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How to Avoid Getting "Robbed"

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Many readers of Indymedia will remember the story of Rob Gilchrist, the man who spent years of his life hanging around various activists groups in Aotearoa in order to spy on them for the NZ Police. In January of this year, the Guardian newspaper reported that another network of direct action groups in the UK has been "Robbed" for more than seven years by Police Constable Mark Kennedy.

Like Gilchrist, Kennedy had spent enough time to become trusted by the activists, and socialised with them enough to be considered a friend by many. In both cases, any "security culture" practices the activists used to keep their activities secret - from keeping information on actions within a trusted group, to password-protected web services and encrypted emails - were rendered pointless by including Gilchrist, Kennedy and their ilk in the circle of trust. Worse, the increasing paranoia that motivated the move to greater "security culture" excluded many genuine supporters with weak social skills, or a different social culture to that of the majority of activists, from participation. Meanwhile, the informants were included in all the "secure" discussions and planning, as were the Police.

So we how do we avoid getting "Robbed"? It's pretty clear from the examples of Gilchrist and Kennedy (and the many others informants we are still working with without knowing it) that no level of "security culture" is effective when applied to every part of our day-to-day organisation. We know that most of what we do will be perfectly visible to the authorities, and we know that engaging in "secret squirrel" organising excludes potential allies. Comparing the aftermath of Operation 8 to that of Occupy shows us that it's much easier to demonize activists through the mass media when we organise in the shadows, than when we do it in plain sight. Occupiers got called a lot of names by anonymous trolls; hippies, bludgers, smelly etc, but I don't remember anyone trying to suggest we were terrorists.

So my suggestion is that most of our activism - especially when it involves the active prevention of violence through blockading violators or dismantling weapons - be organised and carried out in the public eye. I'm not saying that there's never a time or place for private communication, or covert direct action, I think there is, and obviously our ability to organise openly depends on having a government and a society which tolerates the expression of dissenting views. However, it seems to me that organising covertly when it's not necessary just makes it look like we lack the courage of our convictions, and makes it easier to paint us as a threat.

When we know that we are going to be publicly visible, we bear that in mind in all our communications and actions, and there's nothing useful for police spies to learn. Best of all, we have no need to exclude anyone from full participation in case they might be a spy, and there's no basis for the paranoia that often breaks down goodwill among diverse groups of activists. In the best case scenario, activism is increasingly seen as a legitimate part of a functioning democracy, rather than a refuge for anti-social extremists, and it becomes much easier to involve large numbers of people in courageous nonviolence.

Comments

stunningly naive and

stunningly naive and uninformed article there!

you are assuming that police only spy on covert actions, and you assume that Gilchrist and kennedy were included in planning for covert actions. they were not, they were involved in day to day organising (the kind you advocate as an alternative to covert action). I cna only speak about the Gilchrist stuff, and although he liked to portray himself as being involved in all sorts of dodgy actions. he was not. most who worked with him didnt trust him much at all. and he certainly didnt expose or discover any covert actions. he spied on open protest groups. As for mark Kennedy, if you read the numerous articels and interviews by him or about him, you will see that he too was involved with spying on open campaign groups. not super secret underground groups.

you also assume that 'activism' is seen as a legitimate part of democracy. the state does not consider effective resistance or organising as legitimate. They might have to reptend they do sometimes, but they will always spy on movements they see as a threat.

and finally Operation 8 was not about anyone doing things 'in the shadows' at all. To compare Op 8 to occupy is just silly. you really should try to write from an informed point of view rather than just making stuff up.

mark

 

Who needs robust tactical debate when you can have flame wars?

@ Mark E

Always good to start with a personal attack ("naive and uninformed"). That's why we've always had such productive conversations over the years ;)

I don't think I'm the one suffering from an overabundance of assumptions. I can't speak to the details of Kennedy as I've never been to the UK, let alone met anyone involved, but the Guardian article seemed to suggest he had been involved in covert action. Perhaps not covert action that has to *remain* secret after the fact, but action that tried to be covert beforehand and clearly failed. This is the kind of action my article is about.

