Monday, 31 December 2012

Films Of The Year 2012

For the ninth year running, it's time to reflect on the films I've seen over the last 12 months.

During 2012, I went a little crazy - and went to the cinema a staggering 74 times, up from 47 last year and 33 in 2010. Admittedly I spent most of the year in a great deal of pain, making a cinema visit an easy and relatively comfortable outing, but it has also been a great year for film. There have been some great documentaries - The Island President, Searching for Sugar Man and Into The Abyss were great, while Marley and The Imposter were brilliant. The year ended strongly too - every film I saw from September's release of the remake of Dredd (which I really enjoyed, despite it having almost the same plot as The Raid) was highly watchable and five of them - Looper, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Skyfall, Argo and The Life of Pi - were unmissable.

Somehow, despite so many cinema visits, I managed to avoid every one of Mark Kermode's "Worst Films of 2012":


In keeping with previous years, I only count actual trips to a cinema - not films on DVD or BluRay - and as usual I've arbitrarily rated the films I've seen. You can find ratings for previous years here. Here's the 2012 list:

Ratings:
5 stars: Unmissable!
4 stars: Definitely worth seeing
3 stars: Decent film
2 stars: Disappointing
1 star: Pants
No stars: Why was this released?

In date order - five star films highlighted in bold:

The Artist (***)
War Horse (**)
Touch of Evil (****)
J Edgar (**)
Corionlanus (****)
Haywire (***)
The Descendants (*****)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (****)
Chronicle (****)
Carnage (****)
A Dangerous Method (**)
The Woman in Black (***)
Rampart (**)
Safe House (***)
The Raven (**)
Trishna (**)
The Hunger Games (****)
Into The Abyss (****)
The Kid With The Bike [Le gamin au vélo] (***)
The Island President (****)
Headhunters (***)
The Cabin In The Woods (****)
Marley (*****)
Being Elmo (**)
Marvel Avengers Assemble 3D (****)
Delicacy (**)
Dr Strangelove (****)
part of the Kubrick Season at Stratford Picturehouse
Dark Shadows (***)
The Dictator (no stars)
Monsieur Lazhar (***)
The Raid (*****)
2001: A Space Odyssey (****)
part of the Kubrick Season at Stratford Picturehouse
Iron Sky (****)
Town of Runners (***)
Prometheus 2D (***)
Moonrise Kingdom (*****)
Snow White and the Huntsman (**)
Ill Manors (***)
CoIntelPro 101 (***)
The Angel's Share (***)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3D (**)
Storage 24 (***)
Quatermass and The Pit [1967] (***)
Anarchy Girls [Anarchija Zirmunuos] (**) - part of the East End Film Fest
The Amazing Spider-Man (***)
The Olympic Side of London (**) - part of the East End Film Fest
The Dark Knight Rises (****)
Salute (***)
Ted (***)
Undefeated (***)
Searching for Sugar Man (****)
The Bourne Legacy (**)
Shadow Dancer (****)
Total Recall (**)
The Imposter (*****)
Shut Up and Play the Hits (***)
Lawless (***)
Dredd 3D (****)
Looper (*****)
Killing Them Softly (****)
Liberal Arts (****)
Zaytoun (****) - part of the London Film Festival
On The Road (****)
Beast of the Southern Wild (*****)
SkyFall (*****)
5 Broken Cameras (****)
Argo (*****)
Silver Linings Playbook (****)
End of Watch (****)
Great Expectations (***)
Seven Pychopaths (***)
The Hobbit 3D (***)
The Life of Pi 3D (*****)
Jack Reacher (***)


Thursday, 20 December 2012

Bah Humbug! Newham Council Halts 'Too Political' Performance by Disabled Theatre Group

It has been some time since I have been able to add a new blog post, due to the total shoulder replacement operation I had on 7 November and the long period of recuperation that followed (t was only yesterday that I was finally allowed to type with both hands). So with Christmas approaching, I wanted to share a festive story, one that reflects badly on Newham council and its attitude towards disabled people but is eventually heart-warming in its proof of the power of direct action.

