To deceive and project

I spotted a pretty clever tweet a few weeks ago that went something like: “Police are beating you for slight or nonexistent legal transgressions? Wow… shocking!” – Black people. The joke being, of course, that the kind of ham-fisted tactics that police are turning against peaceful protesters have been leveled against black people, particularly young men, for decades with scarcely any comment from the majority.

That’s one of the galling facets of privilege – it completely skews what your view of ‘normal’ is. Faced with stories about cops brutally beating young black men, many people reacted with incredulity. “I’ve never seen an officer hit someone. Are you saying that all cops are racist? I find that hard to believe.” I had a similar conversation with a friend when we both saw a police officer pull over a young black man driving in a nice car with dealer plates. When I cynically observed that the driver’s first mistake was driving a nice car while being black, my buddy expressed his disbelief, saying that dealer plates come with certain restrictions, and that he didn’t see it being a case of racial profiling.

I can certainly understand the instinct to dismiss these kinds of stories as exceptional or delusional. Five years ago, if you had told me that police were infiltrating political groups to drum up phony charges against them, I’d have called you a lunatic. Then again, five years ago I wasn’t reading stories like this:

In early 2009, two strangers started mingling with the activist communities of Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph. The first was a man. Those who crossed paths with him say he ingratiated himself by chauffeuring people to protests in his white van and buying them pitchers of beer at the bar after. The second, a woman, told people she had fled an abusive relationship, acquaintances say.

Both were undercover police officers infiltrating organizations planning protests against the Toronto G20 summit in June, 2010. They were part of the Joint Intelligence Group, an RCMP-led squad with officers seconded from the Ontario Provincial Police and other forces, whose task was to gather information on threats to the summit.

Now I am not so blind to the realities of crime prevention in our modern age that I think police officers shouldn’t be able to infiltrate and monitor groups that may potentially become violent. There are organizations that are hell-bent on causing massive destruction to property and harm to human life. If one has to lie to a criminal in order to save someone’s life, I will lose exactly zero seconds of sleep. I am certainly sympathetic to the need for innovative and ethically grey techniques when it comes to terrorism.

That being said, my sympathy is more than a little diminished when I read stuff like this:

That summer, protesters set up a makeshift encampment at the proposed site of the Hanlon Creek Business Park. The male officer was there, Mr. Ichim said, and pushed for radical action. “[The officer] was saying ‘we need to take monkey wrenches and [damage construction] machinery,’” he said. “The occupation had a lot of support and he was talking about wrecking machinery, which tactically makes no sense.” (Sgt. Chamberland said officers can break the law, but only with “prior, specific” permission from higher-ups.)

The undercover officer had a tendency to play up divisions between activists, they said, such as by telling Mr. Ichim that student protesters were insulting him behind his back.

This goes well beyond the simple observation of criminal organizations – this is a directed attempt to exacerbate plans for peaceful protest until it becomes a radical, violent organization. What these officers did appears, from my admittedly outsider’s perspective, to be an attempt to create crimes that can then be pinned on the unwitting accomplices, thus tarring a defensible protest movement with offenses they would not have otherwise committed.

Leaving the ethical problems alone for a minute, there are serious practical concerns with engaging in this kind of reckless ‘law enforcement’. The safety and rights of the protesters are thereby compromised, since violent protests almost always end with a higher body count for those instigating violence than those trying to stop it. If the violence was stoked by the same people wielding the billy clubs, then what is happening is not so much crime prevention as it is collusion to frame and then stomp kids for stepping out of line.

The most disturbing aspect of this story for me isn’t that the majority of the people charged following the G20 violence were not convicted of anything. It’s not that the people under surveillance weren’t the kind of violent anarchists that needed this kind of supervision. It’s not even the gross misrepresentations or attempts to start crimes by the undercover officers. It’s this:

At a show-cause hearing that day, prosecutors told court about the investigation. By the time Mr. Ichim got out of prison two days later, he was resigned to the fact that one of his closest friends had been a cop. “I kept on calling his phones and leaving messages,” he said. “‘Look me in the eye, explain why you did this.’”