I can speak from personal experience about Gilchrist. I know he had access to all sorts of things that were supposedly secure. I remember a certain somebody urging me to put a PGP program (proprietary ones, not free code!) on a computer in at least one activist centre, so they could exchange "secure" emails with him. I remember the "secure" Happy Valley Campaign forums and wiki, the ones which Gilchrist had full access to. The "securing" of those group communication tools seemed to result in a lot of people dropping out of the campaign as they couldn't be bothered keeping up with the secret squirrel crap, which they probably knew was pointless, for reasons which are now obvious and should have been at the time - a police informant could easily get access by being friendly with the group! I remember another occasion in which Gilchrist was part of a reccy mission for an anti-GE action which was definitely meant to be covert. I could go on. 

Perhaps you are attacking me for writing this article because you think holding this sort of historical enquiry and tactical debate on a website in public view is airing our dirty laundry in public. To me, this an illustration of the conceptual prison I believe so many activists are trapped in - a false belief that effective, large-scale collective politics can be practiced in private. We can have this debate where only the Police can see, or where everyone can see. I prefer the latter.

>> To compare Op 8 to occupy is just silly <<

Certainly is. One was a well-funded and highly organised secret Police operation which lasted for years, the other was a barely funded and totally spontaneous public expression of popular democracy which lasted for months. I'll leave you to decide which was which. I believe you can do it.

Indeed, the comparison I was making was between the activist training camps held in the Urewera and the Occupy camps. One was certainly more in the shadows than the other, again, I'll leave you to decide which. The key point of this comparison, and of the article, was that the ambiguity of the Urewera activities gave the mass media a blank canvas to pain their own paranoid paramility narrative onto. This was clearly not the case with Occupy, although I suspect many of the same activist organising skills were taught and learned at both sets of camps, (definitely no hunting lessons at Occupy though, unless you count skip-diving ;)

While I'm on the subject, I believe the trial-by-media was made much more effective by our failure, as activists and friends of those arrested, to offer a plausible counter-narrative about the events spied on by Operation 8. I still don't understand why we were told, right from day one after the raids, not to make any attempt to offer one.

I have attended many activist training camps out in the sticks over the years, where we learn to sit up trees, lock ourselves to stuff, not dob each other in to the Police etc. Many of them have been announced, and then reported on this website. Many people know that Tame Iti was openly inviting hundreds of activists to attend a similar camp hosted in Tuhoe country, at conferences of open door groups like Radical Youth, even at the Parihaka Festival! There was no attempt to make them secret as they would have if there was any truth to the State's claims. Yet, after the arrests, nobody was pointing this out, admitting that activist training camps do happen (shock! horror!), and explaining to the public what they were actually about. Why not? In this respect, the Urewera camps were easily painted by the State and the mass media as something happening "in the shadows", whether or not that was actually the case.

Which brings us, quite nicely, to the subject of legitimacy. Political legitimacy is not granted by the State, it is granted by the public, the demos, the workers, the masses, the plebians (or whatever turn of phrase you prefer). Yes, the State (and Corporations etc) will always spy on anyone that threatens their power, and if the examples of Gilchrist, Kennedy, and Operation 8 are anything to go by, most of the time they will succeed. This is exactly my point. Since the Police are likely to know what we're up to anytime we get more than a handful of people supporting a cause, we might as well let the public know. This gives us a better chance of gaining legitimacy than ineffective secret squirrelism.

Perhaps if you read my writing before you try to smear me Mark, some of the horseshit you hurl might actually hit target?

Love and cuddles,

Strypey

  I am all for 'robust

 

I am all for 'robust tactical debate' as you put it, but I cant see the point of an uninformed article written several years after the facts which not only has no new information in it, it also has quite a few mistakes that indicate that you have not talked to anyone directly involved or read the numerous background articles written at the time.
for example:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/760466/The-activist-wh...


Several articles by Nicky Hager on Gilchrist http://www.nickyhager.info/?s=gilchrist

my article here http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr38-180b.htm


rochelles article here http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/pr38-180c.htm


>I don't think I'm the one suffering from an overabundance of assumptions. I can't speak to the details of >Kennedy as I've never been to the UK, let alone met anyone involved, but the Guardian article seemed to >suggest he had been involved in covert action. Perhaps not covert action that has to *remain* secret after the >fact, but action that tried to be covert beforehand and clearly failed. This is the kind of action my article is about.

well, instead of relying on what one (or maybe a few) mainstream media articles suggest, you could maybe read some of the stuff written by the activists directly involved in exposing Kennedy, or maybe even the numerous background articles by the Guardian, not just one or two articles.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/mark-kennedy


As you say, the only secret stuff that Gilchrist and kennedy were able to disrupt were when an activist group was planning something that needed and element of surprise. All activist groups will have to do this occasionally and there is nothing particularly covert about it. Also, there is nothing wrong with wanting to organise in private without the state eavesdropping on our every move. There's nothing wrong with people wanting to hold a private event on their private land either (eg The Urewera camps).