In 2011, the council started to provide free space at Katherine Road Community Centre for a community group of disabled performers, Act Up Theatre, to rehearse and perform their play "Changing Attitudes". This year the group was asked to perform a new play at a council Christmas event held yesterday at the Old Town Hall in Stratford.

However, just days before the performance, the group was told that it had been cancelled, because the play, "Atos Stories", was not festive enough and too political.. A statement from the council said:, "we do not consider political satire or potentially distressing material to be in keeping with the theme or tone of this event". .This is despite the fact that, a month beforehand, Act Up Theatre had provided information about the play and were advised the council were happy for them to perform.

In a statement on Monday, Act Up said:
"We are deeply disappointed that despite having information about the play for over a month, Newham Council have not chosen to discuss this with Act Up until the 14th December. We are also disappointed that the Council hasn't stopped to consider the enormous barriers Act Up have overcome to even perform the play. The group have been working hard for the last three months, they deserve to be treated with far more respect than this.

We wrote Atos Stories because we were mad at Atos. We wanted people with disabilities and without to have vehicle to challenge the Work Capability Assessment in a creative and dramatic way. We thought Atos might stop that from happening. We never thought a local council would."
Yesterday, members of the group picketed the council's event, briefly blocking the entrance.to the Old Town Hall. Proving the immensely positive impact of direct action, embarrassed council officers have apologised for what they called a 'fatal error' in the way they had dealt with the situation and have hurriedly promised to give Act Up an opportunity to perform at another council event in January.

In 2013, it might be a good idea too for the group to re-stage its play "Changing Attitudes" for the benefit of council staff, for it seems that some attitudes towards disabled people haven't changed that much, despite the repeated pledges made in the approach to the Paralympics this summer. Sadly,. Newham council seems more than happy to associate itself with Paralympians wrapped in the Union flag, but it baulks at the idea of people with disabilities who are political and justifiably angry about their treatment by Atos.

If you get a chance, do check out the Atos Christmas Carol Song Sheet, which is superb: all together now:
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing ye dismay,
For Atos your good saviour
will take your pains away,
And force you down to Tesco
To work till Christmas Day

Oh Tidings of Comfort and Joy, Comfort and Joy!

More information on the campaign against Atos can be found on the Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) website at www.dpac.uk.net

Monday, 5 November 2012

Occupy The Night

On Saturday I went to the Bishopsgate Institute to listen to the documentary photographer Ed Thompson talk about photographing the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's Cathedral, an event that was part of the Photomonth East London International Photography Festival.

I love the idea of turning images into a multimedia presentation, something that Ed generously shared some suggestions about after his talk. I plan to put something together about Newham Monitoring Project's Community Legal Observer project during this summer's Olympics. Meanwhile, here is Ed's great presentation, with spoken word poetry by an occupier called J.J.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Wanstead Flats: I Hate To Say This But I Told You So

I haven't posted for a while as I've been busily preparing for admission to hospital for a serious operation this week. But if you check out my last post, you'll hardly be surprised by this news. Today, Newham council announced that the firework display on Wanstead Flats had been cancelled. A council statement says:
Newham Council is sorry to announce that Sunday evening’s free display of fireworks and music has been cancelled because of adverse weather conditions.

Heavy overnight rain has made conditions at the site in Wanstead Flats very soggy underfoot. With the forecast of more rain during the day, the council has taken the decision to cancel at the earliest opportunity to prevent people travelling to the display.

We apologise for the late notice but hope people will understand the reason. While it is disappointing, safety has to be our main concern. We are optimistic that we may be able to rearrange the display on another date. Full details will be available on the council’s website at www.newham.gov.uk 
If you look at the photos I posted on 25 October, you may get a sense of why on it is "very soggy underfoot" - the site hasn't been allowed to recover after the Metropolitan Police used it for its Olympics operations base over the summer and is unlikely to recover for months.

