The Common Place

Although Bicycology is no longer active as a group I still check our email account once in while. At the end of December we received an email asking for feedback or support regarding the Facebook page of a group called R.E.A.L. They don’t appear to have a website but their “About” page on Facebook describes the group as a “voluntary organisation prepared to engage in peaceful direct action to address the urgency [of] fuel poverty and the impact of climate change”.

Bicycology never really got into the issue of fuel poverty as such but we had a strong focus on climate change. In fact, our first major event was a cycle tour from London to Lancaster and then on to the first Camp for Climate Action on a squatted site in the Vale of York near the Drax coal fired power station. We too advocated Direct Action and I soon learned that even talk of peaceful or non-violent direct action very quickly attracts the attention of the police.

On our way to Lancaster we stayed in squats and Social Centres including The Common Place in Leeds. We stopped there again on our way to Drax and I have been a couple of times since. So while composing a comment on the REAL Facebook page I did a bit of research and discovered that The Common Place closed in 2011. I was not all that surprised to read that part of the reason for closing was “long running disruptive undercover police infiltration” but I was somewhat taken aback to learn that the police effectively helped set up The Common Place.

Apparently Officer Lynn Watson first appeared on the activist scene at a 2003 protest at AWE Aldermaston. It seems Lynn was one of the original group who rented the Wharf Street premises in Leeds that became known as The Common Place. She disappeared from Leeds in early 2008 but was not exposed until October 2010 when rogue undercover Officer Mark Kennedy was confronted by activists about his own identity.

Despite moving in the same activist circles I can’t recall ever meeting either Lynn or Mark. In fact the only time I spoke to someone who I later discovered to be working undercover was at a May 2005 Nottingham gathering of the Dissent! network. This was an open, publicly advertised meeting to discuss plans for protests at the G8 Summit that year. A guy started chatting to me during one of the tea breaks and I thought nothing of it until about a week later when I happened to read this Sunday Times article by Paul Lamarra. From some of the things he wrote I deduced that it was the same guy and it turns out he had been “infiltrating” meetings to research his largely fictional article.

Whilst I never denied the possibility that undercover officers might be present at meetings or actions I did think that some people were being a touch paranoid. It turns out that their suspicions were well founded and that not only was the activist scene riddled with police spies, but at times it was these spies who actually helped set up radical social centres and plan and carry out direct action. It puts me in mind of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

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One response to “The Common Place

  1. I have just noticed that R.E.A.L. is a project of the Interfaith Vegan Alliance, which is why it doesn’t need it’s own website.

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