I am involved with plenty of groups that are perfectly legal with nothing to hide. However I also believe in privacy. No one outside a group needs to see the membership list or the meeting minutes or our internal discussions. And, maybe we might want to plan a protest that depends on a little bit of secrecy or surprise. if we are effective we might very well be collecting info on a bad corporation or talking to whistleblowers or any number of things that need to be private for a while. And, I like to think that I can trust the people I work with, Which means we all have the right to exclude people we dont want to work with from our groups.

I agree that in Gilchrist and others promoted a certain type of security culture/paranoia that emphasised secrecy and divisiveness. These mainly took the form of pretending they were involved in "secret squirrel stuff", and then making sure everyone knew about it. And they encouraged the idea that all forms of activism needed very high levels of secrecy. this was and is very destructive and stupid. But you seem to be suggesting that this is the normal way of organising for a lot of groups, and we need a major shift away from this. In fact only a few groups behaved lke this and almost all of them gave up that sort of sillyness years ago.


>Perhaps you are attacking me for writing this article because you think holding this sort of historical enquiry and >tactical debate on a website in public view is airing our dirty laundry in public. To me, this an illustration of the >conceptual prison I believe so many activists are trapped in - a false belief that effective, large-scale collective >politics can be practiced in private.

Or it could be that I think debates should be informed by facts rather than speculation. And, this debate is not us practising large scale collective politics. It is a few people posting on the internet. I would like to see some large scale collective politics happening one day soon, but it wont be happening on the internet.

>We can have this debate where only the Police can see, or where everyone can see. I prefer the latter.

are they the only two choices available?


>Political legitimacy is not granted by the State, it is granted by the public, the demos, the workers, the masses, the plebians (or whatever turn of phrase you prefer). Yes, the State (and Corporations etc) will always spy on anyone that threatens their power, and if the examples of Gilchrist, Kennedy, and Operation 8 are anything to go by, most of the time they will succeed. This is exactly my point.

Actually you are completely wrong AGAIN! All three examples you just used were massive police failures. Operation 8 was the biggest attack on Tuhoe and their supporters for decades, and despite the problems with the defence campaign and court strategy, the Police only managed to get two people into prison for a couple of years, instead of the original 18-20 people for twenty year terrorism sentences.
Overall that case was a hugely embrassing failure and PR disaster for the police.

The exposure of Gilchrist in 2008 was also a huge embarassment to the Police. Likewise, if you have been following the Kennedy case in the UK, and the other half a dozen other cops discovered in the UK activist movement since then, you wil see that it was been one of the biggest debacles in recent UK police history, and its not over yet, with some big court cases being taken against the Police still to come.

All the examples you use prove the exact opposite of your point. The Police do not always win, and they are not invincible. We can and should do things to minimise the impact of Police surveillance and repression. We need to figure out how to be safe and secure, without being paranoid,and we need to do this by examining the facts, and discussing stuff in person within our groups and movements.

Dangerously naive or intentionally deceptive

 @Mark E

Again with the personal attacks ("uninformed"). As you well know, I am speaking from personal experience. Gilchrist spied on a number of projects and network I was involved in, including the InterActive activist space in Ōtautahi, and the Save Happy Valley Coalition. Also, the Indy newswire is a place for commentary on current issues, as well as "new information".

Mark E:

>> And [Gilchrist et al] encouraged the idea that all forms of activism needed very high levels of secrecy. this was and is very destructive and stupid. But you seem to be suggesting that this is the normal way of organising for a lot of groups, and we need a major shift away from this. In fact only a few groups behaved lke this and almost all of them gave up that sort of sillyness years ago. <<

This was point of my article. Considering we agree on this, I don't understand why you then contradict yourself, and spend the rest of your article defending exactly this kind of "sillyness", saying this like: 

>> We can and should do things to minimise the impact of Police surveillance and repression. We need to figure out how to be safe and secure, without being paranoid,and we need to do this by examining the facts, and discussing stuff in person within our groups and movements. <<

And...