Common sense suggested that the decision to hold the Newham firework display on this ravaged part of Wanstead Flats - coupled with the reasonable possibility of rain in November - was always a ludicrous risk. Cancellation of the fireworks will have left lots of local people feeling disappointed this evening and many (including friends of mine) would only have found out when they turned up and were told the event was not going ahead..

The only conciliation is that perhaps now the City of London Corporation will leave Wanstead Flats alone so that can restore itself to the state that existed before the Met turned up and wrecked it. I imagine Newham council's inevitable request for a refund of costs for use of the site this evening should focus minds at the Corporation, but once again there are serious questions about its stewardship of the Flats.

With similar concerns about the failed reinstatement of Porter’s Field Meadow on Leyton Marsh, we're beginning to see that Olympic legacy talked up so often before the Games. If you worry about the care and protection of open spaces for east London residents, it's a far from positive one. It's time that the Corporation and other local authorities charged with looking after these sites recognise this aspect of the Olympic experiment was a failure - and decisions like the one that led to the damage to Wanstead Flats must never happen again.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Why Hold Firework Night On Ravaged Site of Olympic Police Base on Wanstead Flats?

The photographs above were taken this afternoon and show that, a month on from the end of the Paralympics, the site of the Olympics police operations base on Wanstead Flats is still a mess.

Some effort has been made to reseed the ground (see the previous pictures taken a few days after the Metropolitan Police left and you'll see what I mean). But it will still take months to recover. So why has Newham council been granted permission to hold its Fireworks Display on the Flats on 4 November, rather than in, say, Central Park?

One of the council's websites warns, "Display held on soft ground.", which may win the 2012 award for understatement of the year. It also reminds us - just in case there's anyone left in the borough who has missed having this message rammed down their throat - that "the event is brought to you for free by the Mayor of Newham" (out of his own pocket? Well, no, not quite), adding that it takes place "by kind permission of The City of London, Conservators of Epping Forest".

I suppose the "Conservators" got together and thought: what this site really needs is thousands of people walking all over it. Not for the first time, I'm left wonder what on earth the City of London Corporation thinks it is doing with an open space that belongs to us?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mostly Harmless - Pictures from Saturday's TUC March


Flick here for full screen.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Newham Council Apologises For Heavyhanded Action By Its Enforcement Officers

In September I reported that campaigners trying to save the Old Spotted Dog pub on Upton Lane had been stopped from leafletting outside of Forest Gate station and given a advice warning by Newham's 'Law Enforcement' officers. After activists received legal support from a local solicitor and the issue was raised at a public meeting at Durning Hall, something surprising happened - the council actually apologised.

A letter from Planning Enforcement Manager Christine Lyons, published on the Save the Old Spotted Dog website, says:
I understand there was an issue prior to this public meeting which left you and your group unhappy with the actions of this Council. It would seem that your campaigners were leafleting outside Forest Gate Station and received advice from the “law enforcement officer” that you were to cease this activity immediately. I am unsure as to the reasoning behind this request but have been informed that this advice was incorrect. I have spoken at length with the Service Manager for these officers Mr Al Thomas and he can only apologise for the actions of his officer and should you wish can be contacted on 02033733084 to discuss this matter.

It is of course gratifying that council has admitted its error, but it wouldn't have happened in the first place in the 'Law Enforcement' officers who intervened had actually understood the limit of their powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. What this points to is a lack of basic training, summed up by the fact that officers evidently had no idea what constitutes 'designated land' under the Act but arbitrarily chose to apply their sweeping powers anyway. If this had been an entirely isolated incident then perhaps it could be brushed aside as a simple mistake, but this is not the first time that there have been complaints about enforcement officers, either about the misapplication of anti-social behaviour powers or a certain high-handedness in the way they are enforced.

The council's apology, whilst welcome, means little if the same situation keeps arising again and again in the future, because officers do not recognise that enforcement powers are potentially oppressive and intimidating if not used sparingly and correctly - or if the latest talk of a 'crackdown' gives the misleading impression that, for the greater good, no-one is really going to care if a few errors occur. It really shouldn't be necessary for local people to be forced to raise complaints or seek legal advice if enforcement officers are properly trained and act with caution and common sense.

