Where people come together to struggle against the ruling class and dominant social relations, there is repression. This top-down violence has a corrosive effect on insurgent movements. At the same time, it is an affirmation of power from below. Either way, repression can do little to change the fact that people suffer and form new alliances, such as between the climate and labor movements, to revolt against adverse conditions, argues researcher Sita Balani in her contribution to the text series “Allied Grounds.”
In April 2009, 114 people were arrested at a political meeting held at a school in Nottinghamshire. The biggest pre-emptive arrests made of activists in the UK to date, this mass arrest sent shock waves through the environmental movement, civil liberties groups, and wider networks of left wing organizers, in the UK and beyond. The arrests – for conspiracy to commit criminal damage and aggravated trespass – were an attempt to prevent direct action against Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire. The 2,000 MW coal-fired power station, in operation since the 1960s, was owned by the energy company E.ON., at the time, one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in Britain.
This unprecedented moment of police repression against political activists came at a moment in which political action on climate was gathering pace. There was growing opposition to government plans to expand airports and build new coal-fired power stations. ‘Climate camps’ – mass direct action events over several days which attempted to draw attention to, disrupt, or shut down corporate climate emitters, from airports to mines to power stations – were gathering a young, militant crowd, who saw the writing on the wall and were willing to take risks in the name of changing it.
The camps also attempted to model sustainable living, with actions powered by vegan food, solar panels, wind turbines, and pedal-power. And, like the peace camps that preceded them, these gatherings were also attempts at collective life: they prioritized collaboration, and consensus-based decision making. In their combination of anarchist and environmentalist principles, climate camps were an experiment in green and black.
Unprecedented degrees of repression
These large-scale direct actions drew a significant repressive response. Like all protests, the climate camps were viewed as a threat to ‘public order.’ But mass arrests prior to such an action were unheard of. In this case the activists were forced to deal with the obvious likelihood that an informer was involved. They quickly discovered that this informant was not an ordinary activist gone rogue, but an undercover police officer, Mark Kennedy. Between 2003 and 2010, Kennedy posed as ‘Mark Stone.’ Armed with a false passport and drivers license, back office support, and a seemingly endless expenses account, he deceived several women into sexual relationships, lured dozens into close friendships, and traveled across Europe infiltrating social movements.
Research conducted by StateWatch reveals bilateral agreements across Europe in which ‘extensive and well-organized networks of undercover police units […] work to ensure coordination and cooperation and to share tips and techniques.’ Kennedy himself admits to supplying information to police forces in 22 countries. Putting this information in dialogue with recent disclosures regarding similar infiltrations in Spain, the transnational reach of political policing becomes momentarily visible.
Since Kennedy’s exposure it has come to light that his activities went far beyond spying. In the words of the lawyers representing those charged on the basis of Kennedy’s evidence, ‘He continued to participate, including hiring, paying for and driving a vehicle and volunteering to be one of two principal climbers who would attach himself to the [coal-carrying] conveyor belt. He actively encouraged participation in the action and expressed the view that he was pleased it was going to be an action of some significance.’ In playing a key role in planning and executing direct action, Kennedy’s role was arguably as much agent provocateur as it was spy.
While the story of the Spy Cops has rightly been taken up in Britain as a particularly stark and disturbing example of state violence against women, the other impacts of covert policing have been given relatively little attention by those not immediately affected. Yet the infiltration of the environmental movement by Mark Kennedy from 2003 to 2010 is instructive, if we trace some of the multiple consequences that ripple outwards in many directions.
“Grey policing” and “grey intelligence”
That the force of state power was used to defend a privately owned power station is no coincidence: it is a clear indication of the firm alliance between fossil fuel companies and governmental power. Eveline Lubbers’ book Secret Maneuvers in the Dark illuminates this crossover. Lubbers draws on two concepts borrowed from Bob Hoogenboom: “grey policing” and “grey intelligence.” Grey here refers to “the blurred boundaries between public and private spheres and to the increasing importance of private, ‘informal’ initiatives and provisions in the gathering, circulation, and distribution of intelligence.”
This corporate-state alliance is crystallized in Kennedy’s near-seamless transition from Special Branch to a private security firm called Global Open run by Rod Leeming, another former police officer, and with close ties to the fossil fuel industry. The company was dissolved in 2015. The fact that this company no longer exists is also telling: the capacity to disappear is the capacity to evade consequences.
