Damage Control: The story of how one activist group kept ourselves safe and strong in the face of movement infiltration
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6. Lessons Learned

We learned a ton from the experience and this knowledge has had a major impact on our organizing practices. We explore below some of these lessons learned with the hopes that they might also be useful to others doing any sort of activism related to challenging capitalism, colonialism, and/or state authority.

Security Culture without Alienating New Organizers?

Our initial suspicions of the supposed couple that infiltrated MISN formed because these people didn’t fit into the norms of our very particular activist crowd. We really worried at first that we thought they were infiltrators simply because they weren’t “cool” and didn’t know our activist lingo. We want to emphasize that “seeming out of place” is not a solid reason to exclude or ostracize people. Ultimately, we moved from these initial suspicions to finally kicking them out only after collecting a significant amount of evidence that they were misrepresenting themselves. Lots of people who are new to organizing may not have knowledge of our jargon and norms; others (including some of us writing this) may be a little bit socially awkward. Many MISN members in particular come to us without any prior experience organizing and we take pride in supporting people in learning about how to confront injustice effectively (which is something we are all constantly learning). Ultimately, this experience has crystallized the lesson that sharing information that potentially puts you at risk should only be done with people you trust. We got to the point where the risk of having these people continue on in our group was simply too large.

Law is Confusing

This section should not be interpreted as legal advice.

After seeking a number of legal opinions on this matter, this is our understanding of the legal parameters of what happened. Under section 129(a) of the Criminal Code, it is an offence to “resist or willfully obstruct a public officer or peace officer in the execution of his duty or any person lawfully acting in aid of such an officer.” It can be charged as either a summary or indictable offence, with a maximum sentence of two years. In Canada there has not been very much legal precedent on the question of calling out undercover police. The closest case seems to be that of R v Westie, a 1971 decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal. In that case, a person was convicted for repeatedly warning others of two undercover police officers doing a panhandling sweep on a street in Vancouver despite the officers warning him that doing so amounted to obstructing police. We have come to believe that because Kat and Alex weren’t investigating any actual illegal activity—their role was more intelligence gathering than criminal investigation—R v Westie is easily distinguishable from the situation we had found ourselves in. For Kat and Alex’s work to count as criminal investigation, they would need to believe that a particular criminal law had been broken. Intelligence gathering isn’t about investigating actual crimes but about exploring the potentiality of crimes (or, realistically in the world we live in, manufacturing crimes). In the context of Bill C-51 and the entrapment of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody in British Columbia (R v Nuttall), concerns about the state fabricating criminal conspiracies and plots are increasingly warranted. The other important distinction between R v Westie and our situation is that that case was decided before the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into being, and so was not considered alongside the fundamental freedom of expression contained in section 2(b) of the Charter.

We also knew of several cases after the G20 in Toronto in 2010 where activists were criminalized for publishing and broadcasting the names of Brenda Carey and Bindo Showan, the undercover officers in the G20 investigations. However, neither activist was ultimately charged with obstructing police. One was charged with Disobeying a Court Order because a publication ban on the real or fake names of the undercover officers was still in effect as the G20 Main Conspiracy Case made its way through court. The other was charged with counseling assault, harassment, intimidation, and defamation.

There seems to be more incidents in the United States of people being charged for outing undercover police. This is likely the origin of the common caution, often given in legal rights workshops, that outing undercover police is illegal. Often ideas float up from the US context that aren’t actually legally applicable in Canada, and this seems to be the case here.

