Damage Control: The story of how one activist group kept ourselves safe and strong in the face of movement infiltration
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5. Going to the Media

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Once we had kicked Alex and Kat out of the group we talked about approaching mainstream media and trying to get them to cover the story. We felt that we had been incredibly lucky in how a lot of this had gone down, partly because those of us who had been directly engaging with them were white, with Canadian citizenship and other privileges, partly because of what bad actors they were, partly because of how minimal their involvement in Toronto organizing was before being kicked out. We know that there are so many stories of infiltration that can never be shared publicly and felt that we were in a better position to do so. We also still weren’t fully sure that they were misrepresenting themselves and hoped that a reporter could use their resources to provide us with more certainty.

The timing also felt important to us. As we were in the process of planning to kick Kat and Alex out of our group, a terrifying and dystopian new surveillance law, Bill C-51, was making its way through the parliamentary process of becoming law. It seemed like perfect timing to publicly demonstrate and denounce the spying and surveillance powers the state was already using and explain that what happened to us is something that would only become more common under this new legislation.

 Credit: Canadian Press

Credit: Canadian Press

We also guessed that we were far from the only group being infiltrated/surveilled in the lead-up to the Pan Am Games (which were four months away at that point). We were hoping that a public article could raise awareness about the possibility of surveillance, as well as highlight the dark side of these Games that were already being celebrated across Toronto and in the media.

We talked as a small group, and also checked in with MISN’s larger collective, to think through how we hoped the story would be presented and decide how to go about reaching out to reporters. We decided that we all wanted to be present to chat with the reporter, in part to prevent this from being a profile-type story that focused on one person’s “tragic-heroic story.” While some of us were stricken with anxiety at the thought of being placed under a media spotlight, we were all really looking forward to the possibility of being able to talk publicly about what had been going on with our friends and allies. While we were skeptical that mainstream media would frame the issues how we wanted, we did hope that some of our core messaging would get across.

Since we were concerned about problematic ways that the media might choose to spin the story, we developed a brief list for ourselves outlining our core points to help us stick to the messages that drove us to take this to the media in the first place [see side box/something for core messaging]. What we didn’t want included in the story was just as important to us as what we chose as our core messaging. For example, we didn’t want the article to reify the arbitrary divisions between violent and non-violent protest groups (e.g. “Why are they surveilling this non-violent group when we know the real bad guys are over there?”). We didn’t want the story to be about the state “going too far” by surveilling a group of nice white ladies (whether or not this characterization of our group is true), as though police surveillance of Black and Indigenous groups isn’t also “too far.” We also struggled with how to tell the story in such a way that didn’t imply that we were “effectively halted” from doing Pan Am organizing—although we had certainly felt a lot of frustration with the energy we ended up putting into kicking them out and keeping ourselves safe rather than organizing, we actually ended up doing some mobilizing we are really proud of and didn’t want cops to feel like they’d won! Lastly, we especially didn’t want the story to erase or distract from the constant and pervasive criminalization of racialized people, sex workers, drug users, and homeless/under-housed people, for whom surveillance is the norm and not the exception, and who always face increased criminalization in the face of mega-sporting events like the Pan Am Games.


Our core messaging:

  • Policing and surveillance is spreading into every nook and cranny of our lives
    • Bill C-51 is taking a practice that’s common and long-standing and enshrining it in Canadian law
    • We were violated, but that could have been way worse if Bill C-51 was in place
    • They were careful to make sure that they weren’t entrapping us, but with Bill C-51 they would have more leeway to do this
    • Imagine a police officer sitting in your living room, watching everything you do and pretending to be your friend
  • Mega-projects are used as launching pads to justify and elicit this spread of policing/surveillance (e.g. Pan Am, G20, Olympics, mine/giant industrial projects) and are justified using language of “economic development” and “revitalization.” Giant state investments bring giant security investments, which don’t end once the games/mines do, but rather broaden and intensify.
    • This is a staple of the policing of particular communities, including the mining-impacted communities that we’ve been supporting for years
    • Connecting this experience to police repression in the communities we support—we’ve been working for many years with communities who have been murdered/assaulted/in many ways violated by the police, but this has never happened directly to us
  • We know this happened to us—what’s happening at Jane and Finch? What’s happening in the downtown east? etc.
    • These are just the beginnings of what we anticipate will be a great deal of violence, heightened securitization and displacement throughout the Pan Am games, and poor, Black, Indigenous, sex working and otherwise criminalized people are going to face the brunt of this
    • We don’t know the scope of this investigation. What else could they have done/could they be doing?

