Statement to the Undercover Policing Inquiry

This is a direct address by NMP to the Inquiry, published on 9 November 2020

Of course, the local police disliked – perhaps even hated – NMP. The cosy narrative of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ style policing, together with its younger cousin ‘community policing’, were repeatedly exposed as untrue and at odds with the experiences of black communities that often felt under occupation.

The Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) was a community group created by black people, and white anti-racists, as a community-based resource to fight racism. This opening statement must be read in conjunction with the annual reports which will be appended to our written submissions and will represent the evidence we propose to provide to the inquiry.

NMP was the product of the struggle of black communities in Newham and across east London. The project came into existence in 1980 after the racist murder of Akhtar Ali Baig in East Ham. It was formed following a campaign by the local community to force a response from the statutory agencies, including the police. Shortly after its formation, it extended its remit to report and campaign on the harassment by the police of black communities in Newham.

For NMP the term ‘black’ was a colour of resistance; it included African, Caribbean, Asian and all other ‘people of colour’ in a political sense. Our enemy was a political enemy which oppressed across black communities. We recognised the nature of that enemy and the need for unity in combatting it. Whilst we did not ignore the cultural differences which these days increasingly appear to divide the community, we rejected the way ethnicity was used to marginalise our communities.

In its very earliest incarnation NMP was to be purely a resource for the community through which to collate and disseminate information about the nature and scale of racist violence in Newham. This limited role was very quickly overtaken by the political reality of racist violence. Racism and racist violence are politicising phenomena. Those who experience them are not passive recipients of the violence and the hatred. The experience radicalises and politicises.

That politicisation led inexorably to the work of NMP taking on a more directly political character. NMP’s analysis focused on the necessity of understanding racism through its essential relationship to class, with community self- organisation at the heart of its way of working.

Initially, funding was obtained from the Greater London Council (GLC) for a single paid caseworker and activist. Premises were secured and a centre eventually opened (382 Centre).

Upon the abolition of the GLC in 1986, Newham Council took over the funding of NMP and continued to do so until 1996. The fact that the local authority took on the funding of NMP was as a result of pressure from the community; the fact that it continued to provide funding and support is a testament to the strength of the local community and the solidity of NMP’s foundations within that community.

It rapidly became apparent that the tide of racist violence required an organised and structured response. In quick succession, NMP developed a ‘casework’ philosophy which rejected the paternalistic approach of social welfare agencies. This was then followed by a recognition of the pernicious role played by a police force some of whose members were overtly racist but was also itself, as an institution, racist. It was this recognition and understanding of the nature of the institutional racism of the police force that led to that concept first being articulated many years later during the Macpherson Inquiry.

The casework ethos was the backbone of NMP’s existence. Whether directly, by referral or through the 24-hour emergency service organised by NMP and staffed entirely by dozens of volunteers, those suffering racist violence or police harassment would contact us. NMP expanded to include 4 full-time workers.

Overwhelmingly, the issues we confronted included (a) racist violence in and around the home (often local authority housing) followed by either police inaction or (often) the criminalising of those who sought to defend themselves (arrested upon the ‘counter allegations’ of the racists), (b) casual racist violence sometimes inspired by football hooligan groups or fascists and (c) police racism and violence, including stop and search and the replacement of the ‘sus’ laws with low level Public Order Act prosecutions.

Frequently, those who approached us had been through the processes laid out by statutory agencies. The anti-racist policies of these statutory agencies were time and again exposed as a sham. Within the structures of the local authority, well-meaning or progressive council officers were often confronted by a racist bureaucracy. Within the police force, it was unheard of for individual police officers to expose the violence and corruption of their colleagues.

NMP adopted an approach to casework that seems mundane now but was revolutionary in the 1980s and early 1990s. Those experiencing racist violence or police harassment were at the heart of the strategy designed to address the violence they experienced. Those at the centre of a case had control over the direction of the case. This was achieved by providing structures whereby they were involved at every stage of the process including dialogue and feedback from statutory agencies. Responsibility was not passed onto a lawyer. If legal assistance was required, it was secured through a network of supportive and sympathetic lawyers, but the lawyers never had charge of the conduct of a case.

Casework was not carried out in isolation. It was also not carried out solely for the individual or family concerned. NMP always asked of every case what issues were raised and what ramifications they may have for the wider community. It is for this reason that NMP adopted a strategy of building upon our casework to encourage community self-organisation and ultimately community self-defence. Often cases would demand campaign work, the object of which was not simply to secure resolution for the individual or family under consideration but to assist the wider community.

Organised responses could take the form of community groups and localised, occasionally street-by-street campaigns, pickets and demonstrations. With the support of the volunteers staffing our 24-hour emergency service, caseworkers would attend the homes of those experiencing the violence at all hours. Following incidents of racist violence, NMP volunteers and workers would visit homes in the immediate area of racist attacks seeking to support and empower the black community in the area. We would mobilise the local community, pulling together families who lived in the same street but may have never met and yet would often report targeting by the same racist groups. We would organise community associations. These groups further empowered and strengthened the community who would, with our support but on their own initiative, organise campaigns (including pickets and demonstrations) to demand action from the local authority or the local police. NMP’s focus was always on supporting black communities by providing the tools and knowledge to resist racism themselves.

