Richard Chessum was a student organiser in London in the 1970s when he was targeted by an undercover police officer using the name of a dead child. Piggybacking on Chessum’s political credibility, spy cop “Rick Gibson” quickly rose to the top of the Troops Out Movement, a group campaigning for the removal of British soldiers from Ireland, and started sexual relationships with several women he met through the activist organisation. When he was eventually caught out, he vanished entirely.
After decades of keeping quiet about his experience, Chessum is now a “core participant” in the undercover policing inquiry, set up to investigate the operations of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstrations Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit since the 1960s. His evidence will be considered alongside testimonies from 200 other environmental, anti-racist and trade union activists who claim their movements were undermined by spy cops, including many women who unknowingly had sexual relationships with undercover officers.
Chessum spoke to Sophie K Rosa about Gibson’s infiltration and eventual unmasking, and what he hopes the spy cops inquiry will achieve.
I was a Methodist lay preacher in the early 1960s, but then I gave up religion and became a kind of dissident Marxist. I was very active in the Labour party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. A lot of my activism was anti-racist and I saw my involvement with the Anti-Internment League and the Troops Out Movement as a continuation of that.
I got involved in the Anti-Internment League in the early 1970s, when internment without trial was introduced in the north of Ireland. It was a very biased policy; lots of nationalist men were rounded up. When the Anti-Internment League folded, I joined the Troops Out Movement, which campaigned for a united Ireland, and the withdrawal of British troops. I was studying at Goldsmiths College at this time, and some of us students who felt strongly about Ireland were discussing the idea of setting up a south-east London branch of the Troops Out Movement.
As students approaching our finals, however, none of us had a lot of time on our hands – so we were thrilled when the national office for the Troops Out Movement called and said someone had contacted them who was keen to take on a key role in setting up our local branch. The volunteer – Rick Gibson, who was joining the College for a Portuguese evening class – ended up being the branch secretary.
He offered to drive us around to visit all the old Anti-Internment League members, to gauge their interest in joining our new Troops Out branch. Everyone we visited said no though, because the prevention of terrorism act had been introduced and many of our friends were being picked up even though they hadn’t been involved with terrorism at all. Of course, we had no idea that we were engaging with an undercover police officer. I look back, and I do wonder if any of them were picked up under the prevention of terrorism act as a consequence of Rick.
It’s clear Rick targeted me. I was very active on the question of Northern Ireland, and I had a high profile in Goldsmiths College, where I’d been the left candidate for president of the students’ union. Rick intentionally befriended me. After meetings, we’d go to the pub and have a real old moan about sectarianism in the movement. He often suggested meeting up socially; we went to watch Charlton football a couple of times. Then when I got a job in Woolwich he said, ‘Oh that’s convenient, because I got a new job and the office is in Woolwich, too!’. We began meeting on lunch breaks. Having gained credibility by being my friend, Rick quickly became London organiser and then national secretary of the Troops Out Movement.
We now know from the research done by legal teams for the core participants of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, that the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) were told that under no circumstances should they assume positions of responsibility in the organisations they infiltrated. But Rick was reporting everything he did back to his superiors; they knew what was happening, they may have even been facilitating it. It does seem very suspicious that such a new movement member was voted into the positions he was. As far as we know, he was the first spy cop to assume such high-level positions; after he did, a number of other spy cops did the same. I wonder whether the success the SDS had with Rick led them to change the official guidance on this matter.
In the mid-1970s, I became interested in a political group called Big Flame, a revolutionary socialist feminist organisation. Rick said he’d like to come along. We are now aware that the secret state was very, very interested in Big Flame. Rick’s lack of political background aroused suspicion in the group, however. On one occasion he was asked to lead a political discussion group and he was obviously not up to the job – he made a fool of himself. I think that incident may have triggered Big Flame’s decision to do checks on him. Using birth and death record archives, they discovered that he had adopted the identity of a dead infant. Having found out he was an infiltrator, they were scared. Was he a policeman? Was he a special branch of MI5? Was he army intelligence? Or even more sinister, they thought – was he a fascist from one of the far-right groups?
