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UNDERCOVER police officers spied on anti-racism campaigners in the wake of the Brixton riots in 1981, an inquiry heard today.
The riots, sparked in April 1981 amid anger over the abuse of stop-and-search powers against the black community in the south London area, were considered the “most significant event in the public order field” by senior police officers in a secret Metropolitan Police unit.
An annual report by the unit, called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), in 1981 stated that following the riots “political extremists made efforts to exploit the situation with a view to the fomentation of further disorder.”
It confirmed that the unit had spied on groups to find out whether the riots had been instigated by “known members of subversive groups” but determined this was not the case.
Giving evidence to the undercover policing inquiry, the former head of the SDS, Trevor Butler, justified intrusive surveillance on anti-racism campaigners in response to the riots by stating that “negative assessments can be just as valuable as positive reports.”
Police reports from the time show that undercover officers spied on meetings discussing the riots held by anti-racism groups and infiltrated a new branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Brixton.
They included a report from a public election meeting of the East London Workers Against Racism group, noting that the riots were “still a major talking point.”
Another report, on April 18, 1981, just weeks after the riots, reported that campaigners had called for a public inquiry into the death of Winston Rose, a black man who died after being restrained by officers in a police van.
Of the 100 people present, just over half were black, the report states.
Asked by the lead counsel to the inquiry, David Barr, if he considered whether sending an undercover police officer into the meeting during this time could do more harm than good, Mr Butler replied that it was “wholly justified and a fine report.”
Grilled on the level of detail compiled in reports on members of the public, Mr Butler said: “Some of it might appear to be irrelevant but the officer is not able to make judgement at the times, and my attitude was always it’s far better to report too much than too little.”
Officers serving in the SDS, which existed between 1968 to 2008, targeted several campaigns seeking justice for black victims of police violence and racism.
It also targeted anti-fascist groups, with the inquiry hearing that a deliberate decision was made at senior levels of the Metropolitan Police not to infiltrate the far-right in the 1970s despite the prevalence of racist attacks by the National Front.
Mr Butler’s evidence brought the latest round of inquiry hearings to a close. The next phase is not expected to restart until 2024.
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