Editorial: In praise of nakedness

IssueFebruary 2011
Comment by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

The late John Rety was once taken for tea by a special branch officer, after the London anarchists had addressed Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. Sergeant Roy Cremer offered the group advice on developing the anarchist movement, as well as tea. “Why is a police officer trying to enlarge the anarchist movement?” they asked. Because, he explained, the section of special branch spying on the communists had a large office, whereas his section, dealing with anarchists, was small and well…

The police infiltration of the anarchist and environmental movements that has been uncovered over the past few months is shocking and unsurprising at the same time. It is shocking, and deeply unacceptable, that protesters should be spied on in this way, and that the regulation of investigatory powers (RIP) act (2000) allows the authorities to insert “covert human intelligence sources” into any organisation, legal or not.

At the same time, it is unsurprising that the state and big business spy on peaceful protesters. There is no doubt that infiltrators and informants cause enormous personal distress to the activists they befriend and betray. Two of the officers who have been exposed, Mark Kennedy and “Marco Jacobs”, also damaged organising efforts, perhaps on an international scale.

How should activists respond to these events? The natural reaction is to raise one’s guard, to keep strangers at a distance. This can only weaken our movements.

When we look at Kennedy, and the years he spent earning people’s trust inside movements with cultures of secrecy, through logistical support (driving vans), shared drug-taking and street confrontations, we see that suspicion is no protection. In fact, the culture of “security-consciousness” can itself be an obstacle to movement-building and can protect infiltrators by making personal questions off-limits.

The more open attitudes of the 1980s did not stop peace activists from carrying out high-intensity actions. Some of the highest-intensity grassroots activist actions have been carried out in the Ploughshares tradition started by the Plowshares Eight in 1980. The Plowshares Eight, a radical Catholic group including Dan and Phil Berrigan, entered a General Electric factory in Pennsylvania, USA, and damaged nuclear warhead nosecones and poured blood onto documents and files.

In all the years since, and in the dozens of similar actions, no Ploughshares group, so far as we know, has ever been infiltrated by the police either directly or by an informant. One major reason for this must be the lengthy period of preparation taken for each action. Each Ploughshares affinity group (activists and, often, support folk) engages in painstaking soul-searching and self-revelation, as a group, investigating not only the mechanics and rationale for the action, but also the activists’ own motivations.

This kind of emotional and political nakedness and trust-building is the ultimate protection against infiltration and manipulation.

What we need is more openness, not less.

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