Aziz Choudry's Blog

Activists, State Surveillance, and Political Policing

political policing state surveillance spycops activism activism police

Activists, State Surveillance and Political Policing

by Aziz Choudry

What can state surveillance, political policing, and the criminalisation of activists and communities tell us about the nature of democracy and the power of the state and capital in liberal democracies? What can activists learn from each other across generations, communities, struggles and countries about state security practices, about the interests that they protect, and from the resistance of activists and movements being spied upon?

Activists and the Surveillance State aims to contextualise and understand these security practices and their role in maintaining the dominant social, political and economic order. Combining contemporary and historical contributions, it connects reflections on earlier experiences with those today. It also highlights the imperial and colonial origins of many state security agencies and practices. Many chapters build on knowledge and analysis grounded in experiences of state surveillance and infiltration, along with examples of resistance. Some writings on surveillance reproduce an overdetermined sense that state repression inevitably only chills and crushes dissent. Yet this is a partial understanding. There are, and have always been people for whom state surveillance is not only an everyday part of life, but also those who have resisted it in the course of struggles for liberation and social, economic political and environmental justice. Key features in resistance to state spying and repression have been collective organising, activist research and political education. This can break the isolation, fear and alienation, divide and rule strategies exercised by state power. 


State (and corporate) spying, infiltration, the use of informants and agent provocateurs, and political policing does not necessarily produce compliant subjects. Surveillance and infiltration that targets dissidents, and the construction of enemies of the state, have long been fundamental to liberal democracies, as elsewhere, and are not merely unfortunate aberrations or exceptions. The FBI’s COINTELPRO is one example of the extent to which state security agents, informants and their political masters have worked to sabotage, smear, undermine and neutralise domestic opposition movements. These and other experiences across many countries, and different historical periods, suggest that such operations are much more than an afterthought. They cannot simply be explained away in terms of bad apples, rogue units and overzealous agents overstepping their powers, that can supposedly be reined in by better checks and balances or oversight of police and intelligence agencies.  Rather, they point to the need to confront a fundamentally more intentional state security apparatus, which is politically and economically driven, and which crosses party political boundaries, sanctioned from the top down.

Activists and the Surveillance State centres experiences and resistance of activists targeted by state security agencies and political policing.  Kate Wilson, a British activist spied on by undercover police, contrasts the processes of former Communist countries, such as East Germany, in terms of dealing with past human rights violations, with ‘the attempts to secure justice for the victims of British political policing, which have turned up an ever more sinister mess of confusions and contradictions: questions without answers; secrets and lies.’ Indeed, we have yet to come to terms with the consequences of the state’s covert, sustained attacks on the left in many western liberal democracies. This includes the longstanding targeting of organisers, organisations and communities, which challenge the economic, social and political status quo – as well as the associated self-policing of dissent and containment of radical ideas within networks organisations and movements. This repression has also meant the erasure, forgetting or hiding of many radical histories and politics, attempts to disrupt and destroy organisations from within, to smear and spread fear and paranoia, to manufacture consent, and crush and cripple dissent. But often lost in these accounts is the organising against state surveillance, the understanding that people directly affected are not just passive targets or victims, and the political education work that remains to be done. Activists in the US uncovered COINTELPRO in 1971 after a daring break-in at an FBI field office. More recently, in the UK, activists have collaborated with investigative journalists and academic allies to investigate, research and expose extensive longstanding British undercover police spying operations against activist groups.

A contributor to the book, David Austin, suggests that theory is ‘congealed experience’. I’m often struck by the cycles of learning in action that can occur in the course of long-term campaigns, short-term mobilisations, and daily struggles. Richard Johnson wrote about the ‘really useful knowledge’ produced when people reflect on their experience with each other in ways that generate further insight and understanding into the causes of their conditions, common problems and struggles. This also enables people to develop theories that are linked to strategies to bring about change. But there are both lessons learned and lessons lost.  Activist learning that informs and fuels effective organising to fight the power is not inevitable.  Insights drawn from previous experiences of state repression, monitoring and criminalisation are all too easily lost, ignored or forgotten. There is a global transmission belt of state security doctrines, ideologies, strategies, technology and personnel. State security and intelligence agencies, civil and military – and their private sector counterparts – learn from and train each other about disrupting, surveilling and monitoring dissent. Governments learn how to spin, distract, cover up, justify and make excuses whenever they are caught engaging in dirty tricks against communities and movements, and in economic intelligence-gathering. How can we educate and learn across struggles and intergenerationally?

Reflecting on a 2013 workshop on ‘Civil Society: Dissent, Democracy, & the Law’ held at McGill University drives home the importance of a critical historical perspective and the pitfalls of not taking history seriously. There was a narrow focus on Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and as if these problems only really started in Canada when it took power. There was little interest among most participants in a historically informed analysis of the security state and policing dissent in Canada. The dominant critique of the Canadian state was disconnected and dislocated from the experiences of many communities and organizations.  A Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) comrade and I raised Canada’s much longer history of state repression – including CUPW concerns about spying on its members. We pointed out the systems of surveillance and criminalisation of Indigenous Peoples since colonization, and spying on Muslim communities as important context to thinking through and addressing some of the contemporary concerns, mainly those of NGOs.  But there was a disconnect from histories of state surveillance and repression of Indigenous Peoples, trade unions, activists, organisations, and communities mobilising around social, environmental and economic justice.

