonstration Squad, such as the National Domestic Extremism Unit, are still secretly targeting campaigners.
Personally, I and other NMP activists also really want to know the fake identity and the real name of the officer that we may have inadvertently worked with in good faith. I want to know what kind of person pretends to support campaigns for justice but instead was secretly working to try and prevent the truth from ever emerging. For the sake of the transparency and accountability we have always demanded, the Metropolitan police owe all of us that, especially all the people we have supported over the years.
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.