“Open Source Information”:
Using Social Media Against Us

One of our biggest takeaways from this experience was a commitment to taking a second look at our personal social media use from a surveillance perspective. Bill Blair, the former chief of the Toronto Police Service, has toured around the world giving presentations bragging about Toronto’s “gold standard” of social media monitoring as a tool for defusing protest; in Toronto and elsewhere, this kind of “open source” intelligence gathering (that is, grounded in the collection of overt and publicly available, as opposed to covert and clandestine, information) is becoming increasingly central to the repression of radical organizing

It is easy to believe that just because you’re not sharing “secret” or “high-risk” information that you are not contributing to intelligence gathering efforts. The thing is, a lot of undercover intelligence gathering these days isn’t just about tracking and inciting illegal activity—it’s working from a broader “risk management” framework that relies on mapping social networks, figuring out who’s connected to whom, learning about how we talk, getting information about demos that will help police/intelligence agencies “assess threats” and respond with “appropriate” policing strategies, etc. Social media platforms like Facebook are an ideal way of accessing this kind of information because cops don’t need a warrant to access it. If they’re looking to your group’s public Facebook page for information, then this is “open source” information for them. Even your private Facebook page is a fount of open source information once you unknowingly add an undercover cop to your list of “friends.” Paying attention to who we’re adding and what we’re saying on social media is one way of having (some) control over whether/how much our information is being used and collected.

It’s tricky to know where to go with this, because so much of our organizing these days is really reliant on social media; some of us walked away from this experience with a strict “no more adding strangers to Facebook” policy, while others of us who use their Facebook pages for outreach saw the idea of a “real-friends-only” policy as a more major loss. While making choices about “friend-adding practices” will ultimately be a personal one, it might be worth reconsidering adding strangers to Facebook.

Looking back on our experiences, some things that stood out for us in Kat and Alex’s profiles that were early signs of misrepresentation included:

  • They had very few friends;
  • Any mutual friends they had either didn’t know them or used Facebook for promotional purposes and was thus likely to accept any friend request;
  • They had no pictures of themselves;
  • They had few posts and very little interaction by others with their posts (e.g. few likes on anything, only one person wishing them a happy birthday, no one posting anything to them).

Obviously none of these things means anything definitive about someone—they were just some things that planted the seeds of suspicion.

Performing Activist Legitimacy  

Becoming choosier about who has access to one’s information on Facebook helps reduce surveillance and also reduces the social legitimization of undercovers’ sketchy Facebook accounts. Looking at some of the strategies that we used to determine whether these people were infiltrators, a lot of it was rooted in some pretty common assumptions that most of us make on social media. For example, if Kat and Alex had managed to get more firmly rooted in the Toronto activist community and had 32 mutual friends with us instead of 1 each, would we have doubted them so strongly? It is likely that this information would have been used as an argument that they were “cool” (that is, safe), despite knowing that people sometimes accept friend requests from people they don’t know.

There are other ways that undercover police find legitimization in activist communities. For example, early on in our process of figuring these guys out, one reason why we didn’t immediately eject them from the group was because some of us felt that there was safety in knowing what they were up to and that MISN was a relatively harmless space for them to be in. When we described this logic to a fellow activist, however, he pointed out that by continuing to be “MISN members,” Kat and Alex maintained their ability to say that they “organized with MISN” as a way of gaining trust and legitimacy with other groups in the city. This could have increased their access to activist networks and ran the risk of making them seem more trustworthy and less like they were “coming out of nowhere.”

Using Our Politics Against Us

We have some big fears about including this section, largely because we do not live in a perfect world and we worry about how this will be used to justify oppressive behaviour in our communities. But it’s important to talk about the implications of the ways in which the woman cop in this situation used a supposed history of intimate partner violence as a way of explaining why she had no personal history to tell of and as a way of deflecting criticism when we called her motivations into question.

At the MISN holiday party, Kat started making allusions to having been in a “bad” relationship when she lived in Waterloo and before she started dating Alex and this story came out in full force when we confronted them at the café. Her story was that in the course of escaping this relationship she had had to cut off all ties with her former life. This was why she had virtually no friends. This was why she had no history to speak of. This was why we were meant to stay away from asking any “personal questions” of her. This was why “as females,” we should have known better than to ask her to account for her weird behaviour.

Let’s be honest: it feels terrible writing about this. Despite all the proof we’ve gathered, it may never be possible to shake the tiny voice in our heads suggesting that we were wrong about everything, that not only have we been weird and hostile towards two real people, but that we’ve also dismissed the story of an abuse survivor. We don’t think that this is true, but the worry remains.