Big Flame wanted to scare Rick off, but they didn’t want any publicity about it for fear of repercussions. So they told him they did security checks on all new members, and asked for more information about his background – the things he shared with them didn’t add up. For example, he said he had a relative in the northeast, and Big Flame members went to visit her. Sure enough, the person’s name living there was Gibson, but she said she’d never heard of Rick Gibson. They thought Rick would just get spooked and leave, but he kept bluffing it out – by this point he was influential.
Since he wouldn’t leave of his own accord, Big Flame decided to confront Rick. After a meeting one day at the pub, the group waited until he went to the bar – and when he returned, spread out on the table in front of him were ‘his’ birth certificate and ‘his’ death certificate. I wasn’t there, but I was told he started trembling, and they thought he was going to cry. Even then he gave another story; he said there was some mistake in the records office. But again his stories didn’t hold water.
The next day, Big Flame went to Rick’s flat to confront him again and there was not a stick of furniture in it: it was completely vacated overnight. When I found out, about a month later, it didn’t seem real. On the other hand, I thought – oh, he was a spy cop after all! When Rick first joined our movement, my girlfriend and I discussed the possibility he might be a police spy, because he didn’t have the background of people who got involved with Irish politics, but after a year or two, we dismissed this possibility, laughing about how paranoid we had been.
My immediate concern when I was informed Rick was a cop, was for the women who had been in sexual relationships with him. The reason I got involved in the Undercover Policing Inquiry was that, to begin with, the police denied that spy cops slept with and abused women in the organisations they infiltrated. When the police were forced to admit that these things happened, their line was that when the SDS was first set up, these things never happened – but that individual officers began disobeying the guidelines.
I was approached by a research group on undercover policing because of the evidence I had: Rick was one of the first spy cops to pursue romantic and sexual relationships with women in the movements he infiltrated. He got involved with four women in the Troops Out Movement, one of them being a substantial relationship. This evidence shows that this behaviour was a strategy to get information from the very beginning, not just the result of a few officers disobeying the guidelines. We now know that Rick was boasting about the sexual relationships he had to other SDS officers all along. Many women targeted by officers in this way say they were “raped by the state”. You should have seen the faces of the police in the inquiry drop when my legal team said we had traced one of the women Rick had deceived into a sexual relationship.
As a result of Rick’s infiltration, quite detailed stuff about me went to MI5: things about my physical appearance, about my marriage, about my sister. The spying was pretty intensive and extensive. I ended up spending a large part of my adult life unemployed; my legal team is convinced I was blacklisted. Later in his career, Rick was a detective inspector, despite the fact the forces knew he had been sleeping with women he was spying on.
After Rick was uncovered, the SDS stopped assuming the identities of dead children; not for ethical reasons, but because the tactic didn’t work anymore. To this day, I don’t know for sure whether officers have stopped sleeping with women in organisations.
Since the inquiry was set up in 2015, the police have employed all kinds of delaying tactics – so it’s dragged on and on. It’s only this year that hearings have started. A lot of people are cynical about the inquiry, saying it’ll be a whitewash – but I wouldn’t want to say that at this stage; I’m hoping something good will come out of it, that more and more evidence will be uncovered. I expect the inquiry’s recommendations and conclusions will be a mixed bag: that lots of so-called ‘mistakes’ will be admitted, but that overall they will justify infiltration into our organisations on the grounds of ‘state security’.
All these unethical practices in secret policing need to end, and the public needs more information about how high all this went. We know that senior ranks of the Metropolitan Police knew what was going on; we know that prime ministers of the day were aware of the SDS. Did politicians know about the methods being employed and turn a blind eye? The left is a target for police spying much more than the right . At this time, they were targeting anti-apartheid and anti-racist groups, but they seemed less interested in far-right groups that were openly fascist. It was the same on demonstrations; the police were very hostile to us, and often seemed to be protecting the fascists. A lot of the police officers I’ve met over the years were extremely racist. I’m not sure a great deal has changed. I always said when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour party, the secret state would be working overtime; I would be very surprised if they didn’t have a hand in undermining him.
Looking back, the whole period seems surreal. Since Big Flame didn’t want to go public with the experience, I kept quiet about Rick for a long time, which was very difficult. When I did tell one or two people, they avoided me afterwards, thinking I was paranoid or weird. Most people live in a world where these things in theory don’t happen.