Disorganization from above
In the mid-1990s, Reclaim The Streets, part of the anti-road-building movement, was able to rally thousands for carnivalesque acts of direct action that combined the longshoremen’s strike, ecological concerns, and the possibilities of collective joy. Though a powerful movement with global resonances, there’s little continuity between the social movements of the 1990s and those that appeared less than a decade later. The anti-roads protests too were targeted by spy cops. Undercover policing disorganizes us, disrupting the tempo of political campaigning, breaking bonds of solidarity and comradeship, sewing discord and cynicism. This disorganization hampers the evolution of campaigns, preventing us from building organizations that can last decades rather than a handful of years, preventing mass movements from taking hold.
Nearly 15 years after the arrests at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, the reality of the climate crisis is almost impossible to ignore, even for people in the Global North, as it now affects those who previously lived in temperate conditions. Extreme weather events such as the heatwaves and floods in the UK are relatively contained in relation to the scale of the ecological collapse we face on a global scale, but nevertheless make these harsh realities a visceral experience even for the geographically sheltered. While Britain has now seen a return to large-scale direct action on climate change, with Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil regularly shutting down infrastructure, the impact of state and corporate repression of climate camps should not be underestimated.
When the challenge at hand is no less than human survival, there are risks in turning our attention to state surveillance. It is easy to feel powerless when such tremendous resources are turned against ordinary people in such an insidious, destructive fashion. One can come away feeling smaller and more at the mercy of dark forces than ever. There’s also a danger of overstating the impact of spy cops on protests. After all, just a few months after the mass arrests in April 2009, a thousand people shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar in the ‘Climate Swoop.’ But there are rewards too in looking with clear eyes at covert intelligence because it reveals not only the power of state and corporate interests but also our own power. These expensive, politically dangerous, and highly intrusive police operations may be cross hatched with paranoia, but they are nonetheless important evidence that fossil fuel companies and their government backers fear ordinary people. We ought to take courage from this fact.
This courage could help us broaden our alliances within society. While direct action targeting fossil fuel infrastructure is a vital tactic, it will be most powerful as part of a broader strategy in which alliances with labor movements play a significant role. The ongoing wave of strike action in Britain is an opportunity to build this coalition. Since May 2022, industrial action has been gathering pace, with workers striking over pay and working conditions as the cost of essentials rises at a frightening pace.
Nurses, care workers, rail workers, Royal Mail staff, lawyers, bin collectors, university staff, teachers, journalists, bus drivers, dockers, call center workers, ambulance workers, and telecom technicians have all surpassed the 50% ballot turnout required by law in the UK to take industrial action. Perhaps even more exciting is the return of wildcat strike action, for example in Amazon warehouses last year. Given Amazon’s global reach, the possibilities for coordinated transnational action are significant. While few have achieved wage rises in line with inflation, there have nonetheless been significant victories and more strike action is likely as the cost of living crisis deepens. Of course, this is part of a broader crisis of capitalism in which the ecological fault lines are becoming visible in economic deterioration.
As Extinction Rebellion noted in a statement of solidarity with Unite the Union members striking at Fawley Oil Refinery and ASLEF train workers on the picket line Bristol, workers and climate activists are often pitted against each other, yet have much to gain in finding common cause. As the statement wryly notes, both are regularly accused of ‘stopping ordinary people getting to work.’ Both groups are not only targeted for covert surveillance (spy cops have been targeting the trade union movement since 1833) but subject to a broader and growing apparatus of criminalization. The Conservative government have used their 80-seat parliamentary majority to push through legislation targeting key tactics of the climate movement (such as the use of ‘lock ons’) and are attempting to shut down the labor movement with a similar legislative attack in the Minimum Service Levels bill.
The architecture of repression and surveillance is growing around us. As Mark Kennedy’s international infiltration evidences, the alliance between the fossil fuel industry and government pays no heed to international borders. While repressive legislation is national, the impact on climate and labor organizing will be felt internationally; ecological collapse cares little for national sovereignty. If we want its effects to be handled democratically, our own efforts must be similarly flexible and boundary-crossing.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de