Damage Control: The story of how one activist group kept ourselves safe and strong in the face of movement infiltration
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3. Building Suspicions & Gathering Proof

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We first met one of the people that infiltrated our group at a memorial held in late September in 2014 to mark the 5-year anniversary of the death of Adolfo Ich Chaman, a community leader murdered by a Canadian mining company in Guatemala. “Kat” approached one of the organizers, introduced herself, and expressed interest in getting involved. We shared that we had a new members’ orientation coming up in the next few months.

About a month later we received an email from a member of another activist group in the city asking us if we’d be interested in attending an “allies meeting” of groups who were planning on organizing around the upcoming Pan Am Games in Toronto. It had been recently announced that Barrick Gold was a major sponsor of the games, supplying the materials for the medals. After talking about it as a group, we agreed that attending this allies meeting would be a good opportunity for us and struck an internal MISN subcommittee to prepare for our attendance.

On November 3rd, 2014 we held a new members’ orientation for MISN, where people who were interested in joining the group could learn more about what we do and how we do it. A couple of us organized and facilitated the event and each took responsibility for facilitating small group discussions to learn more about prospective members and answer any specific questions they might have. In one of these small group discussions, we met Kat and “Alex”, who said they were a couple that was relatively new to the Toronto activist community and to social justice issues in general. They spoke in “we” language about their involvement with MISN, said that getting more involved in organizing was something they wanted to do “together,” and seemed pretty naïve about activism and politics in general. We gave them information about our next meeting but didn’t expect them to show up.

Alex came to his first general MISN meeting on November 24th, without Kat. At this meeting we discussed the idea of doing some organizing around the Pan Am Games for the first time. He was very enthusiastic about the idea of getting involved in Pan Am organizing and talked about how in the years he lived in Italy he saw the negative impacts of the Olympics on the country and so felt passionate about these issues. He then offered (on behalf of both himself and Kat) to join the Pan Am committee.

I was suspicious that Alex only seemed interested in Pan Am stuff. Friends of mine involved in organizing had warned me that organizing around the Pan Am games could mean experiencing state surveillance. I dismissed my initial feeling of anxiety and attributed it to paranoia. But it still didn’t sit right with me that new activists apparently interested in ‘learning more’ were so interested in an aspect of our work that was non-introductory.
— Merle

On December 8th, we held a Pan Am subcommittee meeting at a collective home that two of us live in. Kat and Alex both attended (despite the fact that Kat had not yet come to a general members’ meeting). It was a small meeting, with only five people present in total.

My experience of them in that meeting was that they got in the way of our ability to have a productive conversation, with consistent derailments and off-topic questions. I tried to be sympathetic—they were new to all of this and some of their questions (‘what’s a check-in?’, or ‘what’s a go-around?’) did actually point to the amount of jargon that we use in these kinds of meetings. But I generally felt annoyed and frustrated that their new-ness and willingness to ‘take up space’ prevented us from having the discussion we were supposed to be having.
— Kate

We felt disconcerted by some of the questions that they (Alex in particular) were asking. For example, Alex said, “I know that OCAP [the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty],[1] for example, tends to use some pretty intense methods. But MISN doesn’t approve of that, does it?” He also kept name-dropping other activists in the city (sometimes mispronouncing their names, which we would then correct).[2] We were careful not to share information about other groups and organizers despite their questions. At one point in the meeting we were talking about some recent news articles about various aspects of the Games (for example, the fact that a house was being built for gay athletes in the athletes’ village) and during this conversation Kat suggested that we start a Facebook thread to communicate about different places where we could have protests during the games. The suggestion was out of the blue, and we were already communicating via email, so we said no to that pretty quickly. They also kept speaking as though they were invited to the Pan Am allies meeting that we were preparing for, even though we’d only ever talked about a couple of long-standing MISN members going. They only backed down once we said very clearly that only two of us would be going.

In these introductory discussions we had with them, we were told that they both worked freelance (he “worked for a buddy” as a landscaper, she was self-employed as a dog walker). He told us that he had two kids from a past marriage who stayed with him sometimes. She lived with her sister in north Toronto. They were both very vocal about wanting to help in whatever ways were possible and about wanting to follow our lead. They kept offering unsolicited information about themselves and apologizing for things out of the blue.

