How an undercover cop set back a climate movement

This story has international implications for peaceful activists, especially those who want to interrupt business as usual in many countries to draw attention to the climate crisis after decades of inaction.

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There had to have been some who were suspicious of Mark ‘Flash’ Stone when he first joined UK activists fighting climate change in Nottinghanshire, which includes Nottingham, a popular tourist destination in the eastern English midlands, in 2003. He became active in the self-managed community social space, the Sumac Center, which had become a regional hub for climate and other activists. 

He claimed to have what might have proven to be useful skills for direct actions as an industrial climber, a job that was doubly convenient in that it gave him an excuse to leave on occasion for ‘work’.

It may have seemed to some that he changed his somewhat clean cut appearance over time, growing his hair out and getting multiple piercings while in Nottingham. Though he was said to avoid talking about it, Stone was also rumored to have been involved in drug running, giving him a romantic backstory as an outlaw.

Despite the red flags that should have been raised by Stone’s cover story, it was relatively easy for a man who always had a little extra money to spend and could provide transportation in the form of a van to win over a tight knit community of activists that usually lacked these very things. He also entered into multi-year relationships with fellow activists that probably allayed any suspicions there may have been about him and his rather sudden appearance on the activist scene.

As it turned out, ‘Mark Stone’ was a fiction, the undercover identity of Mark Kennedy, an officer with London’s Metropolitan police serving in the Uk’s secretive, now disbanded, National Public Order Intelligence Unit, an organization one of whose main functions was spying on political activists in the country. While his wife and children lived in Ireland, Kennedy infiltrated activist circles in Nottingham and beyond for 7 years until his identity was made public.

During his time undercover, Kennedy entered into years long intimate relationships with at least 2 women and had sex with at least 8 others. His police handlers either ignored or encouraged this unethical behavior. One of these women, Kate Wilson, was awarded almost a quarter of a million pounds by a police tribunal for violations of her human rights on Tuesday, January 25th.

In a statement taking the larger view of the lies Kennedy told, Wilson wrote, “It (the decision) is important because it goes beyond the scandal of undercover officers deceiving women into intimate relationships. Violating our political rights was the entire reason for these deployments and thousands of people will have had their political rights violated in this way.” 

Unfortunately, Mark Kennedy wasn’t an aberration, as at least five other officers have been found to have engaged in similar behavior. A separate investigation found that Kennedy and these other officers had entered into relationships with women while infiltrating not just climate but social justice focused groups as well. 

In the end it was his job that would create the conditions that ended Kennedy’s work as an infiltrator.

The end for ‘Mark Stone’ began when a large group of activists gathered on April 12th, 2009 to stage a takeover of the Ratcliffe on Soar power plant, one of the largest coal powered stations in the country. The ambitious plan was to occupy and shut it down for a week. Showing how deeply embedded he was, Stone had been tasked with driving leaders on scouting missions in the months leading up to the plan.

Due to Kennedy’s insider status, police knew about the plan months before it was put in motion and most of those who would be arrested for it were still unaware of it.

Kennedy was taken into custody with 114 others in what police called a ‘pre-emptive raid’ and later claimed he’d been beaten by police who were unaware of his undercover role. When the charges against the activists were made public, one name was missing from the list: Mark Stone. Those he’d deceived soon realized why.

In the end, 88 of those arrested had the charges against them dropped while 26 went to trial, mainly on the dubious charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass, which had never resulted in a conviction in the past. As Danny Chivers, one of the 26 explained in a piece for the New Internationalist, 20 had been involved in the actual planning of the action, while 6 others including him had not.

Before being arrested, Chivers and others had only just been informed of the plan and had been given the choice of whether to opt out of participation in it, but all were arrested before they had the chance to make their decisions known to fellow activists.

The 20 leaders were found guilty at trial while the other six, after demanding more information on the involvement of Officer Kennedy had their charges dropped before they were supposed to be tried in early 2011.

Stone was later interviewed by a number of outlets including the Guardian, where he attempted to explain his actions and absolve himself of wrongdoing, “I was lying because it was my job to lie. I’m not a dishonest person. I had to tell lies about who Mark Stone was and where he was from for it to be real. To be fair, a lot of the things you do, say and talk about are much based upon who you are as a person and the places you’ve been to and the things you’ve done, because five years later somebody will go, ‘Ah, Mark, didn’t you say you went here?’ and you have to remember that. So a lot of the things I would talk about were pretty true.”

There was also an American angle to this story brought to light by a long investigative piece in Vice last week. Harry Halpin, who was involved in climate activism in the U.S. at the time, was at a meeting in New York that was also attended by ‘Mark Stone’. Soon after the meeting, described as uneventful by both men, Halpin found himself on the police’s radar.

The activist would later find that he wasn’t only on the radar at home but in the places he traveled, as he was stopped and interrogated by authorities on a trip to London after the meeting in New York and forced to provide his biometrics to them. Later, when in Copenhagen for a protest, Halpin claims he was beaten, arrested and accused of being a “terrorist” by Danish police.

Mark Kennedy has claimed that using his position undercover he’d helped police go after climate activists in 22 different countries, setting climate activism back far beyond the UK and likely introducing paranoia into these communities. Although they ultimately mostly failed in the courts, a precedent was set by the preemptive arrests of the activists Mark Kennedy targeted.

This story has international implications for peaceful activists, especially those who want to interrupt business as usual in many countries to draw attention to the climate crisis after decades of inaction. In the UK context, the country’s scandal ridden Conservative government introduced new legislation called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that further criminalizes popular actions like the temporary encampments and direct actions favored by growing movements like Extinction Rebellion.

There have long been fears of infiltration in activist communities but little proof until years later if ever, especially in the United States, where authorities seem more likely to rely on paid informants instead of undercover officers. The fact that Kennedy was useful to authorities in so many jurisdictions should leave us with questions of how vulnerable progressive movements of all kinds in Western representative democracies  are to this kind of infiltration.

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