Like many others targeted by state security intelligence agencies, I was sidetracked into doing this work.  In July 2017, I had a strong sense of deja vu in London at a Centre for Crime and Justice Studies workshop on undercover policing, in the context of sustained organising by a range of progressive organisations and activists infiltrated and spied on by undercover police in Britain. A number of core participants in the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry participated. Speaking with British activist Helen Steel, I remembered that I had seen her almost 20 years earlier in Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand at an activist conference on transnational corporate power that I co-organized. At that time, she was searching for her former partner who had suddenly disappeared. He was later confirmed to be one of several British undercover police who had relationships with women activists while infiltrating and spying on the groups they were part of. Back then, I was in the middle of suing the New Zealand government, after two NZ Security Intelligence Service officers were caught after breaking into my home in July 1996. I was organising an activist forum opposed to free trade and investment agreements at the time of an APEC Trade Ministers Meeting in Christchurch. In 1998, shortly after the activist groups I was part of made public our plans to organize against the 1999 Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings in New Zealand, a police informant, Rob Gilchrist immediately raised our suspicions. He had latched himself onto various activist groups. He immediately made a beeline for the anti-APEC organizing without being able to explain his motivation for doing so, and often behaving like a provocateur. Several of us raised concerns about him and warned others not to trust him. He nonetheless moved into various organisations and groups over the next decade until his then partner, an activist, discovered emails to his police intelligence bosses about the groups and individuals he had been tasked to spy on.

The tenacity, courage and focus of activists in the UK targeted by the state is inspiring. The meeting dynamics also drove home the fact that Black and Asian community activists who had been spied on by undercover police had organized against police institutional racism, surveillance and intimidation for decades, producing some powerful analyses of the British state.  The significance of their experiences and insights into state power and the politics of repressing dissent reminded me of the ways in which Indigenous activists’ experiences with the surveillance state – in Canada, USA, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, have often been dismissed or ignored by supposedly progressive non-Indigenous activists.  In this era, doctrines of ‘deradicalisation’ and ‘countering violent extremism’ disproportionately target Muslim communities in many countries as Arun Kundnani has so powerfully documented.  These also serve as useful concepts for political and economic elites to legitimise draconian surveillance and other policies that clamp down on and criminalise dissenting views. As with other examples, rather than distancing themselves from those facing the sharp end of state power, those not directly affected by these measures might learn from the experiences and resistance of those who are.

This book includes a chapter by Radha D’Souza on the origins and development of the security state.  Jane Duncan discusses dataveillance, comparing popular/activist responses in South Africa, the UK and Mauritius.  Sunaina Maira discusses the targeting of Palestine solidarity organizing and South Asian, Arab and Afghan American youth in the US.  Bob Boughton writes on Australian state surveillance of East Timor solidarity activism and FRETILIN. David Austin’s interview chapter addresses Black experience in North America.   Gary Kinsman discusses ‘pedagogies of resistance’ to state surveillance and lessons from history in the Canadian context. Nafeez Ahmed writes on Prevent and the radicalisation of the British state. Valerie Morse considers the security state in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Emily Apple documents personal and political impacts of British political policing and surveillance and initiatives that activists have taken to uncover and challenge these activities.  Eveline Lubbers outlines how activist experiences of surveillance have given rise to sustained research, education and mobilisation work.

While documenting cases of political spying, infiltration and disruption of political activism is crucial, the historical continuities in the ideology and practices of the security state, alongside vastly expanded technologies for mass surveillance and data-gathering (and profits for the companies that produce these) should serve to raise profound questions about the supposed divide between democracies and authoritarian states. It is important to understand the political economy and implications of technologies employed for mass surveillance and data gathering, but we must guard against a preoccupation with technology that can feed social amnesia and ahistorical understandings about state power. Beyond the outrage and surprise that seems to follow every time cases of mass surveillance, political spying and infiltration of activist groups and social movements are exposed, we need deeper historically-informed analysis about how these operations are intrinsic to (neo)liberal democracy, and serve the interests of the dominant economic and political order.

I recently wrote to thank singer-songwriter Jack Warshaw for his song If they come in the morning (No time for love) which has been with me since the early 1980s, when I first heard Christy Moore’s version.  It is a fine example of music serving as a vehicle for radical ideas traversing and connecting struggles, histories, geographies, and generations. It powerfully communicates with broader audiences about state repression, people’s struggles, lessons from the past, hope, solidarity and moving forward.  I hope, in some small way, that this book can also help inspire more reflection, analysis, resistance and action in difficult times.


Aziz Choudry is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Movement Learning and Knowledge Production in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg. He is editor of Activists and the Surveillance State (Pluto, 2018) and Just Work? Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today (Pluto, 2016). He is the editor of Unfree Labour?: Struggles of Migrant and Immigrant Workers in Canada (PM Press, 2016), and editor of Organize!: Building from the Local for Global Justice (PM Press, 2012).


Activists and the Surveillance State (Pluto, 2018) and Just Work? Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today is available from Pluto Press.

Aziz Choudry is associate professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, where he holds a Canada Research Chair in social movement learning and knowledge production, and is visiting professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg. He is author of Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements(University of Toronto Press, 2015), coauthor of Fight Back: Workplace Justice for Immigrants (Fernwood, 2009), and coeditor of Learning from the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Organize! Building from the Local for Global Justice (PM Press/Between the Lines, 2012),  NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects (Zed Books, 2013), and Just Work? Migrant Workers’ Struggles Today (Pluto, 2016). He serves on the board of the Immigrant Workers Centre, Montreal.

Back to Aziz Choudry’s Author Page