Written By: - Date published: 8:46 pm, April 19th, 2011 - 15 comments
Categories: activism, books, film, human rights, law, law and "order", Maori Issues, Media, police, racism, Spying, suppression orders - Tags: October 15, operation 8
I want to write a review of “Operation 8: Deep in the Forest“, but also just some thoughts on some of the criticisms and reviews of the film which relate to issues involved in the case.
Last night walking into the film screening in Auckland I was a bit apprehensive about how it would all be put together. Fortunately my fears were unfounded and the film did justice to the complex issues involved. I was impressed by how clearly the narrative came across with cuts of interviews with people of Tuhoe, other political activists, ex-police officers, and media, law, and security experts. Every little piece of the film was well-placed – it must have been a nightmare of a job to put it all together and edit and cut it into such a beautifully told story. The film made me laugh and cry in various parts.
Some gems of original footage were used, a highlight for me being the footage of a man working for either the police or a private intelligence group challenged after being caught taking photographs of protesters, who instead of responding to questions, pulled out a balaclava, put it on, and walked away. Likewise I laughed when watching footage of one of the defendants, Urs Signer, opening up some property returned by the police. One paper envelope labelled “War Document” was revealed to contain a Wellington Indymedia newsletter.
Well done to Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones for their amazing commitment in seeing this film through to completion. I really hope “Operation 8: Deep in the Forest” makes it into the film festival and is at some point screened on mainstream television.
I’d like to tackle the accusation that the film makers have blurred the line between activism and journalism. The two are not mutually exclusive – look at the Hollow Men or Someone Else’s Country or many other examples of the like that I’m sure you can all think of. Examples of brilliant journalism, but nonetheless carried out by people who have their own political biases and agendas.
Also think about the film makers as they came into this project. Their last film was “The Last Resort”, a documentary about the sell-off of prime New Zealand land to private entities, using the Mahia camp-ground as their central example. The film makers obviously had a left bias, but neither had really been involved with the “activist scene” before. In the journey to make this documentary, they were faced with a stone wall of silence by the police. In interviewing and following the stories of many people, the film makers would have come to know and really feel some of the injustices perpetuated by the New Zealand Police against the people of Tuhoe, and many political activists including the defendants in Operation 8 and other activists interviewed like John Darroch and myself.
Last night at the film screening Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones revealed that they too have discovered they’ve been under surveillance during the making of the film. Abi King-Jones says:
We have just taken the view that we expect there will be surveillance [of us] and we carry on. It’s not a very nice feeling, but it brings you closer to the world of the people you are documenting.
I’m not sure that the biases shown in this film would have been any less apparent if made by any other film makers.
I think the original intention was for this film to come out after the trial and to include footage from it and its outcome, but nearly 4 years on with little prospect of the trial happening any time soon, I think they made the right decision to just finish it now. The trial is set down for May 30th, but it wouldn’t be the first time the trial date has shifted, and before it goes ahead all the appeals on pre-trial issues will have to be finished. The defendants have just sought leave from the Court of Appeal to appeal the decision for the case to be heard by judge alone to the Supreme Court. Another much simpler case I am aware of that was heard in the Supreme Court last October is yet to have a decision.
The suppression orders are a major obstacle in discussing the case. In many of the reviews of the film, issues are raised which could easily be countered by information relating directly to the case, but cannot be discussed without being in breach of those orders. I will stick to only really discussing and expanding a little on the issues raised in the film itself, as the film was vetted by a couple of very experienced lawyers who obviously don’t think anything in the film would constitute a contempt of court.
Russell Brown has some valid criticisms of the film and I agree with most of what he has said, but I feel that some of the criticisms should really be put in a better context.
Several interviews in the film unabashedly invite the audience to suspect a police agent provocateur in the ranks of the activists, or the fabrication of evidence, on the basis of past police actions. But the police, too, will argue propensity when they get their turn in court. Their case, too, will be selective.
I can understand how Russell came to this conclusion – one of the interviews in the film was with an ex-undercover policeman who claims that his job was to lie, fabricate, and plant evidence. He also claims to have contact with many recent undercover policemen, and from those discussions claims to know that nothing much has changed since his time in the force. While things may have been taken a little too far in attempting to relate the issues raised back to the case at hand, other parts of the film are clearer on this point.