After that meeting we debriefed quickly and discovered through this conversation that there were alarm bells going off in all of our heads throughout the meeting. Given our suspicions—that Kat and Alex were perhaps not who they said they were—we thought we should talk to others to get extra insight. After the meeting, some of us talked to Sam, someone we knew who had experience with undercover infiltration tactics during the Toronto G20. After hearing all the details they felt pretty strongly that our suspicions were warranted. They were able to confirm that many of Kat and Alex’s characteristics and behaviours were remarkably similar to those displayed by undercover cops tasked with gathering information about G20 activists.

 Alex's Facebook profile picture

Alex's Facebook profile picture

The next day we “friended” both Kat and Alex on Facebook and they accepted our requests right away. What stood out to us right away was the very small number of friends they both had (about a dozen each), the small number of posts they’d made (about a dozen over a year), the lack of interaction with posts, the absence of photos of themselves, and the fact that they had both joined Facebook at the same time about a year ago. Alex’s profile picture was a generic Guy Fawkes mask and one of the first pictures that came up on his profile was an image of someone throwing a Molotov cocktail, which seemed pretty strange to us considering that he had only ever come off as pretty naïve and harmless (albeit domineering). He had also already voiced concern about “OCAP-style tactics” (read: threatening tactics, according to the police), so his promotion of a Molotov cocktail-wielding protester seemed strange. Kat’s profile picture was a wordmap with generic words like “freedom,” “humanity,” “equality,” “love,” and “fairness.”

 Kat's Facebook profile picture. 

Kat's Facebook profile picture. 

Despite the fact that they said they were both new to social justice issues, the only Facebook events that Kat had attended all pertained to activist issues that have been historically targeted by Canadian policing and surveillance—explicitly anarchist events, events about black bloc organizing, resisting police violence, land defense, and a panel about the Pan Am Games. Her “likes” were mostly animal rights groups, land defense groups, a group related to Occupy, and MISN.

They each had one Facebook friend who at least one of us knew. We spoke to these friends and it turned out that neither one knew Kat and Alex at all. Before we even told one of them what was going on, they said: “The profile looks fake.”

Talking to these friends made me realize how serious it would be if Alex and Kat really were surveilling us. I felt simultaneously unsure of who I could trust and a strong sense of worry about what others might also be experiencing.
— Merle

We continued to pay attention to their behaviour but didn’t immediately kick them out of the group. At this point it was December. MISN decided to have a holiday party on December 20th, since we usually only saw each other in meetings. Kat RSVP’d but Alex said he couldn’t come because he had to take care of his kids.

 A typical photo from Kat's Facebook account.

A typical photo from Kat's Facebook account.

We each spent some time during the party trying to get to know Kat better and understand her story. She told us that she grew up in a small town near Kitchener, that she worked for herself, and that she and Alex had been dating for about a year, starting about the same time she moved to Toronto. She came off as very friendly, sincere, and motivated by empathy for the suffering of people and animals. She was also asked about Alex, his kids (whose ages she, admittedly, “wasn’t too sure of”), and both of their motivations for joining MISN. She couldn’t seem to give a clear answer about Alex’s motivations for joining MISN, aside from the fact that he’s just a “very passionate person” who gets swept up in things. We asked her some questions about events she’d claimed to have attended and her answers were inconsistent from what we knew about her from Facebook—she told us that she had never been to activist events before MISN events. After one particularly awkward conversation with Sam where she seemed stuck on her answers to things, she abruptly got up to go to the bathroom. After returning from the bathroom, she promptly left the party. Just before leaving, she asked Kate to confirm the date of the next Pan Am allies meeting, which she seemed to know off the top of her head even though she wasn’t even invited to it. This, along with her seeming so freaked out by her last conversation at the party and her not seeming to know much about her partner, definitely threw up red flags for many of us. When the party was over we jotted down some information about what she had said (and were really glad to have these notes later).

