You meet someone through friends on a demo. You have a laugh and find you have similar views on issues. That unity of purpose and expression of your collective power is what can make these experiences so validating and positive.

And pretty much everyone who has exercised their right to protest understands that police and security services are watching. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t stop us speaking truth to power.

Not everyone appreciates, however, the lengths the state will go to for ‘intelligence’ about protests and protestors. This is where caution comes in.

Members of our organisation, Police Spies Out Of Lives (PSOOL), have bitter experience of the extraordinary surveillance that those in power have convinced themselves is necessary in order to politically control our population.

It was 2010 it first came to media attention of the existence of Metropolitan Police undercover units tasked to infiltrate groups of activists in political, family, environment and social justice campaigns. Environmental activist Mark ‘Stone’ was outed as undercover officer Mark Kennedy by the activists he reported upon, principally by one of PSOOL’s founders ‘Lisa‘ whose sexual relationship with ‘Stone’ had lasted for six years.

Other women discovered they had been deceived into relationships even before Kennedy was outed, but there had been no reporting on the subject –at that stage it was individual women who, after their partners disappeared, exhaustively researched their identities and made alarming discoveries  leading to the true identities of these men. The women slowly found one another and a picture of systemic abuse began to emerge.

Since then activists, researchers and journalists have added to the knowledge we now have of these units. We have seen parts of the Tradecraft Manual that was written by one of these officers, Andy Coles (who deceived one of our members, animal rights activist ‘Jessica‘, into a long-term relationship). This training manual suggests that, if considered necessary, officers should use ‘short, disastrous relationships’ with activists as an infiltration tool.

Many of us (all women to date) affected by these long-term relationships with undercover officers have shared our stories with each other. There are striking similarities. Despite what the Metropolitan Police have said publicly, these relationships were a tactic. Behaviours by these officers were repeated again and again. It’s obvious to us that stories of ‘successful’ deployments have been shared from manager to officer, and officer to officer from one era of deployment to the next. The abuse is institutional and systemic.

So here’s what we’ve learnt:

  • the officers were generally very likeable from the off;
  • they used psychological mirroring techniques to appear to have heaps in common with their targets;
  • they were keen and very willing to help campaign from first contact;
  • they generally had vehicles and were happy for their vans and their time to be at the disposal of the campaigns they infiltrated;
  • they had access to plenty of resources, including cash, and shared these;
  • they were shy to reveal their past stories – or had tales so painful that it justified estrangement from  their former friends and families;
  • some of them faked large geographical distance from family – none of us ever met any of them – and there was always a plausible excuse;
  • despite being helpful to campaigns they often subtly attempted to undermine them – or set activists against each other.

We don’t know if these tactics continue. The police and successive governments have been exposed by these politically motivated infiltrations. It seems likely they will vary their methods somewhat, if not entirely. In an era of abundant digital information it’s likely there is less need for an officer to be sent to spy for any length of time.

Still, young women campaigners particularly need to be aware of our experiences. If you suspect someone isn’t who they say they are, use these questions to test your theories.

We don’t want to increase paranoia or suspicion of the authenticity of fellow activists. The greatest thing about activism is sharing and developing ideas and action with a like-minded group and nothing should prevent you engaging in that.

Be vigilant – that’s all we’re saying!