Plainclothes Police and “Agents Provocateurs” Hysteria.

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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!”.

FITwatch analysis:
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.

25 thoughts on “Plainclothes Police and “Agents Provocateurs” Hysteria.

  1. Interesting article – I saw the version of this put out by Russia today (RT) which first showed the action at normal speed then slowed it down.

    I can’t help but wonder what purpose do snatch squads serve? Arrest people previously identified as having committed a chargeable offence or psychological tool to unsettle protesters?

  2. However policing by consent implies that the Police are identifiable as Police = Uniform. By becoming plain clothes officers & part of a demonstration or an activist = secret police. This is IMHO another case of policing by stealth. And a massive step in the wrong direction.

  3. Another interesting point is the incident at the beginning of the film of the lad seemingly gratuitousnessly assaulted by these plain-clothed officers.

    The uniformed officer moves forward to intervene in the situation, quite properly – but then withdraws when he sees the warrant card of the plain-clothed officer. Why is it any less of an assault because the perpetrator is a plain-clothed police officer?

  4. @ Ben Aldin –

    That is addressed in the article. We are not saying that it is *less* of an assault because the perpetrator is a plainclothes police officer. What we are saying is that, upon making their way through a crowd to conduct a ‘snatch’, both plainclothes and uniformed police officers often assault protestors to various degrees. That is not to say it is acceptable in any way. What we are saying is that we shouldnt assume that when plainclothes officers do it, their sole objective is provocation, when we would not reasonably draw the same conclusions about uniformed officers.
    Whilst they are assaulting members of the crowd, and the snatch is included in this too, and that is of course provocative by default, it should not be assumed that is their primary objective.
    We are against all police attacks. We stand in total solidarity with other demonstrators. But we want to better understand WHY, WHEN and HOW the police attack…and we cannot do that until we’ve stopped crying wolf. This is the point behind the article.

  5. @ Digby CC –

    Both. However, we shouldn’t assume that because someone has been arrested, they will be charged and convicted. Police arrest for many reasons – intimidation, harassment, maintaining control of the streets…
    Alot of people who say “no comment”, dont give in to intimidation and plead not guilty will find there is no evidence against them.

  6. @ Brobof –

    Just because we are engaging critically with some people’s responses to plainclothes cops, that certainly doesnt mean we welcome plainclothes cops on our demonstrations. Couldnt agree more when you say its a step in the wrong direction. But its tentative and imperfect step in the wrong direction. You said policing operates by consent – well, its time for us all collectively to withdraw that consent in whichever way we see fit and nip it in the bud.

  7. Truth is no-one knows for absolute certain what the cops’ exact motives or strategies are, so, with the greatest of respect, all of this article is, just as much as the opinions FitWatch are criticising, speculation. It’s a far better use of FW’s time and space to print big pictures of these fuckers faces to discourage them from thinking they can get away with it. If Indymedia servers get jumped, the huge collection of photos posted there will go off-line, so please re-post ALL the images, at high resolution, on FitWatch

    1. Yes, it is speculative to a certain extent. We are by no means claiming to know “the truth”, but presenting another argument into the emerging debates.

      If anyone gets charged for an encounter with plainclothes police, we can make requests to find out the cops duties for the day. Not that would be conclusive, but it would give us all a little more to work with.

      But yeah, if theres any images we have missed we should get them up.

      Sols, FW.

  8. Fits somewhat with the way that the Dutch police use plain-clothes arrest teams aka romeos. People don’t react the same to a group of uniformed police entering a crowd, they can hang around more easily. Quite importantly also it doesn’t play out the same in the press: pictures of someone in a t-shirt dragging someone off doesn’t look the same as a uniformed officer doing it.

  9. No uniform = no shoulder numbers = licence to act illigally with impunity.
    Interesting that they wore blue wristbands to identify themselves, presumably they will try to use a different colour at the next demo?

  10. I would have thought that the plainclothes police are being used for a couple of psychological purposes, firstly to keep people off-balance, and secondly – regarding the assault as they enter the crowd – i’d expect these assaults are to express dominance, for them to keep the initiative in the situation and to get people looking one way when they perhaps should be looking another.

  11. Great article. I am glad my video has prompted/facilitated some serious discussion and thought.
    I’ll jot down some thoughts and responses and post another comment soon.

    noshockdoc

  12. @fitwatch and all

    Thanks again for this article.

    Firstly, a couple of technical comments. The video was shot 1440×1080 at 29.97fps and after my editing/production outputted at the same and uploaded. So, it should be and appears by eye to be as the original.
    The sound is intact in so much as I never separated any audio from video, applied any processing or added any sound other than the real-time live captured sound.

    There are no cuts or edits to the video/audio. The only “edits” made were to “pause” the video at times by taking a still frame out and placing it in the timeline to add text over it, OR, to duplicate a section and slow it down for viewing a second time. I deliberately left the video intact and chose to fast forward through a section rather than cut to maintain the integrity of the video and avoid suggestions of editing more than one event together. Likewise the on screen date/timestamp shows the same.

