By Robyn Banks

CW: mentions rape, emotional abuse

Last week Lush launched their #SpyCops campaign, aiming to raise awareness of the recent spy cops scandal. Since 2010, activists have been coming forward with stories of police officers infiltrating activist networks and living out fake lives that often involved having relationships with real members of these networks. The police have used officers’ testimony from within these relationships to build evidence against these groups. This experience has been extremely traumatic for the activists involved.

This practice is deeply immoral. By building a relationship on the premise of a false identity, it’s not possible for a partner to give informed consent. Sexual acts performed in such a relationship are tantamount to rape. Relationships like these can do devastating psychological harm. Facing the sudden revelation that someone who supposedly loved you has not only lied about who they are, but has also to be using you in order to infiltrate your life and activities, is a horrific experience. It has led to many of the victims feeling deeply betrayed and had significant effects upon their mental health.

The officers who commit these disgusting acts have yet to be charged. The closure needed by so many has been slow coming, not least because the investigations are compromised by the way that the offenders are being investigated by their colleagues, who have benefited from them taking part in these crimes. Theresa May announced an inquiry in 2015, but in its most recent report it announced a final response wouldn’t be released until 2023, nearly ten years after its launch. In the meantime many of the spy cops will be walking free, not facing the consequences of what they have done.

Relationships like these can do devastating psychological harm

This cruel method of surveillance has also had a significant effect on activist communities. I have often attended meetings of various groups where there is suspicion of new members who show an instant interest in getting involved in direct action. Since the scandal broke, new activists must face the constant suspicion that their wish to get involved is, in fact, a cover for something more sinister. This is compounded even further at mass demonstrations – I attended one last year where it was standard practice not to give your real name or where you had come from, simply because you didn’t know who could be listening. Because there is the constant fear of infiltration from a spy cop, the first couple of meetings can be lonely for those who try to get involved, discouraging them from returning. Without new members, groups can become closed cliques, lacking the diversity of vision to see outside of their own views and tactics. This can in turn lead to disillusionment within a group, leading to further dropouts, or it can lead to friction, with members fighting for control and pushing out other members who they see as holding back the potential progress of the group. These degrading effects on activist groups can be seen as a direct result of the spy cops scandal in many cases, and have lead to the collapse of activist communities that were once strongly bound together.

This is an unnecessary and disproportionate intervention into our rights to political expression

While I was writing this article, Lush decided to pull the campaign from their storefronts, citing the abuse that staff members have received. The criticisms levelled at Lush belie a failure to engage with and understand the campaign, born out of the unquestioning assumption that the police are a force for good. Current and former police officers came out to complain about the campaign undermining them and the overall role of the police, despite the fact that Lush have continuously stated that this isn’t a direct anti-police campaign. Responses like these ignore the problem: it is the choice to use abusive, disproportionate and underhand tactics like these spy cop operations that is undermining the image of the police force, not Lush. Whilst it is true that many of us may never have a positive view of the police (#ACAB), the force needs to recognise that it is their own tactics that create this stigma.

The aim of spy cop operations is to be able to arrest enough members for activist groups to collapse. Currently they are able to have an impact upon the functioning of groups just with their potential existence and the fear it creates. This is an unnecessary and disproportionate intervention into our rights to political expression, and in many cases has resulted in abusive breaches of trust. Whilst this will not be easily overcome, campaigns like Lush’s will help to put the pressure on to end this disgusting practice and to help heal the wounds that have been made. I fully support Lush’s campaign, despite its removal from their storefronts – and you should too.

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