Commentary | Under the covers

Intimate surveillance and the state

It’s early evening, and I am lying in bed listening to the Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life. Act Two of our program, Ira Glass tells me, follows the story of 18-year-old Justin Laboy from Park Vista Community High School in Florida. Justin is an honour-roll kid, a straight-laced transplant from the Bronx: studious, courteous, reverent of authority, unfailingly gives his seat to elderly ladies on the bus. That kind of kid. This is the story of his relationship with Naomi Rodriguez, the attractive if somewhat delinquent new girl from Queens. Over the course of senior year, the two gradually get to know each other and start dating.

Justin is a Good Kid, our radio interviewer tells us; he doesn’t use drugs, and when Naomi asks him one day out of the blue where she can buy some, he doesn’t even know where to go. (Me, listening: mentally flag this point of suspicion – American teenagers, you have at least a rough idea about what the kids behind the portables are up to.) Justin says he’ll see what he can do. A couple of days later he comes through, and Naomi offers to pay him back for it – here, their stories diverge. Justin says he declined at first and then caved to pressure and accepted the money. 25 bucks, not a even a ticket to prom, not a big deal. Except in this particular case that 25 bucks meant a felony charge for a freshly-minted eighteen-year-old.

As it turns out, Naomi (suffice to say, not her real name) was a part of a larger plan: that of the state police department, which had orchestrated a sting operation across Florida high schools to crack down on drugs. The girl who never did homework and slept in class was a 25-year-old undercover narcotics officer. Ain’t it the way.

The ethics and efficacy of undercover policing have long been under scrutiny. From “informants” who spy and exact information in the hopes of avoiding sentencing, to “paid agents,” insiders to routinely receive cash for information, to your average undercover cop, the already corrupt system becomes a further tangled web of motivation, extortion, and duplicity. On their website, the Canadian Justice Department quotes legal literature on the subject, saying that “there is little information about how effective undercover investigations are, what they cost (economically, psychologically, constitutionally), or why they fail. Similarly, the extent to which police departments use the strategy is unknown.” The New York Police Department (NYPD) reports having 120 undercover officers in its Organized Crime Control Bureau. In 2008 alone, the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) reported conducting 764 undercover operations. You think, gee, that’s kind of a lot – then you realize that these numbers are essentially meaningless. Justice works in mysterious way, evidently.

The show switches to the next segment, but I am stuck thinking about this Floridian kid and the felony charges he’s going to carry for the rest of his life. For radio purposes, the anecdote is presented in a humorous, light-hearted manner, but beneath the “I got punk’d!” jocular sound bytes of its protagonist lies a much darker narrative about surveillance, intimacy, and state control.

Listening to this story, my mind moves in ten directions at once. Why are the Florida police out to get some unassuming high school kids? How long will these ridiculous charges follow and stigmatize this kid? Infinitely? Entrapment…what? Ultimately what I can’t get past is how clearly this incident illustrates the sadistic and immoral mechanism of undercover policing. Policing in general has got to be one of the biggest snafus of modern society, but that’s another article. Undercover policing presents its own particularly disturbing brand of injustice that warrants consideration.

As a widespread control tactic that is only becoming increasingly prevalent as it finds more creative avenues, undercover policing undermines the bonds between people. It is a psychological weapon that corrodes human relationships from within, and undercuts public trust, open dialogue, and the foundations of community. We become closed off, fearful, suspicious, fiercely individualistic, and, what’s worse, justified in adopting this garrison mentality because the threat of undetected surveillance all around us is real. And somehow, it is accepted.

This kind of gross infiltration, although it may not directly affect many of us living day-to-day, has varied and damaging consequences in the collective psyche, especially within activist communities. June 2010 saw what was invariably one of the most outrageous incidences of this kind of state-sanctioned violence in recent memory – at least in Canada.

In January 2009, when the Guelph Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) was beginning to organize around the G20 summit that would be held in Toronto the following summer, they were joined by two new members, Brenda Dougherty and Khalid Mohammed. Where Khalid was somewhat gruff and aggressive in his demeanour, Brenda was a soft-spoken, mild young woman with glasses and a nervous laugh. She said she had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with an abusive partner; any behavioural abnormalities were chalked up to emotional stress. Group members recall that Brenda would bake for meetings; she was always taking notes, always asking everyone how they were doing. She went out of her way to lend emotional support to her allies. And while there were some rumblings of suspicion about Khalid between group members, Brenda was never reproached. Six months later, she had been smoothly integrated into the ABC and the personal lives and confidence of its members. She moved into an anarchist space and directed her energies toward organizing direct action around the G20.

At 4 a.m. on June 26, 2010, just before the summit was to begin, police invaded the homes of the several prominent activists. Brenda Dougherty was Brenda Carey: an undercover officer posing in one of the most elaborate sting operations in Canadian history.

In hindsight, considering the $653-million budget the Canadian government allocated for security, the mass arrests, pepper spray, broken windows, batons – a montage entirely too familiar by now – it is evident that the government was prepared to take any steps necessary to quash dissent. The familiar montage: today, this seems to be how Canada works. Undercover policing, intimate infiltration, betrayal: this is how the state protects itself. In the case of Justin Laboy and his sad baggy of weed, we are left scratching our heads. “Kill them with kindness”: an invisible display of excessive force.

Media coverage of the 18-month-long infiltration of southern Ontario anarchist chapters has since provided all the compelling details of the real-life Canadian espionage episode. Missing from the picture is the damage not captured in the images of police brutality that plastered headlines – the interpersonal trauma that results from betrayal. It is not an experience one expects to understand without having lived it personally. To share your life with someone, to let a new person into a space where you share your struggles, politics, personal hardships – a space predicated upon open communication and respect for difference – this intrusion is a disturbing perversion of faith. The institutionalization and normalization of such tactics tears at the fabric of human relations. Granted, there is no way to speak of humanity as a quilt without sounding lobotomized, but consider: what are we doing to each other? When the woman who bakes you muffins is putting you in prison, when you want to impress your high school crush and end up in juvenile detention, we make prisons of our minds.

Lucy Cameron is a U3 English and Philosophy student, possibly an SPVM officer, who knows. She can be reached at lucy.cameron@mail.mcgill.ca.


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