NMP also adopted a ‘no platform’ policy for organised fascists operating in east London. It was and remains the experience of black communities that this kind of street-level fascism brings with it extreme and, at times, life-threatening violence. Through a variety of strategies, fascists were prevented from meeting or organising in the borough (and through our work with other campaigns and organisations, we supported those who opposed fascists elsewhere). Communities have a right to live free from fear and when, as was often the case, the police ignored the threat of organised fascists or football hooligans, NMP supported those in the community who took action to defend themselves (for example, the Newham 7 and the Newham 8).

NMP actively worked in solidarity with other justice campaigns including – relevant to this inquiry – the Stephen Lawrence campaign, the Jean Charles de Menezes campaign – as well as the families of those who died in custody who set up the United Families And Friends Campaign and countless others. NMP also worked closely with campaign groups in other London boroughs, including Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Southall.

It must be understood that NMP activists operated as a loose grouping of like-minded individuals rather than as a tightly disciplined group. Often individual activists from within the ‘collective’ would assist other groups and campaigns in organising but this was not done in the name of NMP but rather as an act of solidarity.

NMP was a central cog in a network of black/grassroots community groups active in Newham often supporting each other in the face of threats from the council, including Newham Asian Women’s Project.

This is the organisation which the state determined should be targeted by paid undercover police officers. To do what? For what purpose?

For significant periods of time, we received substantial funding from Newham Council. We published an annual report – copies of which are available for the relevant years – setting out the details of our activities. We would post a copy of our annual report to the borough commander. The terms of our funding required us to submit our accounts with the annual report. A place was reserved on our management committee for local councillors. The campaigns we organised are set out in detail within the pages of the annual reports, including campaigns we were involved in outside Newham.

Of course, the local police disliked – perhaps even hated – NMP. The cosy narrative of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ style policing, together with its younger cousin ‘community policing’, were repeatedly exposed as untrue and at odds with the experiences of black communities that often felt under occupation. There were repeated examples of Newham police officers unmasked as racists and thugs. The nature of policing in black communities is still a deeply contentious issue. There is at least a debate on the issue. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the lack of police accountability was extraordinary and instances of police violence routine.

It is important to be clear. It is a feature of campaigning on matters such as those which were at the heart of NMP’s work that there will be an awareness that the state (even at a local level) will seek to subvert or attack those who subject it to even the mildest criticism. This is true on an institutional level and on the streets with officers based at individual police stations. There was a thorough awareness within the local police force of who the NMP activists were and what we did. We were aware of this and it was a feature of our work.

The ringmaster meant to redress this imbalance of power… appears incapable of understanding how he has lost the confidence of those who look to the inquiry for redress. We have… every reason to doubt a structure that resists even the slightest independent scrutiny.

We turn now, however, to our engagement with this inquiry. It is essential that it be appreciated that we have no faith in this inquiry. Characterised as it is by extraordinary secrecy, a total lack of accountability and transparency, all aggravated by the absence of adequate representation and constant delay, we are confident this is not a forum through which the actions of the police can be properly explored and scrutinised.

The participation of those subject to the abuse is essential for the credibility of the inquiry. The inquiry as presently structured and organised does not, however, invite real participation. Those quaintly described as ‘core participants’ are engaged, tantalised and seduced by the promise of disclosure. This interest will, we believe, remain wholly unrequited. Any meaningful disclosure is unlikely to materialise in any real sense because the overriding priority appears to be the protection of those officers deployed. In any event, we have no faith that the relevant records have not already been destroyed. Yet the illusion must be maintained because the continued involvement of the ‘core participants’ adds infinitely to the credibility of a process that is already bankrupt.

The police are well resourced, organised and well-funded. The police represent a powerful and unified force made all the stronger by their total command of the history. They know what they did, and we do not. Those targeted by the state lack any coherent organisational approach to the enormous imbalance of power with which they are confronted. This is primarily because of the extraordinarily indiscriminate and prolific nature of the abuses perpetrated by the police. Those targeted come from vastly diverse political backgrounds and traditions. Yet they are confronted with the power of an organised and unified opposition in the form of the police and the various bodies and representatives who follow along in their wake.

The ringmaster meant to redress this imbalance of power as between the forces appears incapable of understanding how he has lost the confidence of those who look to the inquiry for redress. We have no reason to doubt the chairman’s integrity. We do, however, have every reason to doubt a structure that resists even the slightest independent scrutiny and resists the slightest sense of a level playing field.

In the absence of a structured grassroots campaign by the ‘core participants’, the lawyers have had to take over. Yet even the most well-meaning lawyers are engaged in a professional not political capacity. They cannot require accountability from the tribunal to which they have willingly signed up. They will inevitably tend towards compromise and complicity, prioritising their role as lawyers. Many of them engaged in this inquiry will see this as yet another flawed public inquiry from which they will seek to eke out a crumb of comfort to justify the time and money spent engaged in countless rounds of meetings and hearings. Others are perhaps motivated by yet more base purposes.

