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‘The East’ – less exposé than exploitation

The East posterI heard about the forthcoming film The East a little while back. The so-called indie Anonymous-inspired flick stars one of my ultimate guilty pleasures – True Blood vampire Alexander Skarsgård. I was quite intrigued by the whole prospect and when a story popped up online about the film I was quick to click.

By the second sentence of the synopsis however, I was genuinely feeling quite nauseous. ‘Undercover agent infiltrates activist gang but finds herself falling in love with leader and growing sympathetic to ideology’ gushed the author, echoing the mass media’s spin on the Mark Kennedy scandal.

Have Hollywood finally done the inevitable and fluffed up this national disgrace into a sentimental coming-of-age narrative? The timing of the Fox Searchlight production, filmed over two months during 2011 (the year the infiltration was publicized) signifies an influence, but then again the concept of the mole going native is timeless, you may argue.

Whatever the case, the prospect of an entertainment giant profiting from this particular type of scenario might not sit too well with the many real-life peaceful environmental campaigners who, like myself, were deceived and spied on by real-life undercover cop Mark Kennedy. I also wonder how this romanticized offering will resonate with the clearly traumatized women the British public saw recently on Channel Four’s TV programme Dispatches: Britain’s Dirty Secret – the same documentary series which exposed the Stephen Lawrence smear campaign orchestrated by the Metropolitan Police’s undercover arm the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). One former animal rights activist said on this programme that she felt as though she had been ‘multiply raped’ by her undercover boyfriend.

I first met Mark Kennedy, or Mark Stone as he was known to us, in 2005, at a protest camp in Karahnjukar, deep in the heart of eastern Iceland’s unspoilt wilderness. The hundreds of international protesters who had made their way, with great difficulty, to the camp were heartbroken over the prospect of losing so much stunning natural beauty to a gigantic hydro-powered dam. Power generated by the dam would, in turn, power a new, giant aluminium smelter, to be built by infamous transnational Alcoa, at the edge of a pristine fjord, causing devastation there, too.

I had hitched back to the camp after a spell in the capital, Reykjavík, where I interviewed singer Bjork’s mother, Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir. Hauksdóttir too felt so passionately about Karahnjukar  that she had been on a two-week hunger strike to protest against it, to draw global attention to the issue.  

Many people from all over Europe had arrived at the camp in my absence, straight from the G8 protests of Gleneagles; among them, clowns, road protesters and activists from northern Britain. On arriving in the nearest town, Egilsstaðir, I was surprised to be picked up in a big posh jeep. My chauffeur was ‘Mark Stone’.  

On chatting to Kennedy, he appeared pretty knowledgeable on eco-political issues, together, and chilled out. He was generally quite a reassuring presence. It is creepy to think that he was on the other side, no doubt gathering and relaying information about us all.

Over the coming days, he took turns with others in facilitating long meetings in the main tent, offering ideas for direct action. He would regularly remind us to take the batteries out of our phones so as to avoid being tapped, but of course he was probably recording the whole thing himself.

Over those weeks, members of the camp would make their way over to the construction site and engage in peaceful protest. On one occasion, I remember Mark Kennedy perform the whole charade of ‘masking up’ in a skull and crossbones scarf before we made our way over the stunning natural landscape.

On that particular protest, Iceland’s tiny riot police force, dubbed the ‘Viking Squad’, arrived and began to violently break up the group, bundling one person into a van, while others had no choice but to flee to a neighbouring volcano to hide.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that Mark Kennedy was tipping them off. The Icelandic government denies having had any knowledge of the covert project, yet one has to ask what else this agent could possibly be doing on the edge of the Arctic Circle. In the documentary Confessions of an Undercover Cop, Kennedy narrates a similar act of betrayal where he was able to manipulate activists’ whereabouts during a protest at Drax power station so that police would know where to intervene.

During the same programme, Kennedy speaks of his guilt and moral conflict. Can we really believe him? These were not one-off interventions, after all, but seven years of solid treachery. If you’re still not sure, perhaps Kennedy’s new job at a US private security firm may help you make up your mind. Here he now advises companies on how to deal with the ‘threat’ of activism.

Just as the media whipped up a sanitized version of the Thatcher legacy to celebrate her demise, vulgar sensationalization has repackaged Mark Kennedy as the cop with a conscience. Films like The East take this central lie further, portraying Kennedy-like infiltrators as heroes and heroines, torn between mainstream life and a so-called seductive underworld.

There are some amusing misapprehensions at the heart of all this, too. Grubby and threatening, the ‘anarchists’ in The East make up a cell and, despite the lengths the writers allegedly went to in researching these non-hierarchical circles, this one has a leader (Skarsgård!).

However upsetting the recent revelations about the Special Demonstration Squad may be, Home Secretary Theresa May has offered nothing more than a continuation of existing internal police investigations into the matter. But until there is a full independent inquiry into these wrongdoings it seems that there is little justice, in cinema or real life, for the socially conscious individuals left scarred by these dark interventions. Yet I believe lessons will have been learnt – and the struggle for a peaceful greener world will go on. 

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