In the new year, leading up to our next subcommittee meeting, Alex went out of his way to ask for the minutes from the Pan Am allies meeting that he hadn’t been invited to. We never sent him these minutes. Kate also felt unsafe inviting them back into her home, so we had our next Pan Am subcommittee meeting in a public café on January 13th. Merle and Kate met up before the meeting to develop a facilitation plan, mostly because we had work to get done and Kat and Alex had derailed the last meeting. In our earlier engagements with Alex, we’d observed that he consistently spoke on behalf of Kat (even when she was there to speak for herself), and had already made it pretty clear that he had no problem with speaking out of turn, interrupting other people, and paying little attention to the stated agenda. As MISN is a group of mostly women, these recognizably sexist behaviours stuck out to us, so we wanted to have a plan to avoid rewarding this behaviour. It turned out that we definitely needed it.

 A photo from Alex's Facebook profile; typical of the kind of tactics-focused, macho stance he brought to our interactions, but strange considering that he said he was brand new to social justice issues. 

A photo from Alex's Facebook profile; typical of the kind of tactics-focused, macho stance he brought to our interactions, but strange considering that he said he was brand new to social justice issues. 

Despite the fact that we clearly articulated in advance and at the beginning of the meeting that this meeting was about defining our goals and vision for our Pan Am organizing, Alex kept pressuring us to identify what our specific plans and tactics were going to be, and what the nature of MISN’s tactics have been historically. Even after we made a point to give him a clear definition of the difference between goals and tactics, he kept pressing us for this information. Throughout the meeting, Kat emphasized the importance of not alienating anybody through our tactics, making sure that people impacted by the games “knew we were there for them.” Neither of them really had any concrete ideas of their own as to what they were hoping to get out of this organizing. Another MISN organizer who had never met them before attended this meeting and confirmed that she found their behaviour to be quite strange.

At this point we all felt pretty sure that they weren’t who they said they were, but we couldn’t be absolutely certain at this point. The “proof” we’d collected so far was suspicious when understood as a cluster of facts, but each individual item was totally explainable when viewed on its own. However, we knew from the G20 conspiracy case that undercover cops have “handlers”—other police officers that “supervise” the undercover officers and keep in regular contact with them while they are in the field. Undercover officers typically meet up with their handlers after every meeting or social event they attended in an undercover role. It became clear that if the handler somehow made themselves known to us, then we would have definitive proof that Kat and Alex were, in fact, cops.

 Another photo from that day's visioning.

Another photo from that day's visioning.

On January 18th, about a week later, we had a general MISN visioning meeting that Alex and Kat both attended. At the beginning of the meeting, Kat mentioned that her neck was really hurting her. As we started a visioning activity, Rachel began taking photos of people engaging in the activity to post on social media later. Directly after Rachel did this, Kat said that her neck was hurting too much, and she and Alex left immediately mid-way through the meeting. Kate texted Sam (who was nearby) to let them know that Kat and Alex were suddenly and conspicuously leaving and Sam was able to watch them as they entered a nearby subway station. Sam looked through the glass walls of the station as Kat and Alex went through the turnstile. As Alex went through, he turned around and seemed to notice Sam standing outside, even though the two had never met before and Sam was standing in a small crowd of people. Sam watched Kat and Alex pay their fare and go down onto a platform. Just before the train arrived, Alex doubled back up the stairs from the platform, coming face to face with Sam. Sam retreated to a farther part of the station and saw that, when the train came, Kat and Alex did not get on it. Alex then pulled out his cell phone, even though he was underground (this was before there was widespread cell service in the subway system). At this point Sam decided to leave the subway station and, as they exited the station and got only a few metres from the entrance, two police cars came zooming up to the station with their lights on. Three or four police officers ran out of the cars and into the station. Sam continued to walk away to a safe place.

Though we felt certain that Sam wasn’t doing anything illegal by following them, we knew that illegality wasn’t a necessary condition for getting arrested or messed with by police. I was really nervous. I eventually got a phone call from Sam letting me know that they were safe at a friend’s house and that they were going to stay there for a while until they felt more confident that they weren’t being followed.
— Kate

For Sam and Kate, this was the confirming evidence they needed in order to believe with conclusiveness that Kat and Alex were undercover cops. The two felt that the likelihood was slim to none that two police cars could happen to be responding to an emergency at Christie Station at the exact same time that this was happening.

