Police told to apologize for treating Occupy London protesters as ‘extremists’

A demonstrator protests during a rally by the Occupy movement outside the Bank of England in London © Luke MacGregor
The City of London Police has been questioned by the Director of Legal Observers over its apparent classification of Occupy London protesters as ‘domestic extremists,’ which may have allowed GCHQ to monitor its activities.

The director, Matthew Varnham, expressed his concerns to police following Occupy London’s inclusion in a presentation which showed the anti-banking elite protest group alongside extremist organizations including al-Qaeda and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

In a letter to the City Police Commissioner, Varnham called for a public apology. He further demanded police clarify whether they asked GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) to monitor the group.

Occupy London is an anti-capitalist group launched in the wake of the financial crisis. It was founded in 2011, following similar campaigns in the US, to protest taxpayer-funded bailouts of City of London banks. Supporters occupied the street outside St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Stock Exchange.

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Documents exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden suggest the GCHQ’s JTRIG used its technical expertise to disrupt protesters’ communications.

JTRIG says it works to “discredit, promote distrust, dissuade, deceive, disrupt, delay, deny, denigrate/degrade and deter” threats to security, including domestic extremists.

Activists became suspicious in 2011 during the occupation of St Paul’s Churchyard when their phones and computers stopped working. Legal Observers noted that each of the issues encountered matched the technical capability of JTRIG.

“It is conceivable that the City Police classification of the Occupy movement as Domestic Extremists is for the purpose of putting them within the remit of GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group. I find it deeply concerning that the police may have instructed our intelligence agencies to disrupt peaceful protesters, and will be working with those who faced technical issues at the time to take their complaints to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal,” Varnham wrote.

“I will also be writing to the Home Affairs Select Committee asking them to investigate whether and, if so, to what extent, police forces have tasked GCHQ to interfere with peaceful protest. I have no doubt that such activity would be unlawful and anticipate that, if evidence does come to light, litigation would follow.

When news broke of Occupy London’s inclusion in the police presentation, officers issued a statement saying the slide in question was not used to label organizations as terrorist.

“A section of the presentation mentions protest groups. This is not an attempt to label them as terrorists, but an opportunity to discuss other policing issues that could affect educational establishments in the Square Mile,” the statement read.

Occupy London defines itself as part of a “global movement.”

“Ordinary people and communities around the world are being devastated by a crisis we did not cause. Our political elites have chosen to protect corporations, financial institutions and the rich at the expense of the majority,” its website reads.

The group further says it is “part of a global movement that has brought together concerned citizens to fight for a new political and economic system that puts people, democracy and the environment before profit.”