Bristol's Anarchists Are Being Caught Up in a Police Crack Down
As the police search for the people responsible for a spate of attacks on property, anybody who calls themselves an anarchist in the city seems to be under suspicion.
Since 2011, the Informal Anarchist Federation (IAF) – a local division of a much wider, global insurrectionary anarchist group: the Federazione Anarchia Informale – has been carrying out scores of attacks on private property across Bristol. Now the cops are out to get them and Bristol's wider activist community is being caught up in the search.
Signalling cables of National Rail lines have been burnt down in order to "paralyze" the local economy. Vehicles at a UK Border Agency crime team building have been torched. And a minibus belonging to local cadets has been set on fire as a protest against NATO. Together with two other insurrectionary groups – the Earth Liberation Front and the Angry Foxes Cell – over 60 different attacks have been carried out since the Bristol riots.
Avon and Somerset Constabulary, meanwhile, have been on the IAF's case, desperately searching for the culprits. After no real success and mounting pressure from one particular MP, the local CID and special investigations team are stepping up their efforts.
A team of ten detectives working full-time under the name Operation Rhone has have been set up and the police are searching particularly hard to find a man they consider to be at the centre of the network: Huw Norfolk, otherwise known as the Badger.
The trouble is, nobody seems to know anything about him, the IAF or any of the recent attacks – not the police, nor the media, nor even local activist groups. The IAF is, after all, an informal network (the clue is in the title). It's really little more than a banner for those that execute insurrectionary acts, or who think within a certain ideological framework to use and claim. And that makes them particularly difficult to find.
The vast majority of Bristol's anarchist community aren't like this. With their status as queen-and-country-hating tabloid pariahs, few people would be aware of any difference between different anarchist groups. But their methods, goals and targets differ radically. Groups such as the Anarchist Federation (Afed) and Solidarity Federation (Solfed), which constitute a majority of the scene in the UK are involved in open, public-facing class-based community work – handing out leaflets, helping workers who go on strike, that kind of thing – rather than acts of fly-by night vandalism.
But these distinctions don't seem to count for much as far as the police are concerned. Over the past few months, activists from across the anarchist community say the police have been targeting them arbitrarily and indiscriminately. They say individual activists have been harassed, houses raided, work places visited and arrests made without charges.
The police maintain that they are searching for suspects linked to the IAF, but activists say they are targeting anyone that publicly identifies as an anarchist. And they say it's getting worse by the day. For the last week I've been talking to different members of the anarchist scene in the West Country and the impression I've got is of a community under siege.
Two years ago Jon, a Bristol-based activist with Solfed, who asked to be identified only by his first name, became one of the first targets of this police clampdown. One morning he arrived at his workplace to an email from his boss asking for a meeting. When he turned up, he was told the police had visited the office with a dossier of "evidence" citing him as a domestic extremist, and someone that "might not be suitable to work with children". As a person whose job involves helping young people with emotional difficulties, the suggestion was that he should be fired.
"They said I was unsuited to my job because of my politics," he told me over the phone. "The stuff they provided as evidence was articles I'd written anonymously, on whether prison was an effective form of rehabilitation and whether underachievement in working class communities was down to the education system. No connection between me and any group was alleged or mentioned. It really seemed that their main concern was that I held anarchist views."
A year later Jon was targeted again. One afternoon he received a phone-call out of the blue from a police officer asking about underground anarchist groups. He told the officer he had no idea and asked how his number had been found.
"The officer told me that my partner was being stalked and had put in a number of phone calls to the police," he said. "They did nothing but saved the number because they knew who I was and thought it would be useful. I'd question a lot of the ways they've gone about finding information. I think they are using what's been happening as a pretext to attack the wider anarchist community. A lot of this feels like an opportunity to drag the movement through the mud and see if they can push a few people out of activism."
