Coming out of the Informer Closet?

IssueJune 2009
News by Sarah Young

PN last interviewed Tilly Giffin following her arrest at Aberdeen Airport during a Plane Stupid action (PN 2508). On 22 March, she was arrested again, outside a derelict building in Glasgow, which her group were considering for use as an exhibition venue. She was charged with “intention to commit theft” and her personal possessions were confiscated.

It was a few days later, when she went to pick up her belongings from Partick police station, that she was persuaded to enter a conversation with the police as a favour for returning her possessions so quickly. She was told that she was not under investigation.

After warning her about the severity of the trouble she could get herself into as an activist, the two male interviewers, who claimed they were from Strathclyde Police, brought up the issue of informing, saying: “Is there some way we can work together in this?” and stating that: “We have a responsibility to the people of the country to look at groups like Plane Stupid, like other groupings who appear out of nowhere.”

They also claimed that they worked with hundreds of informers, from terrorists, right-wingers and left-wingers through to environmentalists.

Tilly recorded the conversation on her mobile phone, and her group rigged up surveillance equipment to record a subsequent interview several weeks later. They passed the recordings to the Guardian, who featured the story on 25 April.

Here Tilly reflects on a situation she had not planned for:

Initially, I recorded my conversations with the police as an act of self-protection and so that other members of Plane Stupid (a group taking action on Climate Change) could resist police tactics at infiltration and intimidation. However, a few weeks ago, the process of obtaining the recordings felt like a complex and somewhat sinister meddling with the mechanisms of the state. G20 demonstration bristling with police brutality? Pre-emptive raid in Nottingham?

A narrative thread seemed to be emerging – a spot-light on the question of democracy and the police state. It was taking shape as an open, and colossal, can of worms.

Plane Stupid, committed to peaceful protest, are no threat to any person. Plane Stupid, however, is a very real threat to the aviation industry.

I have experienced a glimpse of the sinister dynamics between state, the police and big business. Though still awaiting answers as to who these undercover agents were (no one has stated that they are Strathclyde police officers), it has been since disclosed that Strathclyde Police force paid informants £750,000 over four years.

How many groups committed to nonviolence have been infiltrated, spied on, followed and intimidated under the pretence of “information-gathering”?

People who have been approached to be informers, from the environmental movement, anti-nuclear campaigns and beyond, have come forward to share their stories and expose police tactics (cash-offers, fear-mongering, intimidation).

Ironically, in an effort to infiltrate and intimidate peaceful protest groups, the police and their intelligence have helped us to effectively build new coalitions. Many groups are equally concerned about the police acting as hired bouncers for businesses that feel threatened by public demands for climate justice.

A silver lining to the infestation of the low-price high-tech gadgets that flavours our society is that any one of us can hold the police to account, and if summoned to an “interview” or a “cosy chat”, can easily arrive bleeping, whirring and clicking with recording devices stashed on their person.

Topics: Police
See more of: Scotland