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Blacklisting, protest, 'domestic extremism' and the London Olympics

Finally the Metropolitan Police have come clean and admitted their role in the blacklisting of construction workers. While a number of companies had already owned up to their involvement with The Consulting Association, which kept a list of union members for the purposes of preventing them getting work on construction sites, even paying compensation to over 700 blacklisted workers, the police had refused to acknowledge their role in passing on information about union members to companies and The Consulting Association.

The existence of the blacklist, which included the names of over 3,500 workers, was revealed in a raid carried out by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which discovered the details of these workers in an investigation in 2009, although allegations of blacklisting had been made for decades. Workers and lawyers had been convinced blacklisting was an established practice back in the 1960s. The breakthrough came at an employment tribunal in 2008 when Alan Wainwright, a former manager in the construction industry, gave evidence that blacklisting was a widespread practice. The difficulty of proving blacklisting was suddenly overcome leading to the raid on The Consulting Association.

The arrival of the Olympics provided a considerable impetus to the already existing campaign against blacklisting. As the highest profile construction site in the country the Olympic Park attracted attention like no other. In 2009 the Olympics became a focus for protests after it was found in the raid on The Consulting Association that one of the key contractors on the Olympic site, Laing O’Rourke, had been involved with the blacklisting group. Then when, in February 2011, Frank Morris, who was working as an electrician at the Media Centre, was sacked by a sub-contractor after he defended a whistleblower, who had already been fired, there were renewed protests and demands for action and investigation. This led to further revelations about the contacts between Olympics contractors like Carillion, Sir Robert McAlpine and Skanska and The Consulting Association. Despite the knowledge that these Olympics contractors had been named in documents found by the Information Commissioner the Olympics Delivery Authority (ODA) failed to take any action apart from asking contractors if they were involved in blacklisting. Unsurprisingly the contractors denied any involvement.

However, given its place in the public eye, the ODA did not escape so easily. The House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs started an investigation and in 2013 the ODA was lambasted for its failure to respond to evidence that blacklisting was happening on the Olympic Park. The Chair of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee declared the 'ODA were deceived, gullible or negligent' after hearing evidence which contradicted the declarations of the ODA's Chief Executive, Dennis Hone, who had told the Committee: “The ODA did not receive any evidence or could find any evidence of blacklisting on the Olympic Park during the construction phase or otherwise."

Despite the steady drip of revelations and investigations it took the Met until February 2013 launch its own ‘investigation’ into police involvement. The interesting question is why the police even needed to have an investigation. They should have known what their own officers were up to. The man who ran The Consulting Associations, Ian Kerr, had himself been a Special Branch police officer, and the Met would have known it was this section of the police which was most likely to have been involved in this kind of dirty operation. As a former Special Branch officer he would have retained valuable contacts in the force.

The Met’s shyness at looking into its own activities was followed by a reluctance to release the report which took an astonishing three years to complete. Then instead of releasing the results of this investigation which, it is now revealed, found the allegations ‘proven’, the report was sent to the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Hogan-Howe, precisely because of its sensitivity. Hogan-Howe, true to form, then failed to pass on the result. The police sat on the report for a further two years all of which demonstrates that the process always had more to do with concealment and evasion than with taking action. Even then the police failed to say anything of substance about what they had found. Indeed the Met’s statement was bland beyond belief:

"The report concludes that, on the balance of probabilities, the allegation that the police or Special Branches supplied information is 'proven'. Material revealed a potentially improper flow of information from Special Branch to external organisations, which ultimately appeared on the blacklist."

So three years of investigation and two further years of delay to refer to the ‘balance of probabilities’ a ‘potentially improper flow of information’ occurred. There are now calls for a public enquiry into this whole swamp.

That the police kept those considered to be troublemakers under surveillance was nothing new and of course everyone in the Met knew this. In 2015 Guardian journalist Phil Chamberlain, who had earlier reported the tribunal case, provided a rundown on the activities of different police groups. His article charted how the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) was set up in 1968 to infiltrate protest groups. Mark Jenner, who went by the name Mark Cassidy, later exposed as a police spy, was sent as an undercover spy to infiltrate the Colin Roach Centre in north London in 1994 posing as a joiner. The Guardian noted that among those based at the centre were trade-union campaigns and that information from SDS could have been available to Special Branch. In the case of one trade unionist, Frank Smith, who was both a victim of blacklisting and known to the police for his anti-fascist activities, it turned out his anti-fascist activity was known to the manager of his building company, information in no way relevant to his profession. It is hard to see where this could have come from except from the police.