“You go through something like that, and how are you supposed to trust another person again? How are you supposed to approach people honestly without being suspicious of them when you’ve had an experience like that?” Ms. Pflug-Back said. “That’s sort of a really surreal situation that no one really wants to imagine themselves in.”

The infiltration involved gaining the confidence of the subjects – their pasts, their beliefs, their hopes were all shared under an entirely false pretense. The undercover officers became what the subjects believed were real friends. It wasn’t simply the ideals of the movement that were betrayed; it was the very idea of trusting another human being. I can’t imagine what it would be like for me to learn that my most important friendships were the product of an intentional deception aimed at causing my downfall. I am certain that it would be devastating.

I’m not certain what the moral of this story is, and I definitely don’t know enough to give a full accounting of everything that happened in this story. I have no idea what it’s like to be an undercover police officer, and I’m sure the assignment took its toll on them as well. What I will take away from this story is that the accusations of infiltration and deception by police into political organizations is not paranoia or delusion – it’s real, and so are its consequences.

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  1. Dunc says

    You think that’s bad? Over here, we’ve had an undercover cop start up a sexual relationship with an entirely unrelated person and then arrange to have their special branch mates raid her flat, just to make his cover look better:

    Ever seen what the police do to houses they raid? It’s not pretty. Now imagine having that happen to you simply because the person you thought loved you was an undercover cop looking for advantage…

    And it’s not an isolated incident either.

  2. says

    That’s one of the galling facets of privilege – it completely skews what your view of ‘normal’ is.

    True. Being a South African, I’m not at all surprised. Then again, the pigs here are easy enough to bribe.

  3. thaismcrc says

    To me, it’s inconceivable that people could see the police as anything other than brutal or corrupt (or both), even though I have never directly been the victim of that brutality – but then again, I live in Rio. I suppose it takes an exceptionally horrible police for people to see past their own privileges.

  4. Aquaria says

    After growing up in the most corrupt county in America, Smith County, Texas, I learned a life long loathing of cops, specifically for the way they treated minorities. But if you’re not the right kind of white person, you’re not treated any better.

    My brother was falsely arrested for running over mailboxes–in the Dodge compact truck he’d bought the previous day. He was also beaten by a cop right in front of my eyes. For lighting a cigarette. Of course the pigs thought a joint had been fired up, and wouldn’t believe him when he said he didn’t have any drugs

    Of course he had to have drugs.

    Because he had long hair. Touching his shoulders.

    And people wonder why I left that fetid dung pile. Never again. I won’t even go there, not even to visit family. People have been dying lately–I don’t go to their funerals if they’re in East Texas.

    That’s how much I hate that place.

  5. julian says

    Undercover work is, from what the cops I know tell me, a very effective tool to use against organized criminal organizations or to push them into incriminating themselves. Plus there’s the reconnaissance they do for police agencies (which alone would make them worthwhile.)

    Gaining the trust of these individuals (learning their habits, wants, dreams and needs) sounds like a necessary part of the job. How else can you ensure you can trust the information you’re receiving or guarantee you’ll know about this or that development?

    Unfortunately who gets monitored and what groups qualify as a threat appears to be easily be caught up in politics leading the higher ups to see ghosts where there are none. Which in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad. Go ahead, sit in on my next get together. Buy me a round and I’m unlikely to care. But to move in with the goal of creating the criminal behavior you are there to observe sounds like it itself should be a crime.

    This isn’t the mob. You aren’t catching one to make him turn on another. And, like our blog host points out, you pushing otherwise peaceful protesters to create a riot. What possible good could come of that.

    Cops, you make it hard to trust you.

  6. bob says

    … terrorism.

    You are? Then you are shithead. Terrorism is not and has never been a significant problem, and does not require any special or unusual techniques to deal with it, idiot.

  7. bob says

    Man, you are a shithead. Lookup “COINTELPRO”. Of course that shit is still happening. An you think you know something about politics???

  8. Crommunist says

    I’m going to assume that this intricate and well-laid-out comment was made in response to my acknowledgment that infiltrating terrorist groups might require something that goes beyond foot patrols and arrests.

    Considering that the G20 summit, the thing that this spying operation was done for, was hit by terrorist attacks in the form of torched cars and smashed windows from “black block” violent anarchists, your assertion that terrorism has never been a significant problem is more than a little bizarre. The unhinged name-calling doesn’t help your case much either.

