New Internationalist

‘Anti-extremism’ government programme targets student activist

Student protest activists [Related Image]
In search of extremists, student protests have been targeted by special police units for 40 years. Francisco Osorio under a Creative Commons Licence

The British government’s attempts to track domestic terrorists have come under fire following the apparent targeting of student Pat Grady. The national Prevent programme, which seeks to ‘pursue, prevent, protect and prepare’ against domestic extremism, uncovered a case of potential radicalization involving the University of Birmingham student, who is in his early twenties.

Pat Grady had been getting involved in all sorts of ‘nefarious’ things: attending protests, sympathizing with occupations and making demands on issues such as a living wage for university staff and an ethical investment policy.

Such actions could be seen as simply the behaviour of a conscientious citizen. But in a letter to Pat Grady’s parents, West Mercia Police cited ‘concerns that have been raised whilst [Pat]’s been at university’ and the danger he might be in of ‘potentially being sucked into domestic extremism’.

Pat was targeted by the police via Prevent, apparently following an anonymous tip-off. Developed as a government-backed measure to nip domestic terrorism in the bud, Prevent reaches out to people largely through funding ‘anti-extremist’ organizations and encouraging community leaders and public service professionals to report individuals they consider to be susceptible to domestic extremism.

A source in the public sector revealed that when they took part in a training course aimed at preventing extremism, all the examples given by the speakers related to far-right extremism. However, over the years, Prevent’s main target has been Britain’s Muslim community.

In cities such as Birmingham, Muslim groups have been given funding with a clear motive. As Birmingham civil liberties activist Sariea Bano explains, the effects have been chilling: ‘The Prevent agenda has been used in Birmingham to silence our communities. Our mosques are scared that if they don’t comply they might be seen as radical, and some mosques have even accepted Prevent money for activities. We know of Prevent officers being placed in domestic-violence meetings and paying for refreshments for youth projects as a means of accessing information.’

There are many people across the political spectrum who will see this as a distasteful, but necessary, price to pay for security against terrorism. However, in targeting peaceful activists like Pat, Prevent is showing worrying signs of overstepping the mark.

Earlier this year, Inside Housing magazine quoted a Greater Manchester police officer saying that the decision regarding who is in need of Prevent attention is taken on ‘gut instinct’: ‘It could be anti-fracking [activists], Fathers 4 Justice, environmentalists.’

Pat Grady is at present the only known case of a left-wing activist being targeted directly by Prevent officers. However, considering the revelations in the Guardian about the tactics of the Metropolitan Police’s undercover Special Demonstrations Squad, which for 40 years monitored and infiltrated protest groups, it seems reasonable to conclude that Prevent, too, is in danger of overreaching itself.

The Network for Police Monitoring has reported that police officers have even gone so far as to invoke child protection legislation during demonstrations, a not-so-subtle insinuation that activists could be considered unfit parents.

Despite the libertarian rhetoric of some of our leaders, protest in the UK has in recent years gone from being tolerated to being a cause for suspicion.

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