As a first step, we developed a list of mainstream journalists who had already been writing about Bill C-51 and sent out emails to them soliciting their interest, one at a time. The plan was to write to a broader list of journalists if we didn’t hear back from them.

We didn’t hear back from either paper for a little while and then suddenly both were very interested and one reporter in particular was very upset that we were speaking with a competing paper, wanting to be the first to break the story as part of her ongoing coverage of Bill C-51. It was a bit of a mess.

Ultimately, we met with a reporter from one Toronto newspaper who seemed interested in getting the full story, doing some actual investigation into who Alex and Kat were, and listening to our concerns. We met with him as a group and individually over the following month. We shared photos, audio recordings, and other documentation we had put together. We requested a commitment on his part not to publish anything from the materials we provided and to use them only to further his own investigation. We wanted to make sure that other people who were involved in the periphery of these events didn’t have their personal information shared without their consent—and we also wanted to protect the ultimate identities of Kat and Alex in the very unlikely event that they were not in fact lying to us about who they were. When we met with him individually, we committed to only speaking from our own experiences, saying "you'll have to talk to ___ about that" when he asked questions about things beyond our direct experiences, or things that we did not personally witness. We each had a particular kernel of core messaging that we focused on trying to communicate

We all came into these media interactions from really different places. Some of us had a lot of media experience but also had been disappointed or disillusioned with how media had spun stories we were involved with in the past. Others had less media experience and were worried about saying something they didn’t mean under the pressure, potentially letting everyone else down. Some of us had been burned in the past by pockets of activist culture in our city that can be harsh and unforgiving. We had some concerns that we would be misquoted, or that the article would frame the story very differently from how we would, and that we might then be publicly called out for saying something problematic.

Ultimately Merle ended up getting interviewed (and quoted) the most even though she was the least excited about doing media stuff. Sam was interviewed specifically about connections between this and the G20. It quickly became clear that the reporter was not going to publish the story soon enough to be part of the discourse on Bill C-51 as we had hoped, but was planning on waiting until much closer to the Pan Am Games. We also realized that the writer didn't have as much control as we thought about what ended up in the final article—a lot came down to what the editorial team would approve. Ultimately, the article ended up being published just before the Pan Am Games started. We (including the journalist we were working with) didn't know for sure that it was getting published until the day before it came out.

The best part of working with such a big newspaper is that the journalist was able to do quite a bit more investigative research into finding Kat and Alex than we were ever able to. He was required to do this because the newspaper was understandably very concerned about the risk of publishing an article accusing civilians of being undercover police. The journalist’s assistants searched public legal records extensively (including birth records, marriage records, etc.), visited dog parks and Italian soccer clubs with photos of Kat and Alex asking people if they knew them (they ultimately spoke with over two dozen very confused dog walkers), knocked on doors in the neighbourhood Kat supposedly lived in in Waterloo, to no avail. They also contacted Kat and Alex directly via email to get their side of the story, with no response. This was very relieving to us, as this was further proof that we weren’t just being paranoid. We were clear, however, that we didn’t want the newspaper to publish their photos or their last names, on the now infinitesimal chance that this had all been a horrible misunderstanding.

Once the article was finally published, we had pretty mixed feelings. On the one hand we were relieved—now the story was out and it felt easier for us to discuss it with others. We also got some really nice and supportive messages from family members, fellow organizers, etc., and were glad to see it getting shared around. On the other hand, we were concerned about how our families or workplaces would respond, and the framing of the article also made us feel a little silly (Merle, in particular, will never be able to bake “chocolate chip cookies with rosemary sprigs” ever again, and Kate will never live down the photo of her in the online article looking like she’s telling a story about a very big sandwich she once ate).

We had a whole series of follow-up plans but it became quickly obvious to us how burnt out we all were. We needed a break, and despite promising each other we would follow up in some way as soon as possible, we ended up taking several months to get our shit back together, both personally and in terms of our activism (including actually planning Pan Am resistance), before we ended up reconvening to talk about and write what would eventually become this zine.

Continue onto 6. Lessons Learned...