On 10 January, a court case against six campaigners, who were preemptively arrested while planning to shut down a coal power station as part of a climate change protest, collapsed when one of the 114 original arrestees was exposed as a police spy.
Mark Kennedy (aka Mark ‘Stone’) had posed as an activist for seven years within the climate movement. Incredibly, so deeply had he gone undercover that during the trial of the ‘Ratcliffe 114’ he effectively switched sides and, having allegedly quit the police force, offered to act as a witness for the defendants instead.
The case of Mark Kennedy has raised many pertinent and uncomfortable questions for the police. His deep-rooted involvement with the activist movement – which in this case included hiring a vehicle for the proposed action at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, driving a reconnaissance party to the power station and recruiting activists for the protest – has led many to the conclusion that he acted as an agent provocateur. The actions of the Crown Prosecution Service have also been called into question, as it would appear that they were initially willing to suppress evidence given by Kennedy which would have seen the activists acquitted.
These are chilling issues which must be answered. Yet they also beg fundamental questions about the way in which the police force operates towards activists in Britain. The campaigners who were arrested prior to the protest at the coal plant were arrested for their thoughts, not their actions. Moreover, even if they had successfully shut down the power station as planned, this does not necessarily mean they would have been committing a crime.
In 2008, six Greenpeace campaigners tried to shut down Kingsnorth power station by occupying the smokestack and writing ‘Gordon Bin It’ down the chimney. They were acquitted by a jury, having successfully made the case that the damage they caused was justified in order to prevent much greater damage to property around the world which would be caused by climate change. The activists’ protest in this case did not constitute a crime in the eyes of the law.
In the light of this evidence, we might ask in whose interests the police were acting by preemptively arresting 114 campaigners on the basis that they intended to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station? Ironically, whereas the actions of the Kingsnorth six were successfully shown to be proportionate by a jury, the actions of the police in the Ratcliffe case would almost undoubtedly not stand up in a court of law. Which is why the case was dropped at the 11th hour.
We have a proud tradition of peaceful, civil disobedience in Britain, which is one that campaigners working on a wide range of issues have upheld for many decades. The need for action on climate change has never been greater. Yet those groups who are at the forefront in pushing for change are now finding themselves forced to fight against the very authorities who are ostensibly working in the public interest.
The employment of police spies within peaceful protest groups (at a cost of £250,000 each, per year) is not about maintaining law and order. It is about controlling and keeping under surveillance members of the public who challenge the status quo and demand change. It is about protecting the interests of the powerful corporates whose profit margins are threatened by the actions of those who look to put people before profit, and the environment before share prices.
These are questions which it is vital for us to address if we are to achieve real and measurable change towards a socially just, low carbon future. The Kennedy story is a sad one, but perhaps some good can come out of it; with the police exposed and the climate movement back in the limelight, surely now is the time for us to act.
Elizabeth Baines works on a freelance basis for New Internationalist, and over the past few years has been involved in campaigning on a range of issues, including airport expansion and new coal power.