What Jon went through seems to have become much more widespread under Operation Rhone. At a ramshackle bookstore called Hydra in Old Market, the scene of a famous riot in the 1930s, law enforcers have been turning up at on a fortnightly basis, asking questions and grilling staff. It's a strange situation. Volunteers at the store say they do little more than sell lefty literature. When I visited last week, a group of old locals were sat happily on old sofas in a dimly lit room sounding off about the 1970s oil crisis. It didn't seem all that extreme.
One of the bookstore's volunteers, who gave his name at Mat and identified as neither an anarchist nor an activist, told me he's been the subject of extensive police surveillance. One day last year he received a phone call from administrators of Hydra Book's server, notifying him that local police had been reading the content of his emails. The only reason given, he says, is that he had – a few years earlier – helped set up Bristol Indymedia, an open-source independent news website, which the IAF has, on occasion, used to publish communiques about its attacks.
"I'm not involved in any of this," he told me, serving drinks to customers and sounding simultaneously baffled and irate. "I make coffee and occasionally I sell the odd book. I've got no links to international anarchist organisations and despite having no involvement with the website any more either, the police have been reading my emails. It's terrifying and I've spent a long time being very worried about it. I now don't put personal thoughts in emails in case I get asked about it in an interview at a police station."
One group that has been actively chronicling the police clampdown over the last few months is Bristol Defendant Solidarity (BDS), a defendant support group set up after the riots in 2011 to help those that had been arrested with a range of legal services. I went to meet two of their activists – Jim and Alan who both asked to be identified only by their first name – at Kebele Community Centre, a well known anarchist hub in Easton.
As well as collecting information on Operation Rhone, and talking to those that have been arrested, Alan has himself been targeted by the police. Last July, at seven in the morning his house was raided and a friend that was temporarily staying over arrested.
"I woke up and found my house full of police," he told me from a small library room in the 20-year-old centre. "And when I say full I mean literally – it was hard to move around. They took away a friend that was staying at my house and went through all the communal areas for hours. As well as taking electronic stuff like a hard drive and laptop, they seemed to be bagging anything that looked political. The arrested guy came back two hours later released without charge on police bail. They had no evidence at all. The whole point was to intimidate people and build up a sense that you are being watched the whole time."
BDS has chronicled a string of even stranger incidents. I was told about three different people that have been arrested and accused of being the Badger, one on two separate occasions. I heard about members of a band that Huw Norfolk was once briefly in, being visited by the police. Even the bassist – who wasn't in the band when Norfolk was – has, allegedly, been visited at his home and his work.
"The cops don't have a clue just like 99.9 percent of the anarchist movement in Bristol," Jim told me. "The people getting knocks on doors are all involved in public, open groups that do protests and campaigns. They aren't the children of the night. The police just don't understand the modus operandi of these people."
Perhaps it's understandable. Insurrectionary anarchism may have a rich history on the continent but the IAF seem oddly out of place in a relatively docile modern Britain. For a brief period of time in the early 1970s, the London-based Angry Brigade frightened Edward Heath's government with a series of bomb attacks on embassies, politicians and military barracks. But they remain the only homegrown insurrectionary group that has ever really existed in the UK and maybe the cops just aren't prepared.
Avon and Somerset police certainly dispute the account Bristol's anarchist community have been describing. They are yet to answer my specific questions, but in an interview with the BBC, Chief Superintendent Julian Moss described their tactics in a more positive light.
"We have been round to places of work to discuss anarchism and to understand the community better," he said. "I think that is legitimate. If anybody has a complaint to make, it's important they come and talk to us and we would be happy to listen. We have given that offer and so far nobody's taken that up."
For the anarchist movement, which has been growing in Bristol since 2005, the crackdown won't be putting them off. Two months ago, 20 local activists visited the CID and Special Investigations building in Bristol to protest. A few weeks earlier a number of the same groups clubbed together to publish a statement outlining their experiences.
"The message is we're not going to be intimidated," Jon from Solfed told me. "We're still here for everyone to see, and we're not going to driven underground."