Freedom, among many other left organisations, was targeted by the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) multiple times over the years, most notably by senior officer Roger Pearce. The Advisory Service For Squatters, which has premises with Freedom in Angel Alley, has also been targeted, and speaking on behalf of both for the inquiry’s introductory sessions Rajiv Menon QC gave an overview to inquiry chair Sir John Mitting QC on Thursday.
The Advisory Service for Squatters, ASS, is an unpaid collective of workers who have been running a daily legal and practical advice service for squatters and homeless people since 1975. It exists to this day. It grew out of the family squatters advisory service, which was founded in the late 1960s. ASS produces the Squatters Handbook, currently in its 14th edition, which has sold in excess of 150,000 copies since first being published in 1976.
Over the years many people have passed through ASS and have been involved in one capacity or another. Although squatting in residential property only became illegal on the first of September 2012 this did not stop the SDS, and possibly the National Public Order intelligence unit from spying on ASS.
The organisation has little idea why and how they were spied on other than the spying began in 1976. They’ve only been given two documents so far, one being a survey of the squatting scene by an undercover officer, in which all the old prejudices come tumbling out. The SDS annual reports indicate that housing rights group and tenants associations came onto the radar as early as 1971. In the SDS 1974 annual report, squatting is described as “the nursery of extremists”.
ASS has very little to say at this stage given the absence of relevant disclosure. However, insofar as ASS was penetrated due to the oblique approach, they say that this was indefensible, and no such invasion of privacy can be warranted.
MZ worked for ASS as a volunteer for many years. He is also a non state core participant in his own right. He has no idea who spied on him or ASS. Mr Z and JP, another volunteer for ASS for many years, have been granted access to the current hearing bundle as representatives of ASS. Both have been involved in many related campaigns and struggles but the bundle reveals nothing about them. They too endorse the opening statement to be given by Dave Morris.
Next, the Friends of Freedom Press. Founded in 1886, Freedom Press is the largest anarchist publishing house in the country and the oldest of its kind in the English-speaking world. Its longstanding newspaper Freedom, now online, was set up by Charlotte Wilson and Peter Kropotkin and printed at the offices of the Socialist League with the blessing of William Morris. This was just a few years after Special Branch was founded in 1883 and the anarchists soon found themselves under surveillance.
During the First and Second World Wars, the premises of Freedom were constantly raided by the police and anarchists involved were imprisoned. From 1969, the newspaper was produced in a tumbledown four-storey tenement building down Angel alley in Whitechapel, the then-director of freedom was Vero Recchione, an anarchist of Italian descent, better known as Vernon Richards, created the Friends of Freedom Press, a limited company responsible for the building, while the day-to-day running of the bookshop and the building was done by the Freedom Collective. Several other groups were also housed in the same premises, including ASS, which no doubt made them a target of the SDS.
The building was firebombed by fascists in March 1993. The Friends of Freedom Press are keen to know if intelligence about this attack was gathered by any SDS or other undercover police officer infiltrating the fascist group responsible for the firebombing, and if so whether the attack could have been prevented.
The Friends of Freedom Press was granted core participant status when it was discovered that Roger Pearce, an SDS spy who used the cover name Roger Thorley had been working in their midst between 1979 and 1984. Roger Pearce went on to become the head of SDS, and later, the commander of Special Branch itself.
It came as no surprise to the Friends of Freedom Press they had been spied on. It is now apparent from the current hearing bundle could anarchists were seen by the SDS as a primary target from the outset. HN326, who use the cover name Doug Edwards was told by his bosses to infiltrate anarchist groups, and consequently attended meetings of the West Ham anarchists and Freedom Press. It was not until 1974 that the Freedom Collective featured as a target in an SDS annual report.
Many other targets remain secret. Some 45 years later, their names have been redacted by the police, Mi5 or the Inquirer. The Friends of Freedom Press have had disclosure of 11 SDS intelligence reports from 1974 to 1977. However, they have not yet been asked to provide a witness statement. What is apparent from the limited disclosure they have is that the privacy redactions have been applied, making it impossible to approach anybody for their recollections.
Most of the redacted names are probably known to the current directors of Friends of Freedom Press and it is imperative, if they are to be able to say anything useful, in a witness statement that these names are disclosed to them. On a sadder note, sir, Donald Rooum, lifelong anarchist and cartoonist who attended meetings with you, and was keen to be engaged in the inquiry simply had to wait too long. He died last year at the age of 83 (92 – ed). He knew all the people around Freedom Press from the 1960s onwards, it shows how delay has led to potential witnesses dying. Unable to give evidence and unable to assist the inquiry and getting to the truth.
The Friends of Freedom Press will have more to say in later tranches and phases.