Writer, activist and actor Sam Knights gives a first person account of political suppression by the police and the assumption of guilt in the name of “national security”

“Revealing the truth is like lighting a match, it can bring light or it can set your world on fire”
– Sydney Roger

The police called me a national security risk because I don’t like climate change. Sounds implausible doesn’t it? But you have to look no further than the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill to see the writing was on the wall. Dr Nafeez Ahmed summed it up last month in his guide to the eight unprecedented and undemocratic bills that the Tories are trying to pass this year , “Under such new powers, the Government and police would have wide largess to arrest anybody for doing anything that might conceivably be defined by them as falling within this category. Apart from undermining freedom of speech, the bill would allow the Government to criminalise a wide range of unspecified public behaviour. In effect, the Home Secretary would have unprecedented authority to unilaterally shut down any protest it wants.”

In 2019, the police unlawfully banned me from the Labour Party conference, despite being an elected delegate. It seemed politically motivated. At the time, I was a well known member of Extinction Rebellion. I took them to the High Court and they changed their untenable position

At the conference, the Labour Party passed the Green New Deal, committing to a 2030 net zero target and a suite of progressive policy measures. This was a huge victory. I wasn’t the only person to be banned for my activism so, afterwards, I decided to follow it up.

I submitted several FOI requests and eventually received a heavily-redacted document from “Operation Otter”. This took a long time. Years of emails, and calls, and legal letters. The police repeatedly assured me that no document existed, but eventually I got hold of it.

The document is heavily redacted, but it shows that the police described me as a risk to the “security of the Labour Party conference” and a threat to “national security”. 

I am a climate activist who organises protests. Why did the police call me a threat to national security?

Well apparently, I took part in an “obvious act of direct action protest” and they were worried I “would be willing again to take similar action”. This is strange, since protest is not yet illegal in the United Kingdom.

By the way in case you were wondering, I do not have a criminal record. I was once arrested for organising a climate protest outside a fossil fuel conference. I represented myself in court and was found not guilty of all charges.

Nevertheless, the police seemed to just… assume I was guilty.

And even if I had been convicted of a minor offence at a climate protest, is this really grounds to ban someone from a party conference?

At the time, Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party. He has been arrested at protests, as have many good people. Should we ban them all? The freedom to protest is a human right, enshrined in human rights law. It is not a criminal act. Besides, I was an elected delegate. The police should not be able to ban people from taking part in the democratic process, no matter what they think of my activism.

But what really bothered me were the redactions. If they were comfortable with me reading this, then what did they want to hide? I showed the redacted document to experts who think I was on a ‘domestic extremism’ database. This is a secret database used to target activists. I have no idea whether this is true or not, and the Met Police have told my lawyers that they hold no data on me whatsoever.

But I don’t trust the police. Why would I? The police treat peaceful protesters like criminals, but they are the ones who consistently break the law.

Okay. Fine. So why am I telling you this?

Well, this isn’t new. In October 2019, the police unlawfully banned all Extinction Rebellion protests in London. They also placed Extinction Rebellion on a list of extremist ideologies that should be reported to the Prevent programme. This came after the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange wrote a report called ‘Extremism Rebellion’. The report attacked many of us personally and recommended a suite of authoritarian measures.

Policy Exchange refused to deny that it had been paid for by a fossil fuel company.

The right to protest is currently under attack, and the campaign is funded by some pretty powerful people. Just look at the Police Bill currently going through parliament. Protest has never been so important. We are going to have to fight for our rights, with everything we have.

And the document? I was hoping to see it unredacted, but no luck. 

I lost a couple of jobs because of this. But, as a white man, I know I am protected from the worst of it. Working class communities and people of colour are disproportionately the victims of state repression. I’m talking about it now because I think these things should be in the public domain. 

I guess I’ve also been a little reticent. I am a freelance actor and writer. If people google me and see the word “extremism” or “security risk”, then I’m gonna lose more work… which sucks. But hopefully this adds to the tapestry of authoritarian and totally-not-lawful things that the police are doing to protesters.

Look at how they pay informers. Look at how they infiltrate movements. Look at their racist “counter-extremism” policies, found even in schools since at least 2015. And to be called a “national security threat” by such terrible people? Honestly, I’m flattered.

After posting my story on social media, a twitter account added the following disturbing and useful context: 

“A scandalous thread on political suppression by the police & assumption of guilt in the name of “national security”. The next in person Labour conference after this was 2021 when police, including one sporting a fascist tattoo, patrolled the conf floor intimidating delegates.A scandalous thread on political suppression by the police & assumption of guilt in the name of “national security”. The next in person Labour conference after this was 2021 when police, including one sporting a fascist tattoo, patrolled the confence floor intimidating delegates.

“If you look closely on this officer’s forearm you can see a valknut tattoo. Brighton police dismissed reports of this and claimed officers were vetted though failed to address the contradiction of this photo’s existence in light of that claim.

We like to pretend Britain is a free country and a democracy and then you see that the police ban participation in political conferences and send armed officers onto the conference floor in co-ordinated intimidation tactics to suppress dissent from elected delegates.

Brighton police made denials about this valknut tattoo but this is from a counter-terrorism document…

According to Bright and Hove Police’s official account, that is just fine…

A classic case of we vet. And after being shown the proof that vetting is clearly not working they added the following…

I hope everyone will join the protests against the Police Bill. Don’t let the creeping authoritarianism of the British state dissuade you from taking action. Let it embolden you. Turn out in your thousands, step into your power. You are many, they are few.

Sam Knights is a writer, actor, activist, clown | banging on about climate change. Find them on Twitter @samjknights

This post was adapted from a Twitter thread 29/03/2022 with additions by Media Diversified.

Further reading: Is It Even A Protest If Your Oppressor Gave You Permission?

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