>> Also, there is nothing wrong with wanting to organise in private without the state eavesdropping on our every move. <<

I didn't say it was wrong. I said it's not possible, not without massive political changes. Anyone who says otherwise is either dangerously naive, or is intentionally deceptive. Encouraging newbie activists to do everything in closed groups and marginalise themselves using ineffective "security culture" is what the likes of Gilchrist and Kennedy do. As we've already agreed, they encourage secret squirrel practice which makes people think it's safe to speak "securely" when it almost always isn't, and erodes their public legitimacy and their ability to win mass support for their causes.

Strypey:

>>> We can have this debate where only the Police can see, or where everyone can see. I prefer the latter. <<<

Mark E:

>> are they the only two choices available? <<

Yes. To believe otherwise, in the face of the tip of the surveillance iceberg we have seen exposed so far, is dangerously naive. See above.

Besides, what is to be gained from discussing the implications of surveillance on activism only in "private", where any experienced activist is almost definitely under surveillance? How does this help the hundreds or thousands of people currently being radicalised by the massively increased imposition of corporate-state power? Are they supposed to make the same mistakes all over again instead of learning from our experiences?

Mark E:

>> Actually you are completely wrong AGAIN! All three examples you just used were massive police failures. <<

All three examples showed that police informants are able to deeply embed themselves in the political and social circles of activists for many years, and that even deep in the forest, we can still be under highly effective surveillance. There are other informants we have exposed. There will be other informants we have yet to expose. To presume otherwise, and think you can have private conversations in your activist offices, and private email lists, is again, dangerously naive.

You are right that these three cases were embarrassing for the police, but only because nobody was actually doing anything which the majority of people felt justified the surveillance, and more importantly, because once the whole thing was in the public eye, the spies ended up looking a whole lot shiftier than the activists. That's why I propose a strategy of organising in the public eye all the time, as laid out in the article. It's a suggestion, not an instruction, and if you don't agree, that's fine, don't follow it.

Mark E

>> I would like to see some large scale collective politics happening one day soon, but it wont be happening on the internet. <<

I agree. It happened all summer in town squares around the country. It's been happening all through the country in response to sales of the public commons ("asset sales"), and various other austerity attacks by the government. "One day soon", are you really so out of touch with reality? See you on the streets, mate.

 

silly strypey

The basic problem with your argument is that, despite the evidence, you seem to think we have only seen "the tip of the surveillance iceberg". You are portraying the police and the state as invincible super spies with unlimited resources. this is simply not true as you would know if you had read any of the articles I linked to above or attended any of the public meetings about the state and surveillance over the last few years (or even before that, magazines like Peace Researcher have been reporting on the NZ security state for decades). Operation 8 was the biggest Police surveillance operation against lefty activists in NZ in years and the Police in that operation made lots of mistakes, ran out of resources and were unable to acheive most of what they set out to do. Yes a lot of activists also made mistakes too. So the point is to learn from this, not to just go 'Oh the police are invincible'.

and, nowhere have I suggested that this is a topic that should be discussed in private as you state above. what I said was we should discuss this in our organisations and groups. This will be more productive and more indepth than posting uninformed opinions on the internet.

Mark E.

Strypey's Wager(s)

Mark E writes:

>> Silly Strypey <<

You just can't help yourself, can you. Do you really think prefacing these your arguments with lame personal attacks lends them credibility? You don't need to poppy-chop me to support your argument, so I don't understand why you consistently try. It just makes you come across like a troll, which is a shame, because I know you're actually quite a nice chap in person.

Again, as you probably know, I have been to many public meetings about state surveillance over about 15 years, and done quite a bit of my own research. I'd wager I've forgotten more about computer security than you'll know if you live to be 100. Similarly, I'm sure you've forgotten more about the history of exposed informants like Kennedy, and arrested activists around the world, than I'll ever know. We have specialised in different fields of activism, and different areas of knowledge.

Mark E:

>> despite the evidence, you seem to think we have only seen "the tip of the surveillance iceberg" <<

OK, perhaps that wording was a bit hyperbolic. My point is that there are almost certainly still informants among us, and surveillance being carried out. Given what we've exposed, what evidence suggest there wouldn't be? Why did the state bother to pass the Search and Surveillance Bill, and retrospectively legalise blanket video surveillance, if they intend to stop spying on us? Even if the cops ran out of money to spy on us, and the SIS, and GCSB (very unlikely), there are still the likes of Thomson and Clark.

