Friday, March 22, 2013

May Day 2001: a police spy at the Elephant & Castle?

A guest post from "La Infanta de Castilla"

The Elephant and Castle has been a bit of a hive of radical activity of late. The Self Organised London Social Space is still going a month after the initial occupation of Eileen House on Newington Causeway, a former Department of Health building scheduled for demolition. Nearby at 44-50 Lancaster Street, the empty Colorama 2 building has also been occupied as the Library Street Community Centre (though having been there since September 2012, they may soon be evicted having been in court this week). Last week there was a protest against workfare at the  London HQ of the Salvation Army also on Newington Causeway, and on March 7th activists from the Anti Raids Network disrupted UK Borders Agency checks opposite Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

Back in 2001, the Elephant was one of the gathering points for the May Day anti-capitalist protests. The theme that year was May Day Monopoly, with actions planned at sites across London.

Well as everyone knows Old Kent Road is the only South London location on the Monopoly board, so clearly the Elephant and Castle just had to be the South London focus.

The South London Mayday Collective met to plan for the event, calling on people to gather at the E&C roundabout from noon on Tuesday May 1st 2001. Several hundred people did so and there was a bit of a picnic on the roundabout with the Rinky Dink cycle powered sound system, before people headed off towards Kennington and then into town, dodging round side streets to get around police blockades.

In Central London a large part of the 5,000 crowd ended up being 'kettled' by the police for 8 hours by Oxford Circus. There were 92 arrests on the day, and plenty of bruises as police made free use of their batons.

But perhaps not everybody who was at the Elephant on May Day 2001 had straightforward motives. As part of its ongoing investigations into police infiltration, The Guardian last month identified 'Rod Richardson' as a possible undercover police agent, seemingly using the identity of a dead child ('Rod Richardson: the mystery of the protester who was not who he claimed', Guardian 6 February 2013).  Richardson is also discussed in another Guardian article by his former friend Laura Oldfield Ford:

'It was April 2001, and I was walking across the complicated system of roundabouts at Elephant and Castle in south London to meet a group of fellow activists in a bar at the Southbank. We were a group of anarchists, environmentalists and anti-capitalist protesters who were having a planning meeting for a May Day demonstration which was only days away. It was a balmy spring evening, and the sense of mounting excitement was palpable. At these big meetings you'd see a group of your friends and gravitate towards them. These were people you shared a strong affinity with – people you'd been on big European protests with, who you'd put yourself at risk with, maybe even been arrested and beaten up with. These were people you trusted implicitly, and with whom you shared a strong bond.

When I arrived, one of the first people who grabbed me in an embrace was Rod. We had only been friends for a year or so but in that time shared a lot of intense experiences, living as we did in an environment of strong camaraderie and full-time activism. We had both been around various anti-capitalist groups where we had occupied buildings, worked together on actions, travelled around the country together and enjoyed long drinking sessions after protests. He would come and visit and we would have meals together; he would sit at the table with us discussing ideas and strategies. It wasn't until after he vanished without a trace in 2003 that I became suspicious that "Rod" wasn't whom he claimed to be, and that he may have been an undercover police officer...

In 2001 we begun small meetings in my flat to discuss the logistics of blocking the Elephant and Castle roundabout to clog up a main artery into the City. Rod was a regular visitor, and even stayed the night there on occasion, most notably the night before the May Day 2001 protests. His reason for doing this was that he lived up in Hertfordshire and wanted to be in central London for the first actions of the day. Around this time, my flat was raided by the police – this seemed disproportionate when what we were actually arrested for was flyposting. We were held overnight in police cells, where even the duty sergeant expressed surprise that someone being held for "graffiti" would have their home raided.

Ten years on, "Rod" is now suspected to have been an undercover police officer. It is a disturbing thing to read about, to know that the name we called him may actually have belonged to a baby who died at two days old. Such an infiltration affects you psychologically, and impacts on your relationships with other people. It makes it more difficult to welcome new people into your friendship group. Politically, it's easy to see how damaging it is: the movement can't function if trust between activists is eroded. When a network is riven by accusations and suspicions, organisation and practical actions become an impossibility.

The weirdest thing of all is that I liked Rod a lot – he was such a nice bloke, always smiling and a good laugh in the pub. He appeared to be a committed activist, not afraid of breaking the law, challenging police lines and subjecting himself to, and in some cases instigating, difficult and dangerous situations for the sake of our collective principles. He never, to my knowledge, tried to initiate any kind of intimate relationship with anyone in the scene, but came across as genuinely decent and friendly. He left behind an odd floating feeling akin to grief, with questions left unanswered and a sense of betrayal and loss.

from Indymedia

If I saw him now, I would for an instant expect the smile and the warm embrace, because I haven't adjusted to the idea that the entire friendship may have been fake. I am still deeply confused by the whole episode. There is an element of me that wonders if he experienced confusion as well. It's hard to accept that all those feelings of kinship and affection, those familial bonds that form through full-time activism, were perhaps a sham. If Rod was indeed misguiding us all along, surely feelings of revulsion and guilt must have shivered across him when we called out to him in that stolen name'

As discussed here before, another infiltrator of radical movements - 'Jim Sutton' - lived undercover in East Dulwich around this period. Not that the practice is anything new - during the 1926 General Strike the Lewisham Council of Action was believed to have been infiltrated by a man called Johnstone.

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