Infiltrating the Family

For decades in the UK, police infiltrated the radical social movements by insinuating themselves into the intimate, romantic, familial, and comradely spaces of those on whom they spied.

A locksmith with ready cash and expensive tastes, Carlo Neri proposed to Donna McLean on New Year’s Eve, just three months after they met. She said yes. That same night, talking to some of the male activists who were part of McLean and Neri’s shared social circle, he made an unusual suggestion: why not firebomb a charity shop connected to the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, an Italian fascist organization?

“Carlo Neri,” in fact, was an agent of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a covert unit of the Special Branch. He was a spy for the police.

For decades in the UK, police infiltrated the trade union movement, environmental groups, antiracist organizations, community centers, animal rights organizations, antiwar groups, feminist collectives, nuclear disarmament campaigns, and even the youth wing of the Liberal Party. Infiltration was not merely a matter of attending a few meetings or demonstrations. Instead, officers insinuated themselves into the intimate, romantic, familial, and comradely spaces of those on whom they spied.

The rituals of romantic love and family life could be used as part of an officer’s cover. Spy cops attended weddings, birthdays, and funerals as the partners of the women they spied on. Many years after their relationship ended, McLean came to the awful realization that Neri’s gesture of devotion had in fact been a distraction to conceal his other proposal later that night—an understanding that hit her “like a fist in the face.”

At every stage, undercover officers relied upon the structure and ideological force of the family to inveigle their way into left-wing political organizations, social scenes, and individual lives. In the process, they destroyed the families and communities of many thousands of people. It is a brutal irony that to keep their real names out of the public domain, many of the police officers have relied upon the Article 8 right to family life, the section of the Human Rights Act 1998 designed to safeguard individuals from intrusions into their privacy, personal identity, and intimate relationships.

“What about my privacy and my right to family life?,” demands McLean. “My head feels like it might explode. My body was used against my will. I did not consent to being a sexual experiment. I did not consent to being a mistress. I did not consent to being fucked all over the world by a man who did not exist. It seems they can act with impunity.”

There is an old British myth that policing is performed by consent, best seen in the principles laid out by Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police and twice-serving prime minister. Peel’s 1829 claim that “the police are the public, and the public are the police” has continued to shape conversations about policing in Britain, often bandied around to insist that, unlike their French and American counterparts, with their guns and riot shields, Britain’s police are measured, honest, benevolent. The image of the bobby on the beat, a jocular local officer, is a reassuring character in the national mythology. But McLean’s words reveal policing by consent to be no more than a front, concealing a state apparatus that engages in a conspiracy to rape.

As the infiltration of the intimate and sexual lives of activists shows, the notion that in the eyes of the state, the family is a protected space is nonsense, a malicious, seductive fiction. The family—as ideological conceit and as social practice—is precisely the mechanism through which state power most insidiously encroaches into the lives of individuals.

Called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), Britain’s undercover police spy program originated in 1968, following a demonstration in London against the Vietnam War. Protestors marched in the thousands, and some tried to occupy the US embassy, leading to over 200 arrests. The ordeal was an embarrassment for the Metropolitan Police, who had underestimated the numbers of protestors who would turn out in the streets and lost control. Seeing an opportunity, ex-marine and police officer Conrad Dixon used the protest as the rationale for proposing the SDS, making the case that embedding undercover officers inside left-wing groups would prevent further public order issues and political humiliation.

The unit continued its spy work, however, even after the culmination of the Vietnam War and even when officers regularly reported that groups they were spying on posed no threat to public order. As the SDS became more embedded, so too did its culture of impunity, in effect authorizing officers to run roughshod over leftist organizers’ right to privacy, bodily autonomy, and freedom of expression. In their use of sexual and affective attachments to target any group that threatened (or even critiqued) the status quo, the SDS’s operation was less a matter of policing than of counterinsurgency.

Years of allegations and campaigning from affected women finally forced the government to order a public inquiry into the spy program. Launched in 2015, the Undercover Policing Inquiry released first-tranche reports in 2023 that were damning. The covert infiltration of left-wing political movements by SDS officers, inquiry chair Sir John Mitting found, was not justified. If the public had known, he wrote, “the SDS would have been brought to a rapid end.”

