I still remember my first time


I still remember my first time.  It was a fine sunny morning on the Easter bank holiday weekend in 1991.  I had just dropped my girlfriend off at an inter-city coach and was walking back past the bank on College Green when a voice behind me said ‘Stop, I want to talk to you for a minute’.  Presuming it was someone trying to sell me something, I waved them off, but then the guy in the badly fitting suit walked around in front of me, held out some sort of ID card and announced he was Special Branch.

At the time I wasn’t used to the routine but it goes a little bit like this.  They demand your name and address.  You try and avoid giving it to them by asking what this is in connection with.  They tell you ‘it's terrorism’ (or sometimes drugs) and if you won’t hand over the details they will arrest you.  Of course most of the time they already know who you are; this is just how the game is played out.  This morning, the next step for this secret policeman was to tell me he had been looking at a photograph of me at an anti-war demonstration speaking to a known IRA member and he wanted to know who that person was.  Years later I have to admire that particular question, both for the wonderfully open-ended nature of the enquiry and for the absurdity of asking me about someone who had just been described to me as ‘known to them’. I told him I didn’t have a clue what he was on about and the conversation spun around in those sort of circles before I walked off. Today I’d know not to get drawn in, but as I say this was my first time. 

When I got out of sight my imagination was in overdrive; I feared this was the first step of a massive crackdown on the anarchist movement and so rang the five or so members of that movement to warn them what was in progress.  Needless to say, no one got raided later in the day, although a couple of people did get questioned on the street in a similar fashion over the next couple of months. 

A recent encounter in April 2010 happened after I left a Dublin Shell to Sea meeting and was followed down a narrow city laneway by a carload of burly men.  They didn’t bother stopping, just pulled past me and then went around the block and passed me again as I strolled along, just in case I’d missed them the first time.  Two months later in June I was actually stopped, this time five minutes after cycling away from another Shell to Sea event, this time a picket of Mountjoy prison. That amounted to no more than a conversation where they demanded my date of birth (needed for the PULSE computer system) which I refused to give to them. 

Almost 20 years on, I’ve had encounters of some sort with Branch men (and in one case a woman) and their equivalents in Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Mexico and Britain.  In North America, where they do things a little differently, I’ve evidence of being on a watch list in the USA and I may even have a file in Canada. In Ireland I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been stopped, followed or had a car outside my door.  I’d quite like to get the file that must exist, as it surely contains much I’ve forgotten.  This list makes it sound like I should be an international arms dealer but the funny thing is that really I’ve done little to deserve such loving attention: a couple of hundred articles, organising the odd protest and perhaps a hundred or so speaking engagements.  And all this in public, indeed every one of those articles is online in my own name.

Sometime, a little over 150 years ago, the French proto-anarchist Pierre Proudhon wrote that

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue.

He would never have had the experience of walking down a busy city street to observe every single gardaí CCTV camera on every intersection swivel to follow him, but clearly he understood the concept.

Of course we don’t live in a military dictatorship.  Our secret police force does not bundle people into the back of vans with their torture marked bodies appearing a week later on the town rubbish dump.  From time to time they have bundled people into vans all right, and they have certainly beaten people, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.  Most often their role is simply to discourage and disrupt, to raise the cost of being active and to reduce its effectiveness.

I figure it's largely about fear and paranoia.  That is the purpose of all the time spent watching: it is not for the most part intelligence gathering at all, but instead all about getting you to look over your shoulder and worry about being watched and the repercussions of being watched.  As was the case with me back in ’91, they target fresh faces with the obvious intention of trying to scare people off.  My experience wasn’t a big deal because they were obviously not taking the then 5 strong anarchist movement all that seriously! But with the organisations they have gone after hard (eg Sinn Féin in the 1980s) a more extreme version of the same thing had major impact, scaring large numbers of new members away.  In some parts of  the country SF found it necessary to put new members though a mock interrogation so they were prepared for the inevitable encounter with the branch, and new members stayed in the organisation in much greater numbers as a result.

Apart from intimidating us, this also means that we sometimes needlessly distrust each other. Occasionally, I have had the experience when a new guy, and I say guy deliberately as it's nearly always men that provoke suspicion, who isn’t from an existing social scene arrives at a meeting and a string of people tell me they are sure he is a cop.  This is liable to happen in particular if you're a little older or more “normally” dressed than the average anti-capitalist activist. It’s even happened to me: I remember visiting an anarchist meet-up point during the anti-capitalist  protest against the EU in Seville in 2002  only to be confronted by some younger punky types who reckoned I had to be either a cop or a journalist as I was not  wearing their ‘uniform’. 

The secret state, ever-present at our activities, makes us wary of each other. The impact of the secret police can be surprisingly disruptive. It encourages an inward-looking culture that is suspicious of strangers.  Someone asking questions becomes someone to suspect rather than someone to welcome.  Even under quite mild surveillance, the pressure wears away at the bonds of human solidarity that unite and motivate us in the first place.

How can we resist?  Mostly we can understand what it is they are trying to achieve and be careful not to play the game they are trying to push us into.  We can refuse to become paranoid and inward-looking. We can refuse to impose a cultural uniform on ourselves under the illusion this will enable us to tell friend from foe. We can expect a certain level of harassment, and although it may quicken our pulses (mine still does when that unmarked car cruises up behind me on a dark city street) we cannot let that affect our activity.  We can support friends who are feeling the pressure and we can reach out to strangers who are in danger of being isolated.  We can build a movement that is bigger than them.

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Really interesting read

Thank you!