FITwatch have been inspired by the amount of people taking an interest in the policing operations on November 9th. FITwatch recognise critical enagagement with policing strategy as being crucial to our success as a protest movement. However, FITwatch wanted to flag one particular area of concern in this debate.
Part of Bernard Hogan-Howe’s “Total Policing” agenda was revealed on the Novermber 9th demonstration the other week, when the choice was made – partly, at least – to depart from a public order strategy based on entirely containment. This presented the demonstration with a number of unexpected problems, which we hope to explore in future. However, for the purpose of this article, we will be looking at the prevalance of plainclothes police officers. With this, we hope to debunk a popular myth about plainclothes officers and prompt a more sober gathering of evidence on their remit on the day, in the hope we can use this knowledge to better combat their influence in future..
There has been alot of talk on the internet, musing as to what the role of plainclothes police was, along with a particular video, which we will address later on. Predominantly, this talk falls into two camps:
1) These plainclothes cops were, in fact, undercover “agents provocateurs” intent on turning a peaceful march violent, through provoking the crowd into confrontation with uniformed police or each other. Such a move, it is believed, would then allow the police to brutally repress the demonstration with impunity, allowing the media an opportunity to misrepresent demonstrators as “violent thugs” and build public support for a state crackdown.
2) These plainclothes cops were, in fact, behaving in a way that would provoke the crowd and are, therefore, deserving of the label “agents provocateurs”.
It may seem like distinctions between the two are arbitrary, but in our responses you will understand why they are not:
1) Whilst, at first thought, this may appear to be logical – the latter part certainly chimes with what many of us will have witnessed in the wake of particularly militant demonstrations – it is actually the least logical explanation.
Think back to some of your experiences (or the experiences of others) with protest…the almost pathological obsession that public order police have with maintaining authority on a personal and institutional level. The vice-like grip they attempt to exert on our protests and social movements. The frankly sociopathic behaviour of long-term state infiltrators. The inhumane and indiscriminate containment of (often young) people for long periods of time. The brutal attacks with batons, shields, dogs and horses with the visibly disabled, children and pregnant women targetted. When the police behave like this, do they at ANY POINT act like they need an excuse? Given that they are behaving like this to maintain control of the streets at any cost, is it likely that they would go to the effort of deliberately provoking disorder to get an excuse that they did not need in the first place? Even if they did want to do so, why would they go to the effort of engaging in highly illegal agents provocateur tactics, whilst allowing those agents provocateurs to change in and out of police uniform very publicly amongst a movement that has been characterised by its use of social media, open source publishing and digital recording? After all, the police have managed to escalate conflict situations quite efficiently (but definitely not intentionally!) on demonstrations recently, when angry people have decided to defend themselves against relentless police attacks. Even if all this failed and they still wanted to justify their brutality in the media, they could do so anyway. Even with all the bad press they have had recently, the police still have a sophisticated PR machine that can feed the press numerous lies to justify action they take, even when they murder people (see: Mark Duggan, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes.)
There were lots of plainclothes cops on November 9th. If they wanted to kick it off, they could have done easily. But nothing happened.
2) This is more addressed to the video that has been circulated around the internet, which presents a series of events in one particular area of the demonstration and poses the question: “undercover snatch squad or agents provocateurs?”. FITwatch would answer “undercover snatch squad”, but don’t just take our word for it. Watch the video here.
Firstly, this video, doesn’t run at the speed it was filmed nor with the original sound intact. Whilst we are sure that the person who edited the video had no bad intentions, as a result of it we are unable to assess the overall situation in which these events are set with any degree of clarity. We simply must take the editors word for it, which is never a good starting point. But, from what we can see, we see the following:
(i)a cluster of uniformed police
(ii) some plainclothes police moving away from the camera on the left-hand side of the street, behind the cluster of uniformed police and towards (presumably) the front of the crowd.
(iii) 2 plainclothes police moving into the crowd, on the right-hand side of the cluster of uniformed police, in roughly the same direction as the police in point (ii). They barge their way into the crowd, with some unfortunate lad getting a bit of a ‘roughing up’ at first. An officer goes over to have a look, and the plainclothes cop flashes a warrant card. Unsuprisingly, the uniformed officer becomes disinterested. We then see nothing more. It’s reasonable to assume they continued barging their way through the crowd to get to the front.
(iv) Fast forward to the front of the demo, where we see a few other plainclothes join the ones identified earlier, on the other side of police lines. Then we see a young man getting brutally snatched and detained by a mob of cops.
(v) The editor claims that, at this point, the crowd become angry. However, no disorder occurs. We are also told at an earlier point in the video that people begin to point the plainclothes out and there is definitely some panicking and people screaming “agents provocateurs!”.
Points (i)-(iv) are just a variation on a snatch squad. Whereas uniformed public order officers would plough their way though a crowd in a single, triangular formation, these plainclothes officers clearly have the advantage of being less identifiable, so they can split up without risking their safety too much. If we accept point (v), then we accept that the crowd is much slower to respond to a plainclothes snatch squad than a uniformed one. Therefore, we must pose the question, did the police conduct the snatch squad in plainclothes because they thought it would be more provocative or less provocative? Would we have seen a greater response from the crowd had they been uniformed? Would they have made it all the way to the other side of the crowd with such impunity had they been uniformed? Or, conversely, if they were there to provoke disorder, why did they not succeed?
It is comforting for us to resort to the popular mythology and terminology of protest when we are frightened or disorientated by police tactics. But we must think about the bigger picture when responding to such events. With more sober reflection upon the facts, we find ourselves empowered by our new knowledge. The Police are beginning to implement a colossal shift in their tactics on street level, departing with well over a decade of orthodoxy in public order policing. Just as, one year ago, the demonstration at Millbank brought to an end almost one decade of stagnation in radical protest movements. It is now the police who are lagging behind us. It is now the police who have a new, uncertain approach. It has taken them a year to respond to our growing movement – a movement that has been so effective and so hard to police because of its diversity of tactics, its solidarity and its likeness to the “many headed hydra”: they cut off one of the hydra’s heads, and two more grow back in it’s place. We could respond with entirely new tactics tomorrow, if we wanted to.
But a note of caution. If we proceed to invoke the activist bogeyman, the “agents provocateurs”, with no real evidence we could lose all of this. Although FITwatch acknowledge that police attacks are often provocative by default, we think it is unhelpful to label them a deliberate provocation. When the police attack us, it is because they want to regain control of us, not because they need an excuse to exert further control on us. People take action in many ways to defend themselves against police attacks, from linking arms, running away, filming them, challenging them verbally or, in some cases, fighting back to protect themselves and others. If we accept that the state brutalises us, just to provoke us, just to brutalise us further then we are essentially accepting a constant cycle of brutalisation. We are accepting the inevitability of our repression on the streets. Thus, we are accepting the futility of fighting for the world we want to live in. We are eliminating our collective agency in a time of mass social upheaval. We are essentially saying that when we resist, things will only get worse, rather than better – and that those who resist are simply mindless pawns in a game where the state has total control.
Such talk is as dangerous as it is incorrect. If the state are employing these tactics for any deeper psychological purpose, it will be this one. And we can fight back NOW – by refusing to perpetuate our own division, demoralisation and destruction. Yes, the state is going to get nasty. But they are doing so because they want to destroy our movement, not provoke it into being even more ferocious. We have the power, they are on the backfoot, WE CAN WIN!
Solidarity, FITwatch Crew.