Knowing that undercover cops use stories like this as a way of securing unquestioning entrance into activist communities makes us pissed, as a group of both abuse survivors and people in relationship with survivors. We also know that in the Toronto G20 in 2010, one of the undercovers made accusations of racism as a way of creating rifts in groups and deflecting criticism. Another used the same story of fleeing an abusive relationship to explain her reluctance to speak of her past. It’s obvious that even though having an awareness of and sensitivity to the impacts of systemic and interpersonal violence is one of our biggest strengths in radical communities—we’re told “believe survivors” and so many of us do, in dedicated and passionate ways—cops see this commitment as a weakness to exploit. It’s also obvious that when there are patterns of oppression in our activist communities, this weakness is exploited as well.

We have so many questions about finding ways to incorporate an understanding of this infiltration tactic into our practice of security culture without being giant assholes by dismissing claims of violence. We fear that this writing will be taken up in ways that really deviate from our intended goals in sharing it, but we also fear what can be produced in a social context where many people know about this phenomenon but nobody talks about it.

We know a few things for sure. One of them is: when somebody tells you that they have experienced intimate partner violence, this is NOT a valid reason to suspect them of being an undercover cop. Let’s say it again, for good measure: somebody telling you that they have experienced intimate partner violence is NOT a valid reason to suspect them of being an undercover cop. Despite everything that has happened, we still feel that it would have been shitty of us to continue to press for details about Kat’s past or act suspicious of her story. We are not detectives and it is not our job to make sure that people’s stories of violence “add up”. That said, we feel that it is important to speak openly about this infiltration strategy so that others are prepared. It is not the first time it’s been used, and it likely won’t be the last. It is very powerful—for some of us almost irresistible—to be called on to protect or advocate for a person claiming to be victimized. When Kat messaged Merle saying that she felt scared of Sam after the incident in the subway, it was hard not to feel pulled into an emotional response even though we knew what had actually transpired. We were lucky to have personal knowledge of how this strategy was used in almost exactly the same ways by a woman undercover cop during the G20 when activist groups were infiltrated then. Knowing to expect this as a tactic that Kat might use in the confrontation helped us to prepare better, which really helped us stay on track and avoid getting thrown off when it was ultimately deployed. Through this (mostly emotional) preparation we found ways to resist her manipulation without entirely sacrificing our feminist politics.

There are things we can do to be proactive about protecting our groups and communities against the use of this tactic. We discuss these further in the “Security Culture in Our Movements” section below.

“Believing survivors” as a politic doesn’t mean that all of your security culture practices have to go out the window. If somebody’s experiences of intimate partner violence have meant that they feel they cannot tell you a single thing about their entire past (honestly, we have many survivors in our lives and have never met somebody for whom this is the case), then that is absolutely their prerogative. It could also possibly mean that you decide to be choosier about what you organize with them—just like you would with anybody you don’t know much about. Or maybe it means that you build trust with this person in other ways. It’s possible to ask questions about somebody’s life experiences without pressing them for details about their abusive relationships. Fostering a security culture that respects the lives of survivors means finding many different kinds of ways to build trust and get to know somebody, while also keeping in mind that our reactive responses to disclosures of abuse and violence make us vulnerable to police using our experiences of oppression against us.

This is Emotional

This process wasn’t easy, at all, nor was it purely about detached, strategic decision-making. The months between our initial suspicions and our final act of kicking them out of our group involved a lot of difficult, often tense conversations where we disagreed with each other a lot, felt unsafe, felt abandoned, felt betrayed, and felt scared and confused, in both big and small ways. At the same time, MISN also emerged from this experience still strong and in good relations with each other. We feel that working to maintain good relationships with your friends/co-organizers while grappling with this situation is incredibly important. This is true because our personal well-being and the well-being of our social connections matter a ton, but also because infiltrators benefit tactically when they plant rifts in our relationships, when “risk” is neutralized because activist groups have gotten so mired in infighting that they cease to be effective. Cops also have been known to purposefully cause conflict as a way of building trust with one organizer by eroding their relationships with other organizers through gossip and shit-talk. Prioritizing the creation of space for complicated emotions and the strength of relationships is therefore both personally and strategically important.
 