I had just left the station, which was otherwise fairly empty and there was no emergency happening at the time that the police could have been responding to. It seemed much more likely that the two cars were on-call as Kat and Alex’s handlers or backup, in case there was an emergency situation with Kat and Alex that they might need to respond to.
— Sam

The whole situation felt suspicious; even if Kat and Alex were just spooked by seeing Sam and called the police, there were so many facts that didn’t line up. Why would the sight of Sam have alarmed them so much? How did Alex even recognize Sam, when they had never met before (while Sam was already known to police for their organizing work and as a target of the G20 police infiltration)? How could they have placed a phone call to the police when they were underground? How and why would two cop cars show up with their lights and sirens on within seconds in response to a call from a civilian?

What had happened really freaked us out and it became evident to us how important it was for our safety to keep a strong commitment to clear communication and relationship maintenance throughout this process.

A few days later, Kat contacted Merle over Facebook. She asked Merle if she could call her; Merle’s initial reaction was to call the others and try and figure out what to do.

I had a feeling she wanted to talk about what happened on the 13th and I felt very torn up about whether to respond and how. After speaking with others it seemed initially that a response wasn’t worth the trouble, as a phone call could potentially open me up to more surveillance (they didn’t have our phone numbers yet). Later I responded because at that point a small part of me still worried that perhaps they weren’t infiltrators and were actually just some naïve new activists we had really alienated.
— Merle

Merle responded via Facebook message saying she was busy and asked what Kat wanted to talk about. Kat again asked to talk on the phone and Merle, still questioning whether it was wise, held off on responding until the 20th, apologizing for her absence and asking to keep the discussion on Facebook Messenger. Kat responded with a long message telling Merle that she thought Sam was following her and ended by asking: “I just wanted to see what you know about Sam or how well you know them.” It was clear to all of us that her central objective in messaging Merle was to gather information on Sam.

I felt very alone throughout this experience. I was able to talk with Kate, Rachel, and Sam about my feelings but our communication had broken down a bit at this point. I was afraid of my family and friends experiencing surveillance if they knew what was going on. Despite this fear I broke down and told my mom what was happening and dealt with a lot of guilt around whether I had exposed her to state surveillance.

I am someone who is fairly open about my own experiences with gendered violence and at the time was volunteering at a sexual assault crisis line. I thought that was possibly why Kat reached out to me. I was very uncertain about whether that was because she legitimately wanted a listening ear or because she perceived that it would easier to manipulate me.
— Merle
At this point, I had a lot of conflicting feelings. Now that I was convinced that Kat and Alex were definitely not who they were pretending to be, and were likely cops, I felt a huge amount of guilt that by having them over to our house a few times I had put my housemates at risk. I also had no clue whether I should be worried about our house being bugged in some way, or whether this was me being excessively paranoid.

I also felt like a number of my concerns were really different from the rest of our group’s, and was nervous about our group process and how we would figure out what to do next. My background in witnessing/experiencing surveillance came from some really different contexts from the rest of our group; while living and working with land defenders and environmental justice organizations in Guatemala, I had seen many different forms of surveillance and violence by cops and other groups hiding their identities. The types of precautions I had learned to take in this context of solidarity work were primarily geared towards protecting people who were at risk of being kidnapped, assassinated, or facing other threats to their bodies or their families.

In comparison, the risks we and others in MISN faced felt smaller, so I think I had trouble feeling like I was on the same page as my friends and co-organizers, and was definitely assessing risk differently. I had also witnessed situations (both abroad and in Canada) where the process of accusing someone of being an infiltrator had devastating effects on group cohesion and function and had put people in real danger. I think this meant that I was at times more worried about this possibility than about whether or not Kat and Alex actually were infiltrators. I was deeply worried that in the process of sussing out Kat and Alex (and in any future actions we might take concerning that) that we might cause lasting harm to MISN.
— Rachel

Continue onto 4. Kicking Them Out...

[1] Ontario police have had a weird fixation on OCAP ever since what is commonly called the Queen’s Park Riot in 2000. There is some record of Waterloo Regional Police officers training to become part of the 2010 G20 Integrated Security Unit and using the lessons learned from policing failures surrounding this 2000 protest as a case study for how to communicate well, take good notes, and tell the difference between “protesters” and “anarchists” (Wood, 2014, p. 157).

[2] These kinds of questions are as much about gathering information about social networks as they are about gathering information about risk. Correcting them on the pronunciation of people’s names showed that we knew these people, or at least “of” them. Kat and Alex seemed to know a lot of activists’ names for two people who were supposedly new to the movement.