Monday, 17 January 2011
Spies, Lies and Police Intelligence
Firstly I would like to make it completely clear that I have never slept with the undercover-police-agent-formerly-known-as-Mark-Stone. (Unless there is the possibility of compensation, in which case I may reconsider my position.)
As far as I know our paths never crossed as my time as a wandering direct Action Anarchist Type Person came to an end before his began. Although it's now ancient history, my experience of the Police at the time does shed some light on his activities.
It's a tail of spies, Special Branch, Special Forces, informers, a major intelligence cock up and there's a joke about half way down.
Whilst camped out in the Bollin Valley under what is now the Second Runway of Manchester Airport we met the police in various guises. As the border between Cheshire and Greater Manchester ran through the camps, officers from both forces policed us.
The Cheshire bobbies all looked like Dixon of Dock Green, rotund and red faced they were always cheerful until they took a dislike to you. Then you were arrested first and they decided what they were going to charge you with later.
Greater Manchester by contrast sent their Tactical Support group to keep an eye on us. Dressed like Storm Trooper from Star Wars and with attitudes to match, they were never-the-less generally fair and we soon came to a good working relationship. For example, people on the camp who really shouldn't have been there because of their drug or mental health problems were allowed to leave without harassment or fear of arrest.
Co-ordination of the policing effort was done by the airport's police force. Trained to deal with terrorists, they can usually be seen totting sub machine guns inside the perimeter fence.
To smooth things over they appointed a veteran copper as Police liaison officer. Alan Jones was his name and he was easily the most sorted copper I've ever met. He was proud of the fact he's held his marksman's license for longer than any other officer at the airport, and his common sense and down-to-earth attitude greatly helped to make the protest as peaceful as it was.
Barely able to keep straight faces we explained that he was pointing to our latrine and once he'd confirmed for himself it was for motions and not munitions we heard no more about this.
It was from Alan that we learnt of the arrival of Special Branch on the scene. He'd returned to his office one day and found people he'd never seen before in his office and rooting through his papers, which is never a good way to introduce yourself to a Police Officer.
Alan said he expressed surprise when Branch told him who they were after. By now he knew who the important people were in our non-hierarchical protest, and none of them were on the list.
He never told me who was under surveillance, but it was easy enough to figure out, especially when the house in the nearby village of Mobberley was raided one night after some of them had stayed their. True to form the Special Branch were after political people, with their targets being left wingers who'd attached themselves to our protest. They were nice people on the whole, but they had violent backgrounds and rather quaint views of starting the revolution with symbolic acts of aggression against the state. Two of them tried this later and got a year in jail, so it was fair enough for Special Branch to be after them and not us. They were not peaceful protesters and our cause was diminished by association with theirs.
With the violent elements identified and the rest of us practically adopting Alan's one of our own the protest looked like it was going to be completely peaceful. But then it all went wrong.
In one of the other camps a protesters was asked to leave after he was found to be having a sexual relationship with a fifteen year old girl. He evidently didn't take this very well and appears to have then gone to every journalist he could find with a story of how we'd booby-trapped the woods and that a horrible fate awaited the first Policeman to come and get us. Thanks to the presence of Swampy in the camp Cliff Richard the press had been crawling through the woods for weeks without coming to any harm so, with the exception of those much respected papers The Daily Express and the Manchester Evening News the hacks had generally treated his story with the contempt he deserved.
Unfortunately he also went to the Police. Alan Jones appears to have known about this,and to have told his superiors the story was plainly b*llocks, but that didn't stop what happened next.
We knew exactly when he eviction was going to start a couple of days in advance. thanks to a boycott by the British climbing community of involvement in the eviction of environmental protesters, a group of Sheffield climbers had the monopoly on getting crusties out of trees. One of their regulars shared a house with a more principled climber, and before every eviction he rang he protesters to warn them. Unfortunately they usually didn't believe him, but we did and so everyone was ready when the cry of alarm went up from Zion Tree camp.
By this time we all knew how this worked. Police or bailiffs or security guards or all three would raid the camp arresting anyone who wasn't up a tree, down a tunnel or 'locked on' to something solid. Then things calmed down a bit until the specialists arrived.
This time though, things were different. There was no wall of yellow high visibility vests, instead it was a group of no more than ten men in black, who ripped down tents, and bundled people off in quick-cuffs. John Fraser-Williams, a free-lance journalist in the camp, didn't react quickly enough and received a truncheon on the ear.
Warned in advance, everyone who had a tunnel or a tree house to get to was safely in place, but this didn't stop these people. Our tunnels all featured heavy duty iron doors made by a wandering blacksmith called, for want of a better name, John the Blacksmith. Behind each door was positioned a protester attached to a concrete block with a bicycle D-lock to prevent the Forces of Darkness using brute force and ignorance to get in.
However that's what the Zion Tree tunnel received and Jon, the young man in the doorway, was lucky to escape serious injury as sledge hammers stoved in his tunnel door, narrowly missing him.
