We are in a moment of unprecedented visibility and public concern on the matter of police brutality and police profiling in communities across North America. While recent movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have made an incredible impact on the level of mainstream attention to issues that had previously been marginalized and ignored—namely, the criminalization, harassment, and sometimes deadly targeting of Black and Indigenous communities by police in the US and Canada—these groups have also faced vitriolic backlash on many fronts. At the time of this publication—summer 2017—we are seeing a rapid surge in vocal, confident white supremacy in the city of Toronto, which has made the public conversation on race and policing even more volatile. Nonetheless, we seem to be experiencing somewhat of a sea change in public discourse around the role that police play in upholding the status quo of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
While more and more people know about certain aspects of the ‘police problem’ in North America, the issue of undercover policing—though it too is highly racialized, widely experienced in activist circles, and increasingly targeting Muslim communities—remains mostly discussed behind closed doors and around kitchen tables. This phenomenon is the focus of our writing here.
Towards the end of 2014 we started to suspect that two members of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN)—the mining justice group we are a part of—were not who they said they were. In the beginning of 2015, we kicked them out of our group, quite certain they were undercover police. In the summer of 2015, an article about our experiences was published in a mainstream Toronto newspaper. This is that same story, but this time around we are using our own words and political analysis rather than framings that are palatable to mainstream media.
“If not cops, then who?”
This piece largely assumes we were infiltrated/surveilled by state actors, and digs into the implications of that. There are, however, other possibilities of who our shady new members may have been. One option is privately hired corporate infiltrators, who we know have gotten involved with MISN before. For example, in 2017, a friend overheard a man on the subway bragging that he had been hired to infiltrate MISN through a private company contracted by a major mining company that’s been protested by MISN and others for its human rights record. We are also overtly surveilled by mining companies all the time, such as the constant presence of someone with a video camera filming our protests outside their offices, or when company executives we’ve never met recognize us and address us by name.
Even if it were the case that our infiltrators’ salaries were paid for by a mining company, we know that the lines are increasingly fuzzy between state and corporate infiltration/surveillance. In the mining-impacted communities we work with around the world there is a long history of overt collaboration on intelligence-gathering between mining companies and local/national police forces, including through MoU’s and police forces being hired out as private security for mine sites. And here in Canada, in the spring of 2017, documents released through access to information requests confirmed two important things that many had already suspected. First, that the state’s espionage network involves coordination between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), provincial and municipal police forces, the National Energy Board (NEB), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and departments including Public Safety, Natural Resources, Transport, Indigenous Affairs and Defence. Secondly, and of greater concern, that these departments in turn share the information they gather with numerous mining and energy sector companies.
Before we share the details of our story it’s important to introduce ourselves, our reasons for writing, and the context in which we write. We write this as four people of the multitudes who have experienced state surveillance. We are writing and sharing our particular experience because we know that so often, for a variety of reasons, many people can’t talk about what they’ve been through with undercover police and other manifestations of state surveillance. We feel that we are in a position to take the risk of saying some things out loud. We are not writing this as advice; it is a very particular story that won’t necessarily apply to other people or organizations.
The reasons we’re writing this are both emotional and political (which isn’t to say that emotions can’t be political). For example, when we were in the thick of this experience the thought of eventually writing it all down helped us cope with all the complicated emotions that went along with feeling surveilled. When we were deep in “strategy mode” leading up to confronting the suspected infiltrators, we ultimately decided that, in order to prioritize our collective safety, a lot of the emotional and interpersonal processing we needed to do would have to wait until the infiltrators were removed. Writing this has been an opportunity to process together and think more deeply about what we have learned and how we have changed since this happened.
Politically, we feel it is important to share our story for a number of reasons. We want to break the cycle of silence around experiences of state infiltration/surveillance and share our experiences in a way that is accessible for those outside our immediate social circles. Often stories like ours circulate as gossip and rumours, which can help to keep us safer but can also lead to paranoia and the spread of false information. There are many valid reasons why people can’t or don’t speak openly about their experiences of infiltration. But if state security agencies are collecting information about us we feel we should also be sharing the information we have collected about them amongst ourselves, including our knowledge of their language, adopted personas, and tactics. Sharing this information gives us insight into their infiltration strategies, which builds our power and keeps us safer. We also hope that our story adds an element of lived experience to current research and writings on contemporary trends in policing. In particular, we hope this story can act as both a broad critique and a very specific cautionary tale, illustrating what organizing looks like when state surveillance in the name of “risk assessment” increasingly penetrates our personal-political lives.
We are all white, university-educated people with Canadian citizenship and relative economic security, which means that we are in many ways safer from state violence than others. However, as activists we have varied experiences with state surveillance that gave us certain practical and perceptual skills in this situation. Sam’s experience studying, and also being criminalized by, the legal system was an asset to us, as was Rachel’s experience supporting human rights defenders facing state criminalization in Guatemala.
There were other factors that allowed this to play out as it did. For example, our emotional skills played a major role; we got through this relatively unscathed because we took the emotional aspects of this very seriously and prioritized remaining a collective. We also all knew each other somewhat before this happened (Rachel and Kate live together, Sam and Kate were in a relationship, and Merle and Rachel had been organizing together for more than a year prior) and had to quickly decide to trust each other. Lastly, other members of MISN (the group that Kate, Merle, and Rachel all organize with) trusted us to deal with this autonomously, believing that we would share what was “need-to-know.”
There is also important cultural context about our activist “scene” to consider. We experienced this as activists in Toronto, an organizing scene with scars from being surveilled in the lead-up to the 2010 G20 summit. Part of our impetus for writing this was to respond to feelings of disempowerment that many experienced post-G20. Many of those who were active in Toronto around the G20 have understandably come to find it difficult to trust others in organizing contexts; this has impacted the ways that organizing is done here. We write this to re-open and broaden discussions of security culture and trust in Toronto, and to recognize that our ability to “catch” these infiltrators was in great part due to G20 lessons and legacies that have shaped the culture of Toronto organizing. We also want to share the skills we’ve learned about security culture and trust in our movements.
Putting these words to paper comes with some inherent risks—there are many forces at play keeping state surveillance techniques a secret—but we have decided that the potential impact of breaking the silence around infiltration is worth this risk. We have not seen other resources like what we have written here (and there are probably many reasons for this). We likely will never have absolute confirmation that these two people were cops or private investigators for a mining company, but we feel absolutely confident that we made the right choice in kicking them out, and hope that the story of how we did it is instructive to others.