Other police bodies have long been engaged in covert surveillance of those considered in some way or other to be troublemakers, almost exclusively on the Left. Ian Kerr himself revealed he had attended a briefing in 2008 by an officer from the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu) to construction company executives. This agency targeted a wide range of so-called extremists, in this instance trade unionists. In December 2011 the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit took over this task from Netcu.

Over several decades the police developed an obsession with protest groups of many different kinds, including animal liberation groups, airport noise campaigners, trade unionists, anti-fascist groups.The Olympics was a prime focus of such surveillance and members of London2012 Olympics protest groups like the Counter Olympics Network and Save Leyton Marsh were targeted and labelled as ‘domestic extremists’. One of the most significant features of modern Olympics is the massive emphasis on security and the expansion of surveillance of people engaged in perfectly legitimate opposition to the project. Members of these groups have confirmed that they were being tracked by putting in requests for disclosure of their personal information from the Metropolitan Police.

In the case of both the Counter Olympics Network (CON) and Save Leyton Marsh (SLM), which campaigned against the building of a temporary basketball arena on a piece of open space well outside the Olympic Park, they were both open groups so hardly a problem to infiltrate and monitor. Anyone could join and meetings were open to all. Like most of the groups targeted by the police both SLM and CON were non-violent and took only limited direct action, mainly by SLM which attempted at one point to block lorries accessing the building site by playing boules and sitting in front of lorries.

The London2012 Olympics' obsession with anything that could be considered a security problem led to some bizarre incidents with police intervening to prevent people taking photographs of signs, doing interviews on a particular path or even on a low wall, as well as more serious incidents as at Leyton Marsh and the arrest and detention of Mike Wells and the mass arrest of cyclists to prevent them riding in the vicinity of the Olympic Park. Perhaps the most ridiculous was the story of the alleged terrorist arrested while wearing an electronic tag. A variety of similar issues of police spying, arrests of journalists and the treatment Olympics protesters were raised around the Vancouver2010 Winter Olympics.

One of those involved with groups opposing the London Olympics, Kevin Blowe, wrote a fascinating piece on the surveillance carried out on him as a ‘domestic extremist’. He noted that he was listed as “known for his involvement in Counter Olympics Network, Save Wanstead Flats and Network for Police Monitoring”. Save Wanstead Flats was a campaign to prevent a piece of open space in East London being used as a temporary police base during the Olympics. He goes on to note how:

This, apparently, was enough to justify continuing surveillance (I get a mention for attending the UK Uncut bedroom tax protest in April 2013) but it’s a very, very long way from “threats of harm from serious crime and serious disruption to the life of the community arising from criminal activity.

Kevin noted that his file included some inaccurate and possibly defamatory assertions:

at no time, for example, did I ever become CON’s ‘Security Advisor’ or ever suggest ‘shutting tube stations by triggering fire alarms’.

Both SLM and CON had a number of experiences suggesting the police were present at meetings or were trying to become familiar with members of the campaigns. Kevin Blowe recorded in his post above how his presence at a Save Leyton Marsh meeting appeared in his file. Interestingly at one CON meeting an idiot suggested carrying fridges up onto a bridge over Stratford High Street and then chucking them down on to the road below, an idea remarkable for its stupidity on a number of different levels! I say idiot, because the only other possibility was that he was a police officer trying to provoke some kind of idiocy. The meeting simply ignored him. However, that the police were present was later revealed when one participant told the meeting he had written ‘Fuck the Olympics’ on the side of his canal boat. He found a note on his boat telling him to remove the slogan when he got back from the meeting, plainly a message designed to tell protesters police had been keeping track of their meetings.

Some of what is reported above is simply petty and stupid. Blacklisting and listing people as 'domestic extremists' is of a different order, the long term sabotaging of people’s rights both to work and to organise and support one another. The underlying theme is one of interference with people’s legitimate rights to investigate, argue, protest. The Olympics is used as a pretext to practise and extend these activities by the police and security authorities.

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