So far, the inquiry has only covered the first 14 years of the unit’s work. By the time it concludes, many of those affected by undercover officers’ actions (especially those undertaken in the SDS’s early years) will have passed. Rather than wait for the notoriously lumbering machinery of a public inquiry, many of the women deceived into relationships with undercover officers have found other ways to bring covert policing into the light. Indeed, the vast majority of what we know about spy cops comes from the investigative work done by activists who were spied on. As well as campaigning for transparency and accountability, several of the women deceived into romantic relationships have written memoirs.

McLean’s recent Small Town Girl: Love, Lies and the Undercover Police (2022) details her perilous relationship with Neri, while five of the eight women instrumental in bringing the scandal to public attention published an account entitled Deep Deception: The Story of the Spycops Network, by the Women Who Uncovered the Shocking Truth. These activists have also collaborated with The Telegraph on a podcast series called Bed of Lies. In both Deep Deception and Bed of Lies, the stories are woven together, so one sees the relationships as though in split screen. It’s a smart move that momentarily places us in the shoes of the victims as they discover that the idiosyncrasies of their own romantic relationships are in fact moves from a playbook, tricks of the trade. As readers (or listeners), we experience some of the vertiginous horror of realizing that the life stories—and particularly the traumatic childhoods—fabricated by the officers Mark Kennedy and John Dines were a three-part tactic, used first to facilitate emotional connection, then to excuse relationship difficulties, and finally as an alibi for their dramatic disappearances. From these parallel narratives, one can reconstruct the tradecraft of undercover policing.

The SDS tradecraft manual, edited by undercover police spy Andy Coles, who had a sexual relationship with a woman while posing as an animal rights activist, proposes that romantic entanglements with activist subjects should be short and disastrous. In practice, many officers used long-term relationships as a key part of their cover. Many spy cops began relationships with women activists as soon as they entered the field, using these connections to gain political credibility and access to groups who might otherwise have been suspicious of an unknown man with no evidence of previous political ties. Mark Cassidy, for example, began a relationship with Alison just a few weeks after he turned up at a march organized by the Colin Roach Centre, where she was an active campaigner around police misconduct and antiracism. Ultimately, the addition of a woman (any woman!) could act as a kind of anchor for the spy cops. Bob Lambert (Bob Robinson, to those he met as a militant animal rights activist and itinerant gardener in the late 1980s), for example, began a relationship with Belinda, who worked as an accounts assistant at the Central Electricity Generating Board. Although Belinda was not an activist herself, Bob’s attachment to her offered him emotional ballast as well as a social alibi that helped make him appear legible and trustworthy to the groups he sought to infiltrate. He was, in other words, just a regular guy with a girlfriend. Here, the very form of “the couple” was used as a source of legitimacy.

McLean’s memoir sheds particular light on how men like Neri were successful: several claimed to have decent, working-class jobs that required a van and travel for work. John Dines was quickly christened “John the Van” by his new comrades. Later, Alison wryly compares herself to John’s van: “I’d just been a prop.” A vehicle allowed them to drive activists around, gaining knowledge of—and control over—their movements. Their cover stories were also designed to make sense of time spent working away, when in fact they were with their other families. Neri, for example, claimed to be a locksmith; Bob Lambert, a gardener; John Dines, a construction worker. Well-paid, skilled work offered a cover too for their ready supplies of cash. McLean details Carlo Neri’s taste for holidays and upscale restaurants, his ease paying for expensive hotels, his story that the beautiful dressing table he bought her was something he picked up for cheap on a job in a fancy West London house. In reality, it was all paid for on expenses from Special Branch.

We live in a political system in which nothing is sacred: one’s sexual autonomy, emotional vulnerability, deep instinct to connect with others can all be sacrificed at the altar of capital.

