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Activists ask: Undercover cop? Or one of us?

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Protesters holding banners and placards take part in a Climate Justice march on December 3, 2011 in London, England.

News analysis
LONDON – From Occupy protesters popping up worldwide, to students marching against tuition fees, to the anti-nuclear movement – people are angry and social activism seems to be on the rise. 

But now in the U.K. there is a question on the lips of many activists: Whom can we trust?

Their suspicions stem from stunning revelations in Britain about the infiltration of activist groups by undercover agents working for the police.

Imposture activist
For seven years Mark Stone lived and breathed the cause of British environmentalism. He was known as “Flash” because he usually drove a van, and seemed to be never short of cash. Over the years he became close to a key group of activists, attended rallies with them, traveled across Europe and appeared to wholeheartedly support their causes. He also developed personal relationships with several female protesters.

And yet, his true identity was in fact very different: He was an undercover police officer, real name Mark Kennedy, tasked with infiltrating environmental activist groups. He was unmasked when a fellow activist discovered his passport containing his real name.  

A string of prosecutions based on evidence Kennedy had gathered (like recorded conversations) have since collapsed after it became clear the evidence was not offered to lawyers defending the activists, even though it may have had an impact on their ability to establish their innocence.

So what was the purpose of the seven-year assignment, and the many thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on it?

Who else is being watched?
The case has raised questions about how many undercover operatives there are, and what sort of causes they are infiltrating. There are now at least a dozen investigations into police infiltration of the protest movement in the U.K.

Kennedy himself estimates that he knows of about 10 underground police officers who have infiltrated the environmental movement in the U.K.

But climate change campaigners are quick to ask: Why? They insist their movement is peaceful. The green activists say this level of police activity and intrusion would be fitting for terrorists – and that they do not pose a comparable risk.

Issues regarding the police operatives’ behavior have also raised concern. Undercover officers are strictly forbidden from entering into sexual relationships with their targets – and yet this seems to have happened on several occasions with Kennedy. And are they permitted to break the law while acting with their groups? And what accountability is there if they do overstep the mark?

There seems to be little clarity about what other protest organizations might have been selected for infiltration and why. While the public asks how these activities can be justified, the protesters themselves are increasingly looking over their shoulders and asking who among them may in fact be an undercover officer.