I was patrolling the perimeter of our adjoining camp at the time. Having checked it wasn't us getting hit I made my way to the bridge over the Bollin that connected us to Zion Tree. My torch picked out two figures and I immediately apologised and turned off the light, thinking these were protesters out on some nefarious 'pixie mission'. Then I realised that the thing being sabotaged was our bridge. Hang on a minute I thought, and turned on the torch again. Two men in black boiler suits and balaclavas stared back at me, now fortunately separated by a partially destroyed bridge. "F*** off" said one of them, and as they were bigger and more aggressive than me, I did.
As swiftly as they had arrived, the Men in Black disappeared again. The people they'd picked up were dumped by the side of the road shocked, bruised, in Fraser-William's case bleeding, but suspiciously not under arrest.
Circumstantial evidence suggests to me that they were the SAS, called in to deal with the alleged booby traps. They had walked through a pitch dark forest without being noticed, had been wielding sledgehammers and had not arrested anyone.
Other Men in Black had appeared before, including the group that beat up my friend Jonathon, but these were probably just security guards who'd removed their high visibility vests. These guys were more highly trained and whilst any army unit could have supplied troops with the right skills, only the SAS has troops on call to help the Police, so I suspect these guys were from the SAS's on-call counter-terrorism unit out on what, for them, was probably a pleasant morning's training.
The press coverage of this was scathing of the Police and as a liaison chappy myself I was summoned to the office Kevin Hart, Gold Commander for the day, to be given the soft soap on why the police had done nothing wrong. Apparently every officer on duty that morning had had his truncheon inspected (ooh-err Madam) and there was no trace of blood which, if true, suggests the Men in Black were Special Forces. John Fraser-Williams, it was suggested, was a journalist out to get a good story who had, if not actually faked his injury, at least gored it up a bit for the cameras.
If that took a bit of believing, at least the Police learnt from their mistake and the rest of the evictions went very peacefully, with bailiffs and protesters sharing sandwiches and cigarettes at designated breaks from the action. Surveillance there was a plenty, from Thames Valley officers trying to work their way through the backlog of warrants from the Newbury Bypass campaign, to the green suited Brays private detectives, who were a regular feature of protests in the 1990s, but it was all open and peaceful.
Well mostly open, for there is a coda which makes the intelligence cock up even more mysterious. In our camp was a guy who'd been a security guard at the Newbury. He'd changed sides, he said , after witnessing the heroics of a lone protester who'd single handedly disabled a convoy of police vans and coaches carrying security guards by leaping out from the woods, throwing himself under a coach, slashing the compressed air pipe to the brakes (which makes them lock on) and then legging it.
He didn't do much, but he built his own tree house and was evicted by climbers with everyone else. However when fellow tree squatters arrived at the station to be banged up shortly afterwards he'd mysteriously been released. Equally suspicious his twigloo had turned out to be full of climbing gear nicked from fellow campers.
Who exactly he was and what he was doing is unclear. 'Mark Stone' was well financed and got the nickname 'Flash', this chap appeared to be permanently skint. 'Stone' got involved at the heart of everything, our spy did almost nothing except smoke roll ups. He appeared to have no political views at all, liked fast cars, and admitted to still being in the employ of a security company and working at music festivals. He'd also infiltrated the most primitive, laid back and least secretive camp on the site. He was very little use to us and you wonder if he was any use to the Police. Perhaps he was an early test model of 'Mark Stone', a primitive archetype, not fully operational yet?
That Police were infiltrating Earth First! at that time was also confirmed later that summer in a wet field in Wales. The Earth First! camp in 1997 was possibly the high water mark of the movement, and the camp just south of Glasgow was buzzed by helicopters and circled by Police cars. The Scottish bobbies went out of their way to tell us how much nicer they were than English cops, and generally they were. So I do apologise for the rude words that people spelt out with their bodies when the helicopter flew over. Don't blame the others - it was my idea.
The camp ended on a bit of a downer with the EF!ers not willing to take part in the planned mass action unless they were told what it was. The action was to be an attempt to shut down a nuclear power station, and the organisers rightly didn't want the plan to leak out. However the trust necessary for this sort of action wasn't there. had this been Greenpeace it would have happened, and so I pretty much decided then that that was were I should be and two years later I was in a Police cell with the Executive Director.
However for those of us scattered to the four winds by the end of the Manchester Airport action the camp was a chance for us to meet up. As we left we promised to meet again, and seeing a black board with a notice chalked up about a camp in Bangor in a few weeks time, we decided that the Welsh coast in August sounded fun.
I should add that at this time my telephone at home developed a strange fault which meant it rang as soon as you hung up on a call, but I'm sure that was just a coincidence.
Anyway I arrived at Brewery Fields in Bangor, where there were plans for a nice housing estate, to find only Welsh rain and a circling Police helicopter. I pitched camp and next day I eventually found the six other drowned rats who had turned up. The 'mass protest' it turned out, had been organised by a local campaigner who'd been to the gathering and being too shy to talk or give a workshop, had chalked up his proposed protest instead. Still he'd got us, and a Police helicopter, so it wasn't a total loss. The rain even stopped after three days.
It was also proof of plain clothes officers visiting the camp. Not a big surprise really, it wasn't exactly high security. You didn't even have to pay if you looked poor enough.
So that's my rather rambling story.
It's not as good as Mark's, but if the Daily Mail had paid me more it would have been a lot better.