NMP understood very early on that lawyers serve the community and must never seek to lead it either on the micro-level in guiding the direction of cases or the macro level in seeking to articulate that which those communities have been screaming at the top of their voices for generation upon generation.

We are satisfied that the process of delay, obfuscation and the total absence of accountability in this inquiry is premised in essence upon an acceptance that undercover policing as a strategy is too valuable a tool for law enforcement to be reduced in scope or properly constrained. We are satisfied that the inquiry will reach the only conclusions that are genuinely available to it.

These conclusions will almost certainly include (after some mild criticism of oversight and occasional excess and perhaps the censure of this or that manager) a finding that the deployment of UCOs, to essentially non-violent organisations, is a legitimate policing tactic and that, with suitable (perhaps judicial) oversight, it should continue, if not expand. The chilling effect of such a conclusion arrived at through a process which has in essence ‘co-opted’ a large number of purported activists, is apparent.

The question is why we continue to remain engaged with this inquiry. We do so with a very limited and narrow purpose. The extent of any interference with hypothetical political and civil rights attaching to NMP’s volunteers and workers is not of the first concern. Our purpose is to establish, through disclosure, the extent to which the families and individuals supported by NMP in their justice campaigns were compromised or undermined by police action. If they were (as we believe some may have been), we would then look, separately, to consider whether there may be any remedy. There is deep scepticism that even such a limited and unambitious purpose is achievable, but for those who put their trust in NMP over decades it would be unconscionable not to try.

The question is why we continue to remain engaged with this inquiry… Our purpose is to establish, through disclosure, the extent to which the families and individuals supported by NMP in their justice campaigns were compromised or undermined by police action.

Benjamin Zephaniah launches NMP’s Stop and Search on Trial crowd funding campaign

Newham Monitoring Project today launched a crowdfunding project to put ‘stop and search on trial’ with the support of its patron, the poet and author Benjamin Zephaniah.

The ‘Stop and Search on Trial’ campaign is hosted by Crowdfunder and seeks to monitor the way the government implements its planned reforms, announced in August, of the use of police powers to stop and search members of the public.  Read more

Terror Kid: Benjamin Zephaniah in Conversation

Newham Monitoring Project and Newham Bookshop are delighted to welcome NMP’s patron Benjamin Zephaniah talking about his new book Terror Kid.

Terror-Kid-PRINT (2)Thursday 2nd October 2014

Stratford East Picturehouse,
Salway Road,
London E15 1BX

Tickets are £5 and available at the Stratford Picturehouse box office or by calling 0871 902 5740

Rico knows trouble. He knows the look of it and the sound of it. He also knows to stay away from it as best he can. Because if there’s one thing his Romany background has taught him, it’s that he will always be a suspect. Despite his efforts to stay on the right side of the law, Rico is angry and frustrated at the injustices he sees happening at home and around the world. He wants to do something – but what? When he is approached by Speech, a mysterious man who shares Rico’s hacktivist interests, Rico is given the perfect opportunity to speak out. After all, what harm can a peaceful cyber protest do…?

Terror Kid is Benjamin’s first novel in seven years and is set against the backdrop of the 2011 riots. It tells the extraordinary tale of how one boy’s idealism and passion to speak out is distorted and manipulated by those who want to commit acts of terror.

On 2 October, Benjamin will be talking about the issues he tackles in his novel – examining our judgements, intentions and actions, and also the timely issues of terrorism, hacktivism and the exploitation of young people. Always impactful and thoughtful, Benjamin Zephaniah is not to be missed.

Terror Kid is published on 28 August by Hot Key Books and will be available from Newham Bookshop

NMP publishes report on community legal observing during the London Olympics

The gloss and spectacle of mega sporting events can hide many potential threats to human rights and equality. Today, on International Migrants Day, we are reminded of one of the starkest examples of this: the pattern of exploitation of migrant workers that has cast a shadow over the preparations for global sports events in recent years. In September 2013, reports emerged of brutality and forced labour in Qatar, which is preparing for the World Cup in 2022. This is one of many instances of exploitation around such events that extend beyond the appalling denial of employment rights. These include the displacement of people from their homes (as witnessed in Rio’s favelas in the preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil), unfulfilled promises to create jobs and affordable housing, environmental damage and harassment of working class, black or migrant communities by security officials, enforcement officers and police.

During the 2012 Olympics, Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) set up a human rights observation project in an attempt to monitor, record and challenge any detrimental impact on or targeting of local communities in east London. Today we publish a report setting out in detail how one of the UK’s longest-established civil rights organisations deployed close to a hundred ‘community legal observers’ (CLOs) during last summer’s Olympics, what these volunteers witnessed and how the experience of monitoring street level policing during such a major event can help other organisations, both in the UK and abroad, to consider using community legal observers in the future.

‘Monitoring Olympics policing during the 2012 Security Games’ is available online here or to download here [PDF, 1.1 Mb] Read more