  9. Crommunist says

    The way you construct your fevered rantings conjures an image of an obese balding man sitting in a decrepit office chair in front of a pile of empty Doritos bags used tissues, taking breaks from pounding out his inane assaults on the English language just long enough to hurl his own orange-coloured feces at the family of raccoons that have taken up residence in his ceiling tiles.

    Blind admonitions to “LOOKUP” something are routinely ignored by even conscientious bloggers. If you have a point you’d like to arrive at, I suggest you do so. Otherwise you’re not even entertaining enough to continue insulting.

  10. Dalillama says

    Not to say that Bob isn’t being unnecessarily personal about it, but the “black bloc” rioters doing the damage were, in fact, more undercover cops, a fact which the police have now admitted. See here: Furthermore, even if they had been genuine protesters, it would be a pretty marginal case of ‘terrorism,’ a category which has not generally been used to describe violent riots. Just felt that I should point that out, as I am in the camp that is entirely opposed to the ‘ethically grey’ methods that our governments have been using to deal with this alleged threat.

  11. Crommunist says

    Hunh. TIL.

    When someone uses violence for a political purpose, I am pretty happy calling that terrorism. When I say ethically grey, I am explicitly not talking about things like torture or other violation of the law. Those aren’t grey to me. I am referring to undercover stings and campaigns of misinformation. While I am not a fan of those in general, I can understand the need to protect public safety.

  12. Michael Swanson says

    Bob is obviously projecting his own shitheadedness, but don’t throw the idea that fat bald men are automatically incontinent, friendless morons into the fray. You’re better than that.

  13. says

    I’m a fat bald guy… And I’m sitting in my office… But I also have a command of the English language, and haven’t thrown feces in weeks. 😉

    I liked your post, and I wrote on my blog (I’m sure you got the trackback) a response talking about my own experience with the two faces of authority. If you get a chance, give it a read.

  14. Dalillama says

    I agree with tour definition of terrorism, actually. I was just pointing out that that’s not what most folks mean when they say “The threat of Terrorism.” Of course, many people in the U.S. appear to actually mean “I’m afraid of Muslims” when they say “The threat of terrorism”. That said, while I do recognize that undercover work is a useful way of gathering information about actual violent criminal organizations, I remain unconvinced that law enforcement agencies can be trusted to use the tool responsibly, or to correctly identify violent criminals/organizations. Also, I’m a lot more worried about what the law enforcement agencies might be doing than I am what the terrorists are doing, because law enforcement has a whole lot more guns and other resources to use.

  15. Michael Swanson says

    That’s exactly the guy I pictured when you wrote it (and the orange feces comment cracked me up), but there’s still that part of me that cringes when I read something that implies fat, bald guy = loser. Some of my best friends are fat, bald guys!

  16. Dunc says

    Bob’s lamentable rhetorical style aside, it really is well worth looking into the Church Committee hearings into the FBI’s COINTELPRO program if you want to understand the history of this sort of thing. To quote Chomsky: “COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out not by a couple of petty crooks but by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations… by the time it got through, I won’t run through the whole story, it was aimed at the entire new left, at the women’s movement, at the whole black movement, it was extremely broad. Its actions went as far as political assassination.”

    The wikipedia article is not a bad place to start:

  17. illdoittomorrow says

    I’m late to the party here, but here’s another perspective on the RCMP’s “intelligence” work before the G20 summit:

    (My HTML-foo is weak, so you get the full link)

    Here’s the upshot, taken from the RCMP’s own statement:

    “The 2010 G8 summit in Huntsville … will likely be subject to actions taken by criminal extremists motivated by a variety of radical ideologies. These ideologies may include variants of anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, nihilism, socialism and/or communism. These ideologies may also include notions of racial supremacy and white power …

    “The important commonality is that these ideologies … place these individuals and/or organizations at odds with the status quo and the current distribution of power in society.”

    So what the RCMP were up to wasn’t defending us from terrorism, but defending the status quo against commie pinkos and other undesirables.

  18. illdoittomorrow says

    In case it slipped by anyone, there should have been a /sarcasm tag after the last sentence 😉


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