Perhaps the most consistent target of infiltration has been the trade union movement, which has been subjected to police spying of various sorts since at least 1832. The SDS continued this tradition. During the building boom of the 1990s, thousands of construction workers found themselves on the bread line, blacklisted by a company called first the Economic League, then The Consulting Association. Police spying played a central role. While undercover, Mark Cassidy joined UCATT, the construction workers’ union. He fed names of union members to The Consulting Association, who then shared them with transnational building companies (for a fee, of course) to keep “troublemakers” off site by blacklisting them. Troublemaking included things like complaining about unsafe working conditions, demanding access to toilets, joining the union, and dozens of other legally protected activities. Being blacklisted was no small thing; the loss of work could be debilitating, leading to depression, poverty, and even suicide. The words of blacklisted scaffolder Mick Abbott capture a fragment of this suffering: “This nearly ruined my marriage and it meant that my children were on free meals at school. … They have been watching me all these years and passing this information around, blighting my life over four decades.”

The case of London Greenpeace is similarly instructive in revealing the convergence of state and corporate interests. A small activist group with no connection to the more famous global organization of similar name, London Greenpeace launched a campaign against McDonald’s in the mid 1980s, in which a six-page leaflet about damaging practices was distributed outside branches of the fast-food chain. Though this nonviolent, legal, and relatively common technique formed the central plank of the campaign, it was met with the full force of state power. SDS officers infiltrated the group, and later a unit called the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI) compiled the intelligence. McDonald’s also contracted two separate private investigation companies who each sent multiple operatives as spies. As a result, there were Greenpeace meetings with as many spies as genuine activists. Undercover officer Lambert coauthored the leaflet at the core of the campaign.

Information gathered through infiltration was used to launch a libel case against two activists from London Greenpeace, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, resulting in the longest trial in British history. While Helen Steel prepared to defend herself in this landmark legal case, she was in a relationship with the undercover officer John Dines, giving the police a direct line into the legal approach the activists were taking. John disappeared in the lead-up to the trial, though continued to send occasional dramatic letters. The week court proceedings finally began in 1994—several years after McDonald’s first threatened legal action—Helen found the death certificate of “John Barker.” From there, she began the process of unraveling the thick mesh of deceit that the SDS had woven around her, adding a disturbing vector of emotional manipulation into this David and Goliath court case.

Key to undercover SDS police officers’ infiltration was their construction of relationships that approximated a male breadwinner family structure. They used this alibi to destroy the lives of actual living families—many thousands of people held decently paid working-class jobs, protected by trade union activity—as well as the women they deceived into romantic love and domestic life. At every stage, undercover officers relied upon the family form, using its legitimacy and emotional pull to charm their way into political organizations, social scenes, and the lives of individuals.

Covert policing depends on the family form even before the officers are deployed. Until recently, some SDS managers preferred that police officers be married in order to be deployed undercover. It was assumed that their “real” families would act as a restraining influence, anchoring them to an external reality to prevent them from going native. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, this fantasy of ironclad marital fidelity has seeped into the 2015 Undercover Policing Inquiry: in a preliminary hearing, the chair, Sir John Mitting, declared it unlikely that any officer still happily married would have behaved improperly.

The state trusts that the form of “the couple” can contain its officers. And this belief, however misplaced, derives from the state seeing the police officers’ wives and children solely as useful appendages. While undercover, many of the officers had young children at home whom their wives had to raise with little support. In Deep Deception, Lisa—one of the women deceived into a relationship with Mark Kennedy, an officer posing as an environmental activist—takes a position of solidarity with the families of undercover officers. “From the start, I was adamant we didn’t bring his kids into it even though our strongest evidence was their birth certificates,” Lisa explained. “In my opinion, his kids and his wife had been victims too.”1

In March 2021, six years after the inquiry into the SDS launched, Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens abducted and murdered a young woman, Sarah Everard, as she walked home from seeing a friend in South London. Under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, the off-duty officer used his warrant card and police powers to arrest her. After her body was found, Couzens was charged with murder and kidnap. The Metropolitan Police tried to suppress a vigil held in her name—using the same coronavirus legislation Couzens had used to abduct Everard—but thousands of women defied the ban, assembling anyway and facing police violence and arrest.