Knowing that there’s a cop in your midst can be incredibly stressful and can make you feel paranoid and unsafe. In our case this played out in a bunch of ways. Many of us felt like we needed to put aside our feelings in order to be "productive" and take action. We worried a lot about fucking up, about whether we could ever trust new people, and about both being too paranoid and/or not being paranoid enough.

Watching undercover cops come around and buddy up with my friends again five years after the G20 infiltrations rekindled some of the terrible, intense feelings of fear and trepidation that staring down the barrel of the G20 prosecutions engendered. It made me confront the fact of police surveillance being an ever-present part of life for activist-types who seek to impede business as usual. This happening yet again has made me accept that this is the terrain of struggle—that these are the risks and this is the new normal. That’s a tough realization to really come to terms with. With that said, the vast majority of people in activist communities are not going to be the targets of this sort of surveillance and infiltration. These tactics are too resource-intensive for the police to use on a large-scale. They are used sparingly, but they are to be expected for major security events.
— Sam

Finding out too late that there has been a cop in your midst can be even worse—there are legacies of trauma in our activist communities stemming from this experience of trusting someone who turns out to be a cop. We need to find ways to balance “being strategic” with taking care of each other and understanding the emotionality of all of this. We did this well in some ways, and failed in others. Our strategy for kicking these cops out of our group prioritized a number of different goals, but one example of an important emotional priority was making decisions that allowed us to be able to talk about what was happening with at least some trusted friends as early as possible. If this ever happens to you, it’s good and okay for your strategy to include emotional/relational strategy.

‘Why Did They Pick You?’

We’ve had a lot of people ask us why we think we were the ones who were infiltrated if we generally use non-violent tactics and weren’t planning anything illegal. We have a couple of (not-mutually-exclusive) ideas.

  • The Pan Am Games had a giant security budget. They didn’t necessarily have to be very selective about where they put their resources. We believe strongly that we most definitely were not the only group that was infiltrated, or that was targeted for infiltration; we were just the only one (that we’ve heard of) that managed to catch them red-handed, mostly because they were terrible at their jobs.
  • Timing could be a factor. The Joint Intelligence Group for the Pan Am Games was formed in September 2014, about one month before we had a new members’ orientation that was open to anybody. We were probably just the first “easy in” that came up as they began their process of risk assessment.

  • Historically, undercover cops don’t usually start by getting in with the “big guys” (i.e. groups that they feel pose strong risks to public security). Since groups who use direct action tactics that push boundaries of legality tend to have more exacting processes for bringing in new members, groups like us with open, public processes for bringing in new members and a general orientation to trying to be accessible to new activists, are an easy “in.” We have seen this happen in a number of different settings, including in the lead-up to the G20 in Southern Ontario. Once undercover cops have established themselves in easier-to-join groups (who are almost inevitably connected to other groups through friendship and/or organizing networks), this legitimizes them in ways that can sometimes grant them access to groups who they perceive as more confrontational and who may pay closer attention to who joins their ranks.

Legality/Illegality: A Harmful Fixation

In discussions of our eroding national standards of privacy, people and groups who understand themselves as “law-abiding” can often be heard saying things like “well, I’m not doing anything illegal, so I don’t care if they’re watching me.” After this experience, we feel even more strongly opposed to this sentiment than ever before.

First and foremost, it is important to remind ourselves that the distinction between illegal/legal is a framework of morality that is developed by the state–not by communities—in order to uphold the unjust power relations of capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. There are many things that are illegal that shouldn’t be, and many things that are legal that are violent and morally reprehensible. There are entire communities who have been defined as either “illegal” by the state (e.g. undocumented folks), or who are criminalized for getting their basic needs met (e.g. HIV-positive people, drug users, people experiencing homelessness, etc.). When we applaud ourselves for being law-abiding activists (even if we are), we limit ourselves to superficial framings of morality that actively harm a number of marginalized communities, and we uphold the very power relations we are resisting. We also throw potential comrades who are asserting alternative visions of morality (outside of the state-enforced definitions of legality/morality noted above) under the bus and destroy opportunities to build our collective power in support of those alternative visions.  

