You are being watched

Police surveillance and intimidation of political activists is hitting new heights. Olly Zanetti dodges the long lenses to expose Big Brother’s latest attack on the right to protest.

Caught on camera: a police surveillance officer captures Greek and British protesters on film at a London demonstration against police repression, December 2008. Photo by: MARC VALLÉE

‘If you’re gonna take my picture, be careful with my nose. Get a good angle with your camera, and get my finest pose…’

Standing on a makeshift stage at the Climate Camp entrance, two women sing to the cameras that have been trained on them and other campaigners since the event began. Like Climate Camps across the world, 2008’s action in Kent, England, took place in the centre of the media’s glare. But it wasn’t a news crew these activists were singing to. Rather, the serenade was addressed to police photographers from the Forward Intelligence Team: ‘the FIT’, as they have come to be known.

The FIT’s interest extends from demonstrations to the back-room planning meetings of local activist groups. They are at the forefront of a new wave of intimidatory and disproportionate policing and surveillance practices aimed largely, it seems, at cataloguing and riling nonviolent protesters. Set up by Metropolitan Police Inspector Barry Norman and Sergeant Andy Brittan, the FIT gained notoriety in 1995. The pair attended Reclaim the Streets actions, filmed demonstrators, and attempted to engage them in dialogue, borrowing tactics from the monitoring of football hooliganism in the early 1990s.

Armed with upmarket cameras and camcorders, officers overtly record everything and everyone in their sights. They have even been known to quote their surveillance findings back at activists. ‘We know what you’re up to,’ seems to be the FIT message – the act of data gathering remade as a method of control.

Indeed, the results of FIT surveillance, and so-called intelligence-led policing, hit the headlines recently when, in the early hours of 14 April, 114 activists were pre-emptively arrested for allegedly conspiring to commit criminal damage and aggravated trespass in a demonstration at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station. This pre-emptive policing raises serious civil liberties concerns, as Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, notes. ‘In the light of the policing of the G20 protests, people up and down the country will want to be confident that there was evidence of a real conspiracy to commit criminal damage by those arrested and that this was not just an attempt by the police to disrupt perfectly legitimate protest.’

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