Inside the Angry Brigade
First Published -Morning Star
July 19, 2012 Thursday
In an era when mass protest and activism is again on the increase it's salutary to remember the police's habit of infiltrating rebellious groups. Papers I've received under the Freedom of Information Act show that one of the leading suspects named by police investigating the Angry Brigade - Britain's bomb-planting urban guerillas of the 1970s - was in fact a police informant. Gerry Osner was named as an Angry Brigade suspect in 1972, but police documents from 1968 say he was their informant inside the anti-Vietnam war movement. The Angry Brigade bombing campaign began in 1970. The "angries" planted bombs in what their communiques called "a planned series of attacks on capitalist and government property."
Between 1970 and 1972 their bomb targets included the homes of government ministers and Ford executives. Their communiques, with the help of a "John Bull" printing set, announced that "we have started to fight back and the war will be won by the organised working class, with bombs." They also claimed that "organised militant struggle and organised terrorism go side by side." The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a massive international rise in political and industrial struggle, including the anti-Vietnam protests and the 1968 French general strike. The Angry Brigade were part of a small but significant move towards terrorism on the fringes of this wave. Unlike the Italian Red Brigades or Germany's Baader-Meinhof group, the Angry Brigade didn't kill anyone. Its bombs were designed to destroy property and create spectacles, not to take lives. But they certainly played with bloodthirsty ideas - promising that "pig blood will flow in the streets" and claiming to be "the man or woman sitting next to you. They have guns in their pockets and anger in their minds." A concerted police operation led to the arrest and trial of people accused of the Angry Brigade attacks in 1971 and 1972. The police swoops gathered up both people found to be linked to the bombings and people who were innocent of any crime. Those arrested included Stuart Christie, who had been freed from a Spanish prison by an international campaign in 1967. Most of those arrested came from a "new left" background, but Christie was a Scottish anarchist. He travelled to Spain in 1964 to help his Spanish comrades in a plan to kill the country's dictator Francisco Franco. The attempt to assassinate the fascist leader failed and Christie was jailed for 20 years. After he was freed by the international campaign, Christie lived in London under fairly regular police surveillance. In December 1972, shortly after the trial of the Stoke Newington Eight led to some convictions and some acquittals, the police announced they were seeking "two people who we are most anxious to interview." Deputy assistant commissioner Ernest Bond said they were looking for "Gerry Osner and Miss Sarah Poulikakou" in connection with the bombings. Bond said they were "living abroad," adding that he had asked "Special Branch men in the Republic of Ireland" for help. Christie - who as the trial showed was not an Angry Brigade member, but did know many of those involved - told me he believed Osner was part of the Stoke Newington Eight Defence Campaign set up to aid the defendants, but was not likely to have taken part in Angry Brigade actions. But the document in a bundle of papers I received shows that Osner was an informant. The papers show that the authorities were genuinely very alarmed by the large, angry protests at the US embassy against the Vietnam war and the related growth of the new left. Panicked reactions included mobilising a "bomb squad" lest protesters use explosives and seriously considering, though ultimately rejecting, the mobilisation of troops to "contain" demonstrators. They also leaned on the BBC and newspaper editors to be less sympathetic to marchers. One paper from senior Home Office official F W Merifield refers to a Special Branch report. It says: "Such reports we have on extreme violence come from sources like Jeremy Osner, a student on whom a HOW is being submitted, and are not very credible. Nonetheless there is enough wild talk to give the police considerable cause for concern." "Jeremy" is almost certainly a mis-spelling of Gerry. His name is correctly cited when he was identified as among the 45 "leaders of the movement" in another Special Branch paper. An "HOW" is probably a Home Office Warrant allowing police to intercept Osner's post. It seems that Osner was an informant, albeit one not entirely trusted by the police. He was certainly involved in the 1968 demonstrations. Tariq Ali, one of the key organisers of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), told me: "I remember Gerry Osner. A few of us always thought he was an agent provocateur. Soon after this was put to him he and his girlfriend disappeared." Osner retreated from VSC, which organised large, loud, angry and militant protests but always rejected wild calls for individual "terrorism." He resurfaced around those connected to the Angry Brigade in 1971. He and Poulikakou did indeed flee to Ireland. Poulikakou changed her name to Sue Richardson and went on to be involved in a variety of anarchist and community causes until her death in 2011. Osner's movements are unknown. There's a strong if circumstantial case to suggest Osner was acting as a police informant in Angry Brigade circles and that the police announcement that they were seeking his arrest was a way of preserving his cover. It also seems likely that Poulikakou was unaware of this, given her subsequent role as a well respected activist. The Osner papers show that the police wanted informants in both legal, non-violent and illegal, violent political movements. They did not seem to distinguish between the two. They also suggest - given Osner's role in VSC - that the police were pretty lax about informants becoming provocateurs. You can read more from Stuart Christie at www.christiebooks.comFollow Solomon Hughes on Twitter: @SolHughesWriter