    My intention with the clip was primarily to show what I suggest to be unacceptable conduct of police officers.
    1)The behaviour of the “plain clothes” officers (NB “undercover” is perhaps an incorrect choice) is interesting. I draw no conclusions and invite the viewer to draw their own. But, it does appear the barging into the young man was not an accident. Even if it was, then the officers behaviour afterwards was far from an apology! This may just be a plain clothes officer, full of adrenaline, playing the “I’m a big bad boy undercover cop”, and showing off for his uniformed mates. It would be interesting to know what the uniform officer thinks of him 😉
    2) The uniformed officer most clearly turns away when the card is flashed. That is not on. Solidarity with colleague by turning blind eye, but right? Is that action acceptable bearing in mind the oath they swear and that he’d just seen a young man left visibly shaken by apparent assault. No, but then maybe the uniform officer was put in a very difficult position by his esteemed colleague? No-one is perfect, but the plain clothes officer was way out of line in my view.

    Ok, to the “agent provocateur?” angle. This was very much intended as a secondary angle but seems to be the angle that has caught most attention, fuelled by “hysteria” perhaps, as you put it.
    At first maybe I too fell into the AP assumption trap, ie he roughed up the kid, it must be deliberate, uniform ignored it etc. I didn’t want to believe it, but couldn’t rule it out.
    Your article reflects how my thoughts have migrated over time and repeated viewings though. I would now tend to subscribe to your view that typical police presence and manner is provocative enough without needing to use AP’s and that yes, with politicians levelling accusations of losing control, causing more trouble would be counter-productive for the met.
    There is the argument they could cause trouble as an excuse to crack down, but with many camera/video snappers like me, they wouldn’t get away with it and they surely know that.

    Is using plain clothes snatch squads effectively provocative though?
    I can see an argument that using uniform may cause even more trouble in effecting a snatch, but doesn’t the overall provocative effect of plain clothes officers out-balance that risk anyway?
    I mention the crowd at the end being “angered”, this comment was down to the raised shouting, the angry chanting and the start of projectiles being thrown and police bringing shields forward to the line. (watch officers running to fetch them at Sergeants? command).
    Why angry?
    Apart from one of their numbers being arrested (and many protesters have no problem with that if there is what they might see as a good reason) the met should consider the following…
    1) members of the crowd believed what they saw was provocation and started shouting about it.
    Videos like this spread rapidly. RT and some popular website ran it. Some mainstream press showed me interest too.
    Whether it was or wasn’t intentional provocation becomes irrelevant surely. Do the met want the public even thinking they are provoking trouble? I doubt it. Thus maybe plain clothes officers do not help them here and are causing more damage than useful gain? Why not nick people after the protest if necessary?

    2) Policing is by consent. There in the British psyche something thoroughly “unfair play” or even “deceitful” about infiltrating mainly well intentioned protesters of predominantly good background with plain clothes officers making themselves out to be “one of us”. Their presence being revealed is therefore very provocative and can only hinder the met in maintaining control in future.

    So, yes, maybe the met should rethink the use of plain clothes snatch squads in the crowd. I doubt they were intended as “agents provocateur” but they have that effect.
    I expect they will continue to be present. The met may well be on the back foot here as dissent spreads. Why? Because we keep effectively changing the rules by changing tactics and what they are dealing with. ie UKUncut sit ins, marches, blacbloc tactics, occupations, squatting etc etc and now sparkys and strikers joining too.
    They can learn though and so must we. Be wise, be wary but yes as fitwatch suggests stay calm and avoid hysterical assumptions.

    Solidarity to all in the movement whatever your methods, St Pauls principles please.

    noshockdoc

  13. ” Policing is by consent. There in the British psyche something thoroughly “unfair play” or even “deceitful” about infiltrating mainly well intentioned protesters of predominantly good background with plain clothes officers making themselves out to be “one of us”. Their presence being revealed is therefore very provocative and can only hinder the met in maintaining control in future.”

    So it would be okay to treat people of bad background, and character like this?

  14. I would also like to state that I know the video was not edited in terms of sound or video speed – it was just speeded up to show that it was a contiunous piece of film and not edited. I do not know why you would think that it had been edited. Nothing happened with the sound, other than when some frames were repeated and slowed down, obviously the sound goes funny, but as it then instantly takes you back to where the video was before it slowed down and the sound quality is restored why do you think it was edited?
    I hope someone will respond to @noshockdoc ‘s comments here.

    In my mind it is not so much that the police officers were stirring up trouble I don’t think that so much, my concerns are to do with a uniform officer ignoring his instinct, professionalism because a plain clothes officer flashed a card at him. Police are never above the law, and they must always be accountable at every level. It is unacceptable to just walk off and not check the boy was ok.

  15. @noshockdoc

    Thanks loads for your comments and for clarifying the video. Will write a longer comment, but just wanted to leave something to say thanks for engaging in the debate as ultimately our aim has been to start a serious debate about police tactics (and what we can do to counter them).

    One of Fitwatch

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