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Fighting Fit

val | 05.10.2007 21:34 | DSEi 2007 | Policing | Repression | London

A personal account of taking on the FIT....

Saturday 28 April 2007. I arrive at the University of London Union on Malet Street just before two in the afternoon. I’m here for an open meeting aimed at publicising and protesting against Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI), the world’s largest arms fair, staged every two years in London’s Dockland. Five or six of us gather in an upstairs room. Others arrive and start to complain about being filmed – yet again – by a photographer who’s outside the building with ten or so police officers. People in the room become anxious. Before the meeting finally begins, I get up and go outside to confront these officers of the Forward Intelligence Team (FIT). I’ve had enough.

FIT is the brainchild of Inspector Barry Norman and Sergeant Andy Brittan of the Metropolitan police. Originally created to combat football hooliganism in the early 1990s, Norman and Brittan quickly realised the usefulness of these overt surveillance teams to control and ultimately stifle political protest. First to feel the heat were anti-globalisation activists of the Reclaim The Streets (RTS) collective. Prior to a street party in Brighton in 1996 organised by RTS, police would spy on activists at their London office. The office was subsequently raided and computers taken away. No charges were ever brought, though that hasn’t stopped the FITs raiding the offices of Greenpeace to remove computers and other material.

I’m holding two small placards: Respect Our Privacy and No Photography. I walk across to the cameraman and ask him to stop filming because people attending the meeting prefer not to be filmed. He ignores my polite request. I hold the placards up in front of the camera. The photographer rushes forward, pushing his camera into the placards, trying but failing to dislodge them. I move forward holding them right up to the camera lens now, partially obstructing the view of the camera. Someone else joins me, taking a placard and blocking. People leave the meeting to see what’s happening.

Over the last ten years harassment of political activists has noticeably intensified. I have been filmed at countless meetings. People arriving at the Camp for climate action near Heathrow airport in August were filmed. Many were stopped and searched, some forcibly. Activists involved in the No Borders campaign are filmed. Those attending meetings in the run up to G8 summits are filmed. Critical Mass bike rides are repeatedly filmed. The FIT police routinely follow people to and from demonstrations. Someone I know was followed all the way into his grandmother’s nursing home where he was visiting! The effects of such close surveillance are obviously damaging. People are fearful that the police may be building a file to use against them. Many are concerned for their jobs. Some have suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of the constant harassment. So people stop coming to meetings because they’re afraid of the consequences. And so legitimate voices of protest are silenced.

The stand-off with the photographer lasts fifteen minutes. He moves to the top of some steps opposite the entrance to the union building so he can film over our heads. I try to go up the steps to reach him. Four police officers come between me and the photographer. I keep holding the placard up as high as I can. By now the twenty people who’d turned up for the meeting are all outside. After ten more minutes, I’m grabbed by officers, kicked and handcuffed behind my back. The person who’d joined the protest is arrested with me.

My car is routinely stopped by the police because, I’m told, it’s been involved in criminal activity. Not true. I took my car to the climate camp in August where the car was photographed and searched, and it has been subject to 'random' stops ever since. I do have a criminal record - trespassing, for example on Fairford Airbase in 2003 as I attempted to disrupt the take off of US bombers to Iraq. And there have been other similar convictions. But do my ‘crimes’ deserve that degree of surveillance? Of course they don’t. Those of us who take direct action against illegal wars, who try and disrupt arms fairs or stand in the way of bulldozers ripping up the countryside are not terrorists as the British government would have the population believe in order to justify ever increasing expenditure on domestic intelligence.

On October 9th I will be on trial for obstructing a police cameraman. I will argue that what the police are doing – the accumulation of photographs and data on people with ‘unpopular’ political views – is unlawful. So far the police have refused to disclose what exactly what they have done with all these photographs, or why they wanted photos of people attending a public meeting in the first place. They have also refused to disclose the extent of the police file that has been built up on me over the years. Unless they are prepared to ‘come clean’ over all this, I will argue, they cannot possibly begin to justify the intrusion of privacy that has taken place. And without that justification what they have done, and what they continue to do, is unlawful.

I think I have a very good case. But even if I win, I cannot see an end to political intimidation now that the New Labour government has handed over so much power to the police and intelligence services. And it is because we cannot rely on the protection of the law that FITWATCH was born earlier this year. Now activists are playing the police at their own game, filming officers and posting their photos along with name, rank and number to a rapidly expanding website. Activists can download spotter cards to help them identify FIT members and take appropriate action. And activists can share their experiences of police intimidation. Now when we hold meetings we will do everything we can to stop intrusive police filming. No longer will we ignore these attacks on our fundamental rights to freedom of expression. Enough is enough.

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Display the following 8 comments

  1. Yes in theory... — Will the real English please stand up
  2. Missing the point — Anton
  3. There is no such thing as FIT? — Doug
  4. Two suggestions for 'fighting FIT' — Respect our privacy
  5. Clarification — Anton
  6. Real problems of FIT — FIT Watch
  7. Yeah, but we need to challenge this — Val
  8. FIT reactions to being photographed — mike