What I'm proposing is basically a variation of Pascal's wager. Since we can't be sure at any given time that we aren't being spied on, we need to find ways of organising which make it irrelevant whether we are or not. As I said in the original article, there are times and ways to be we're pretty sure we are safe (although never 100% sure), but under the current political circumstances they're the exception, not the rule. This, as I understand it, is actually the point of "security culture", not being all secret squirrel about everything we do, which as you quite rightly point out, is silly.

Mark E:

>> So the point is to learn from this, not to just go 'Oh the police are invincible'. <<

Well that strawman is certainly dead. Maybe now you can address one or more of the points I actually made?

Mark E:

>> nowhere have I suggested that this is a topic that should be discussed in private as you state above <<

I'm sorry, I thought that's what you meant when you said (emphasis mine):

>> We need to figure out how to be safe and secure, without being paranoid,and we need to do this by examining the facts, and discussing stuff in person WITHIN OUR GROUPS AND MOVEMENTS. <<

My mistake.

Oh, hang on. You contradict yourself within that very same paragraph, by repeating exactly this same sentiment. Then you seem to claim that oral discussions are more in depth, and informed, than discussions on the net, where people have access to masses of historical and contextual information at the click of a few buttons, and can spend some time thinking about and editing their responses, rather than just giving knee-jerk responses until they foam at the mouth and fall over. Sorry Mark E, you'll have to explain the punchline to that joke. It went right over my head.

What about the personal side?

I agree with Mark. Also, Danyl is completely ignoring the personal side of being spied on: both Gilchrist and Kennedy (aka Stone) entered several intimate relationships with activists, and being betrayed like that is not funny. To say that there is no harm in being spied on when you're not doing anything illegal ignoring half the story.

But there is a problem with how the various activists group allowed Gilchrist to remain in these groups for a long time, despite that fact that no one really trusted him. That is something that activist groups need to discuss.

BTW, Kennedy has a new job.

 

 

 

Harmful, yes. Funny, no.

@ TeddyBear

I didn't mention the intimate relationships for the same reason I didn't mention the narks shouting lots of people drugs, because they aren't that relevant to my point. They are certainly examples of the damage caused when the Police have reason to think there is something going on they don't know about, which is kind of my point, because generally there isn't. But because of the amatuerish "security culture" paranoia and the laughably ineffective attempts at "cybersecurity", they think there is.

I never said spying caused no harm, and I never implied it was funny. Not sure where you got those ideas. Obviously I don't agree with them. Also I never said we shouldn't do things that are illegal, like posessing cannabis, or camping in public squares, or occupying the land around public commons which the State is trying to privatise. I said we should do them openly, en masse, which in my experience gives us confidence in our collective power, without making it easy to paint targets on our characters, for easy assasination in the mass media.

>> But there is a problem with how the various activists group allowed Gilchrist to remain in these groups for a long time, despite that fact that no one really trusted him. That is something that activist groups need to discuss. <<

Absolutely, and it's not the only thing.

True and effective activism

True and effective activism is becoming rarer now days , civil disobedience , direct action etc is getting replaced by starting a facebook page and then having people "like " the page as if thats activism . To me it seems its all becoming online apart from tired street marches .


I remember the 1980's a different world from now , without the internet and mobile phones but when activism was rife and effective , a time when people acted alone or in groups rather (on a variety of issuses , the ALF was also big in NZ then)that just sign another useless online petition or like a facebook page .

Clarification on Urewera Camps

Anyone who has read anything I've written about Operation 8 since October 15, 2007 will be in no doubt about my solidarity with all those arrested or otherwise terrorised by the police on that day, in the Urewera and elsewhere in Aotearoa, and with the Tūhoe struggle for autonomy. I have never, and will never, say that any of the police actions - from the illegal surveillance to the viscious raids - were justified, nor that the mass media smear campaign against those arrested was fair or balanced.

Read in that context, it's clear that when I say...

>> Comparing the aftermath of Operation 8 to that of Occupy shows us that it's much easier to demonize activists through the mass media when we organise in the shadows, than when we do it in plain sight. <<

... this is a strategic observation, made with the benefit of hindsight. An attempt to learn from our collective experience of resistence, not a criticism of those arrested. When Mark E. resorts to implying otherwise by saying...

>> There's nothing wrong with people wanting to hold a private event on their private land either (eg The Urewera camps). <<

...it merely demonstrates the weakness of his argument, and his character. With allies like this, who needs the mass media to smear us?