These events catalyzed a national conversation on sexism and misogyny in the police force. The news trickled out that Couzens had been nicknamed “The Rapist” by his colleagues, with multiple allegations of flashing and sexual assault made against him, none of which was properly investigated. Any attempt to write Couzens off as a bad apple was disrupted by the flood of disturbing statistics: more than 2,000 police officers across 39 forces had been accused of sexual misconduct over the past four years; at least 15 women have been killed by police officers since 2009; one woman a week comes forward to report a serving police officer for domestic or sexual violence. As these stories and statistics gathered, it became difficult to deny that the police are institutionally sexist.


When Police Are the Problem

By Michael Mirer

The history of the UK’s spy cops program suggests a much longer and darker legacy of gendered police terror. Institutional sexism is a deep-rooted problem, but one that could be resolved if the necessary reforms, however dramatic, were made. But what if the rot runs deeper? Policing works on the basis of a small group having power, albeit temporary, over a larger one. This imbalance produces conditions ripe for abuse. There are few mechanisms through which the public can hold the police to account, and all of them require the cooperation of the state, the very entity policing depends on and is tasked with protecting—by any means necessary.

SDS targeted people, groups, organizations, and communities engaging in ordinary democratic activities—publishing pamphlets, making banners, and planning protests, sit-ins, carnivals. The very fact that the police viewed a few people meeting in a community center, talking about veganism or giving out leaflets, as such a threat is instructive. It suggests that policing is not a matter of crime but of social control, aimed at preventing dissent, breaking social bonds between activists, and disrupting organizations that are pushing back against corporate power. Not only are the police institutionally sexist, but police power targets women, using gender, sexuality, intimacy, and family—all things we experience as deeply personal—against us. The fact that the family—a space of loving bonds as well as more destructive processes—was cynically, ruthlessly deployed is instructive too. It reminds us that we live in a political system in which nothing is sacred: one’s sexual autonomy, emotional vulnerability, deep instinct to connect with others can all be sacrificed at the altar of capital.

The prison and police abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Where life is precious, life is precious.” The tautology is important. It reminds us that some things are indivisible. For many, that’s what love is. The spy cops are so monumentally disturbing precisely because they reveal that the aspects of our lives we see as our own—that which we view as indivisible—are seen as disposable, mere collateral, by political elites and the corporate interests they serve. Spy cops show the way state power uses the form of the family, our understanding of what it is and what it should be, against our real emotional and social ties. Just as important, they disrupted the chosen families, friendships, and communities of comrades as well as the traditional family unit. Yet in these communities too, the possibility of fighting back can be found. The statements offered by activist core participants in the Undercover Policing Inquiry form an extraordinary archive, a counternarrative to Special Branch’s surveillance. It includes evidence of all sorts of other intimacies—those built up between campaigners in meetings, on demonstrations, painting banners, and strategizing together—forged in the teeth of covert political surveillance. icon

  1. And it was not only the children of officers who were viewed as simply providing a service, albeit one of which they were not informed, to the state, so too were children and families totally unconnected to these operations. The process of crafting a new identity—a legend, in police parlance—involved choosing the name and date of birth of a dead child, usually one who shared the first name and year of birth with the officer. This initial theft, an act of callous appropriation in itself, also incubated traumatic events that would be experienced years later, both by the bereaved parents, and by the women who were deceived into romantic relationships. As they unravelled the truth, many, like Helen, discovered the death certificates of the men they thought they knew. Indeed, the central role of state documents that pertain to family life in these events are instructive: through the state bureaucracies that manage familial ties—that document marriages, births and deaths—we are made legible as citizens. As such, it is to these documents that activists were compelled to turn to verify the truth of someone’s identity.
    Many of the wives of the undercover officers found out about their deception from newspapers, and most of their marriages have since ended. For the women targeted by the spy cops, one of whom had to move into a domestic violence refuge in order to escape the relationship, the impact can scarcely even be measured. For the children fathered by undercover officers in false relationships, their lives have been touched from the very beginning by state violence. As Alison writes in Deep Deception, “the intergenerational trauma resulting from these police deployments is something yet to be fully explored.” Scotland Yard has paid a sum of money as compensation to a man who was fathered by Bob Lambert while he was undercover, but it is clear that there can be no meaningful price put on this kind of deception.
Featured image: Photograph by Isai Ramos / Unsplash (CC by Unsplash License).