Are you part of an activist group who generally sticks to legal tactics? Do you feel in any way committed to being in solidarity with groups who use direct action/civil disobedience tactics? Or to groups who have a history of being criminalized no matter what tactics they use? Then it is important for you to start paying close attention to the issue of undercover surveillance and develop some security culture practices for yourself and your group. Groups like you/us are infiltrators’ “in” to our networks, as diverse and decentralized as they may be. While our different activist groups may use varying tactics, we are often working towards a similar vision of the world. In order to keep ourselves safe and strong against movement infiltration, all activist groups must resist getting lazy out of a false sense that “we” aren’t the “kinds” of activists who are surveilled. We are all in this together.

Security Culture in Our Movements

This experience definitely taught us some things about “security culture” practices that we’d like to share here. A lot of what we’ll say in this section isn’t new; this stuff has been written about a lot (see the bibliography for some awesome resources on security culture that we’ve drawn on quite a bit in this section).

“Security culture” describes the practices and norms that we build into our ways of communicating, organizing, making decisions, and relating to each other in activist (and otherwise surveilled) communities that account for and anticipate the ways in which organizing and protest is targeted by government surveillance and often criminalized no matter the actual nature of the activities.

At their worst, security culture practices in activist communities can make groups paranoid, insular, ineffective, and self-destructive. But we feel that, at their best, security culture practices are a conduit for us to get better at living our social justice values. Important principles of security culture—e.g. getting to know each other and having real relationships, building trust, not gossiping/shit-talking, staying away from macho posturing and grandstanding, being strategic, being thoughtful, etc.—can actually help us to foster qualities in our movements that are good anyway.

A really useful example of how this can apply brings us back to the concern we raised earlier of cops using “intimate partner violence” as an infiltration strategy. There are lots of proactive qualities and capacities we can develop to protect ourselves from this tactic that help keep us safe and that are also good anyway. The better our groups are at supporting people with experiences of violence who aren’t cops, the better able we will be to respond to cops when they try to use our compassion for people’s experiences of oppression against us. This infuriating tactic works because it exploits the ways in which many people panic in the face of community members’ disclosures of violence. If we freak out when somebody tells us they’ve been assaulted or abused, then we will definitely freak out when a cop does the same. But if, as a community, we collectively have the emotional and relational skills to calmly and confidently support survivors and hear their stories, we are creating an interpersonal terrain that is much more difficult to exploit. If a cop accuses your group of endemic racism and you all panic and collapse into a pile of conflict, gossip, and guilt, they win. If a cop does the same and you handle it with maturity, commitment, and accountability, you win.

When it’s relevant to them, police are paying close attention to our language, our social networks, our values, and our priorities. This means that when there are weaknesses in our social movements like endemic racism or sexism, these weaknesses can and will be exploited. We should be fixing these problems in our radical communities because these problems are harmful, but an added motivation is that having good relationships, solid conflict resolution practices, and strong mechanisms for accountability can serve to protect us against infiltration. If a single cop dedicated to causing conflict can throw an entire group into interpersonal crisis with just a little shit-talk and a few accusations, we need to try and strengthen ourselves against this. Thus, transformative justice and accountability can be security culture practices. 

While this experience has changed a lot of our organizing practices, it was reassuring to us to see that many aspects about MISN’s existing culture really protected us from getting even more fucked over than we were. Even though we weren’t necessarily looking at these things as “security culture practices,” and even though there were a lot of things about security culture that we needed to learn fast and on the fly because we didn’t understand ourselves as very at-risk before, we saw in practice that some of the key ways that we operate helped us deal with this much more painlessly than if we held different values. As an explicitly feminist group that grounds itself in an ethic of care and good relationships, we know that misogynists make great informants and that trust can’t be built on a foundation of interpersonal violence. The trust that we had cultivated in our group also meant that when we said to the MISN collective, “listen, this thing is happening and we don’t know how much talking about it will put you all at risk,” others believed that we would handle it well and let us take the lead on coming up with a solution without micromanaging.

