In 1993, Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican woman who lived in North London, died while police restrained her. Gardner had arrived in the U.K. with her mother in 1987 on a temporary visa that expired six months after her arrival. By 1990, Gardner, then a single mother, was given a deportation order when her former partner — a British citizen — refused to support her visa application. On the morning Gardner died, five officers came into her house and used a restraining belt to wrap her head and arms while her five-year-old son watched. She died of respiratory failure the next day while recovering at a hospital. Though the officers stood trial for manslaughter in 1995, none were found guilty, and the Police Complaints Authority — then the internal police watchdog — ruled out any internal disciplinary inquiry.
Out of the trial, though, came the Joy Gardner Campaign, which is fighting for the case to be re-examined and to create greater awareness around police brutality and racial injustice in the U.K. more generally. It’s also become the symbol of something completely different: Last week, a Guardian investigation revealed that the Campaign was subject to police surveillance, one of more than 1,000 new political groups monitored by secret departments within the London Metropolitan Police since 1968. A number of officers even infiltrated these groups to spy on their members. Known as the “Special Demonstration Squad” (SDS), they posed as left-wing activists, and in some cases, formed intimate, sexual relationships with activist women for the sake of attaining intelligence.
Environmental activist Kate Wilson was one such woman. She formed a relationship with a man she believed was a fellow activist named Mark Stone. But when the revelations of undercover spying were revealed, she found out that his real name was Mark Kennedy, and that in his seven years as an undercover officer, he had relationships with several other women — activities the police knew about. Wilson and the other unnamed women have been involved in legal action against the Metropolitan Police and the National Police Chiefs Council since 2011, seeking “answers, compensation for damages and to be sure that this could never happen again.”
Karen, a Jamaican woman in her 40s, was an active member of the Joy Gardner Campaign in the late 1990s through the late aughts. I speak to her briefly through Facebook messenger, mostly off the record (Karen is a pseudonym), mainly because she doesn’t have legal representation. “Many of us had a hunch that there were probably [police] sniffing around,” she says. “Because we’d heard stories from other campaigns that there were undercover spies who were watching us.” She adds that there had been reports the Campaign was being monitored by the same officers who were allegedly spying on the families of Wayne Douglas, a man who died in 1995 at a police station in Brixton and Stephen Lawrence, who was killed at 19 by a racist gang in 1993. “These families are still haunted by what’s happened to them,” Karen says. “I hope that the officer will reveal themself, or they’re found soon. I don’t know how I’d respond if I find out that I know them, or if we were friends.”
Writing in the British magazine Gal-Dem, writer Yasmin Begum, who attended meetings held by the No Borders Network in the mid-2000s, wrote about how she had developed a friendship with a man named Marco Jacobs, an undercover cop who worked for the “Domestic Extremism Unit” of the British Police:
“Marco was funny, charismatic and outgoing. He was around 5”9, white with a broad northern accent. Marco said that he worked driving trucks, which explained the long periods of time away from Cardiff. He liked heavy metal, cracking jokes and drinking lager. He built our relationship knowingly and slowly with a charismatic personality and a wicked sense of humour. It’s easy to bond with people on things like demonstrations, as we frequently had visible pickets outside the U.K. Border Agency (now U.K. Visas and Immigration) in Cardiff, protesting the racist border regime.
“Undercover policing is about deviance, how close you are to it, how far you are from it and how the state can use that to menace you. Not many, if any, of the friendships from those activist groups survived. There was betrayal, lies, and Marco even tricked women into having sexual relationships with him. He was successful in that he deeply devastated relationships and friendships beyond recognition. He pushed people away from each other and drove wedges on purpose, and ruined the mental health of many people. Lots of people who knew him don’t undertake political activism any more.”
With hundreds, if not potentially thousands more victims of surveillance still unknown, the question that activists, campaign groups and lawyers now face is how they seek justice. Some victims have received compensation, but for the most part, women who have made their testimonies public are still in limbo over the status of their cases. Other activists like Helen Steel, who was provided an apology by the police, ended up having to pay their legal costs, even after she withdrew her appeal, largely to prevent having to pay more.
As you’d expect, this isn’t exactly encouraging to other victims. Also, as you’d expect, challenging the state is difficult. That said, platforms like Crowdjustice, a London- and New York-based legal collective, have funded numerous cases involving victims of police surveillance, and Bindmans LLP, a London-based law firm, has been one of the few places in the country willing to represent them. Lawyers at Bindmans argue that while some might dismiss “spy cops” cases as decades-old misdemeanors carried out by a uniquely paranoid British government, the experiences of female victims fits into a more contemporary context, notably, the #MeToo movement. In an article posted in the firm’s in-house magazine, Bindmans lawyers Jules Carey and Rachel Hager write:
“Women duped into such relationships often suffer serious psychiatric harm at discovering that the person who they loved and trusted, sometimes for months or years, was in fact a police officer spying on their political activities. It is apparent in so many professions that the abuse is not down to a few bad apples, but it is systemic and relates to power imbalances. Many of us knew this before the #MeToo hashtag, but how do we move beyond what is already evident and increasingly visible? … It is clearly time for police forces themselves to take responsibility and root out this deeply sexist conduct and the institutional sexism that gave rise to it, accommodated it and now refuses to apologise for it.”
“What’s important to understand is that the women involved [in these cases] aren’t just victims,” says Everline Lubbers, one of the founders of the Undercover Research Group, which helped expose Mark Kennedy. “They were also used for a higher end, to infiltrate networks that the British state felt were a threat. They were basically used as objects.” Lubbers adds that women are hesitant to bring their cases forward because “some fear that their employment — and their lives — might be in jeopardy due to their past as radical activists. So they sometimes keep that part of their life quiet, even if they know they’ve been spied on.”
In other cases, even if victims do want to expose their former partners as undercover police officers, the law makes it difficult for them to do so. “There’s no law against having a relationship under false pretenses, nor is there a law about infiltrating groups,” Lubbers explains. “As a result, even if you’re a victim, it’s difficult to bring forward a case against individual officers. You have to challenge the entire system, whether that’s the internal police departments that gave permission for undercover officers to infiltrate groups, or the entire police force itself. You can imagine how intimidating that is if you’re just one person.”
Furthermore, she continues, even if women do end up filing a case against the police, the law makes it hard to seek compensation. “To seek justice, you’re required to prove that the trauma has affected your life,” Lubber says. “You have to be examined by a police lawyer to prove that an undercover police officer who had a relationship with you inflicted harm on your well-being. It’s no wonder then that some women aren’t [keen] on bringing their cases into the public.”
She’s convinced, though — despite the sacrifice — that coming forward is still for the greater good. “This is ultimately about the perversion of democracy,” she argues. “We need to keep spy cop cases in the public domain, and not let them be forgotten like so many people higher up want. People should know, too, that this isn’t just about women — or left-wing activists. It’s about all of us. How can you have a functioning democracy when secret police units can freely infiltrate groups who are just exercising their right to assemble and protest?”