Another key interview in the film was with Ross Meurant – ex second in command of the Red Squad during the Springbok Tour, who coins the term “deep in the forest” to explain the mindset of the specialist policing units. I have a copy of Meurant’s book on the Red Squad, and last night it was revealing to see how much his views have changed as he has distanced himself further from his time in the police. Meurant claims that as police officers move through the ranks and into the specialist units such as the Team Policing Unit, the Armed Offenders Squad, and the Special Tactics Group, they find themselves deeper in the forest of intense paranoia, and adopt a very much us v them attitude. This fits very well with my personal experience of senior police officers involved with the Threat Assessment Unit – they didn’t want to believe that our actions in protesting for animal rights were simply that and didn’t really involve any hidden agenda. They seemed determined to believe that there was some hidden terrorist conspiracy. I recently had a chat with one of the detectives involved in raiding my house who has now left those units, and he said a big part of his reason for leaving is that he doesn’t want to be arresting people like myself who he actually likes and respects.
The term “deep in the forest” that Meurant adopts is one I can well understand – it’s a term that I feel is equally applicable to some of the activists I know who also adopt very much an us v them mentality. What I find concerning about this attitude within the police however, is that if you come to be on one side versus another, how do you maintain any semblence of impartiality? How easy is it to keep your actions ethical when you genuinely believe that the terrorists (activists) need to be stopped and find yourself in difficulty trying to do that through the proper means?
The allegations of an agent provocateur in this case are not unfounded. Police informant Robert Gilchrist acted as exactly that in many scenarios, and was also as an informant part of the Operation 8 case. The film shows footage of Gilchrist filming himself doing a “reconnasaince mission” breaking into a mainland poultry farm in the South Island. Gilchrist used that footage to try to incite activists into breaking into that farm. Many a time over the years Gilchrist tried to incite myself and others into reckless and illegal activities. Personally at the time I wasn’t interested but didn’t hold it against him as I presumed it came down to a genuine frustration with the lack of progress on issues we felt very strongly about. Now of course I know there were much more sinister intentions behind his actions.
In Christchurch Gilchrist talked a couple of young activists in the early 2000’s (who had previously only engaged in lawful protest activity) into forming a covert cell to break into factory farms in the dead of night and liberate animals. Those activists could have been charged with offences like burglary with a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
In 2005/2006 Gilchrist ran direct action training camps near Wellington which were attended by many animal rights and environmental activists. At the camps Gilchrist taught people how to walk silently down a gravel road in the middle of the night, how to use police scanners, how to escape from police dogs, and how to use camoflauge in both an urban and rural setting. Gilchrist was always trying to incite other activists to take part in more reckless and more illegal activities. Fortunately most people didn’t take it all very seriously.
I was also interviewed for the film – and I wasn’t talking about “past police actions”. The day I was interviewed was the day that the story of Rob Gilchrist as an informant was exposed in the Sunday Star Times. The part of my interview that was used in the film was where I talk about how scary it is that informants such as (and quite possibly including) Gilchrist are being used in the Operation 8 case, but that Public Interest Immunity (PII) is used to prevent their identity becoming known, and they are therefore being allowed to give evidence behind a screen without any of the defendants having a clue who they are. What that means of course is that the defense will have no opportunity to challenge the credibility of the evidence. If Gilchrist or someone like him is an informant in the case, no one will be able to raise his history of lying to the police (in writing) about activist activities because they won’t be allowed to know who he is.
I shudder to think what could have happened to me had the camps I attended run by Gilchrist been held in the Ururewas where guns are a part of every day life. If someone had brought out a couple of .303s would I have been locked up for a month under the Terrorism Suppression Act and faced a 4 year long court battle with the whole country believing I was a terrorist? In actual fact, the only activist I have ever known to possess firearms is Gilchrist himself, who claimed to have them because he was ex-military.
Finally, I want to talk a little about “The Day the Raids Came” – a book of oral history interviews conducted by Valerie Morse, one of the defendants in Operation 8. I meant to write a review of it at the time it came out but didn’t get around to it. “The Day the Raids Came” is the powerful stories of many people both right in the middle and on the peripheral of the events on October 15 2007. It doesn’t try to take a position on the charges but simply shows the deep impact of October 15 2007 on the Tuhoe and activist communities. The book is available to purchase or for free download from Rebel Press.
While I’m sure that “Operation 8: Deep in the Forest” and “The Day the Raids Came” will both historically be looked upon as useful accounts of Operation 8, I’m not sure their distribution will reach far enough in the present. I firmly believe that both will stand true regardless of the outcome of the trial – they show the far-reaching consequences of the police actions on innocent parties unrelated to the case – remember over 60 houses were raided and only 18 people charged. Likewise, they show the ongoing punishment of the defendants before they even go to trial – house raids, children being terrified by armed policemen, prison remand, inability to find work, being forced to drop everything and move to Auckland for weeks at a time during court appearances, and much much more.
For those of you who may want to do something to support the defendants in Operation 8 and their families, please visit the October 15 Solidarity Group website and donate some money or find some other way to give your support.