There are two other concrete ideas that this experience has really shifted and crystallized for us: one is thinking about “knowns” and “unknowns” when bringing new members into a group, and the other is about entitlement to information.

It was really important to us that this experience not make us paranoid monsters when it came to bringing new members into MISN in the future. Even though sometimes we still feel a bit paranoid, it helps us to understand the difference between “automatically suspecting that somebody is misrepresenting themselves” and “not knowing enough about somebody (yet) to confirm that they are who they say they are.” Rather than building toxic “in-groups” and “out-groups” in our activist collective and being suspicious of all new members, we now orient ourselves towards really getting to know new members and seeking out information that will help us shift them out of the “not enough information to confirm that they are who they say they are” category and into the “almost certainly they are who they say they are” category in our minds. What information is relevant enough to warrant that shift will probably be different for everybody, but some examples of things we tend to look out for are: Are they the childhood friend of someone you know? Have you met their mom (or a similar figure)? Have you met their kid? Do they exist on the public record already (e.g. have they been interviewed by the media, have they published a book, do they have a high school yearbook photo, etc.)? Have you seen proof of the jobs they have? Can somebody in the city they come from vouch for them? etc. Obviously none of these things can be understood as “absolute confirmations” (there are horror stories of well-respected anarchist authors being found out to be white supremacist infiltrators and undercover cops having kids with activist women), but they can be understood as useful points of data. These things also won’t help to establish whether somebody is a paid informant, which is a whole other story we don’t have many answers for here.

This sort of careful inquiry has come to be a pretty calm mental process for us; it’s not like we’re super stressed out being around people when we don’t know that they are not cops. We’re friends and co-organizers with lots of people who we don’t know for sure are not cops—we just might not organize certain kinds of things with them or share everything with them. Having good security culture practices doesn’t have to feel weird and scary all the time. As the CrimethInc. collective says in their zine about security culture (reference in the bibliography below):

Having a security culture in place saves everyone the trouble of having to work out safety measures over and over from scratch, and can help offset paranoia and panic in stressful situations—hell, it might keep you out of prison, too. The difference between protocol and culture is that culture becomes unconscious, instinctive, and thus effortless; once the safest possible behavior has become habitual for everyone in the circles in which you travel, you can spend less time and energy emphasizing the need for it, or suffering the consequences of not having it, or worrying about how much danger you’re in, as you’ll know you’re already doing everything you can to be careful.

Another good way to support security culture is to get comfortable with the feeling of not being automatically trusted, to try and shake any sense of entitlement to others’ information, and to actively see the value of slow processes of trust-building. In short: we need to learn to be okay with people wondering if we’re cops. If you join a new group and people aren’t immediately forthcoming with all sensitive information, that’s actually a good sign as long as the group has a dynamic rather than static understanding of trustworthiness. It can be really difficult not to take it personally when people don’t automatically assume the best of you, and not to wonder “what is it about me that makes them not trust me!?” Common ideas about democratic decision-making dictate that everybody should be a part of every decision ever, and it can feel really good to be brought into “in-group” conversations. But if good security culture with a dynamic understanding of trustworthiness entails a constant process of gathering information that will help you decide that somebody is probably not misrepresenting themselves, it’s important to give that process time and to invest in your own process of being trustworthy. In an ideal world, if Kat and Alex weren’t infiltrators and were asked if they were, they would not have reacted defensively with “No! No!” They would have expected us to wonder this, understood the importance of our wondering, and either worked to help us find the information we needed to believe otherwise or just given the process more time.

A lot of these things are difficult to shift because it’s all about safety and trust, which we tend to be reactive around out of a sense of self-protection. But when we pay close attention to the decisions we’re making around these things and try to be more thoughtful, intentional, and proactive, we can create the kinds of strong communities that are safe(r) from infiltration and surveillance.

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