If anyone has a story about the way that anti-social behaviour powers are incorrectly enforced in the borough then please let me know - I'd like to start compiling evidence and publishing it. You can e-mail me here.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Book Event: Still Counting Sri Lanka's Hidden Dead

On Friday 16 November, former BBC foreign correspondent Frances Harrison will be discussing her book Still Counting the Dead - Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War with the Sri Lankan born artist and writer.Roma Tearne, at the Trinity Community Centre in Manor Park. The event is organised by Newham Bookshop, in partnership with Newham Monitoring Project..

Harrison covered the civil war in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2004 and has written the first account of the end of the least reported major conflict of recent times. She is one of the few foreign journalists to maintain contact with those trapped inside the war zone until the very end. In 2009, as the war between the Tamil Tiger guerrillas and the government reached its bloody climax, thousands of schoolchildren, doctors, farmers, fishermen, nuns and other civilians were caught in the crossfire. However, the Sri Lankan government maintained a strict media blackout so that the world was unaware of their suffering. A United Nations Panel of Experts has reported that estimates of up to 40,000 dead are credible and has called for war-crimes investigations. Still Counting the Dead recounts the human stories and faces behind the war.

Friday 16 November  2012
at 7 pm at The Trinity Centre, East Avenue, Manor Park E12.
Nearest tube: East Ham
Tickets are only £3 and available from Newham Bookshop: telephone 020 8552 9993 to reserve


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Monday, 8 October 2012

A Different View Of 'Successful' Olympic Policing

On Saturday, I attended a really fun celebration, at The Arches in Canning Town, of the work carried out by Community Legal Observers (CLOs) organised by Newham Monitoring Project during this summer's Olympics. It included a first look at some of the key trends that emerged from the evidence they gathered, which the organisation plans to document in more detail in a forthcoming report and resource aimed specifically at young people. The event also meant that CLOs could also receive a surprise memento of their volunteering during August and September - a medal bearing the famous 'human rights salute' protest by Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Normal at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.
Volunteer Community Legal Observers pose with their 'Olympic' medals at Saturday's event
As Newham Monitoring Project's Director Estelle du Boulay explained on Saturday, the evidence collected by CLOs paints a very different picture to the overwhelmingly upbeat impression of Olympic policing painted by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Away from the main venues, on side streets and estates, young people in particular complained of the excessive use of stop & search powers by officers who were often rude and aggressive, as well as incidents involving illegal strip searching in the backs of police vans. A number of young people chose to avoid Stratford altogether or made sure they travelled in groups no larger than two, for fear of the dispersal zone restrictions in place. CLOs also reported consistently positive feedback from local people to the rights cards that NMP distributed and a belief that basic civil liberties still needing protecting, even when an event as huge as the Olympics was taking place. However, there were reports that people arrested were denied the right to call NMP's 24-hour emergency helpline and cases of threatening and intimidatory behaviour by individual officers towards volunteers who were observing the policing .of the Games.

A full report with case studies will be published by Newham Monitoring Project shortly and I'll try and summarise it as soon as it is available. Meanwhile, I too am now a proud recipient of one of the incredibly rare CLO medals, which look like this:

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Open House Weekend: Around Newham

It has been such a manic week that this is the first opportunity I've had to post a few photos (more ehere) from last weekend's Open House visits to the Old Stratford Town Hall and to Cody Dock in Canning Town.

Every year, the opening of parts of public buildings that are usually inaccessible (and some private homes) takes place near the end of September and has meant that I was able to see inside the very grand former St Pancras Hotel in Kings Cross when it was still a building site, before it was transformed into the luxury St Pancras Renaissance. This year, I chose to stay closer to home and although I've been inside Stratford Town Hall many times, I've never made it up into its bell tower - or down into its former cells.

One of the former holding cells beneath Stratford's Old Town Hall

Then it was on to Abbey Lane DLR and Cody Dock, for a tour organised by the Gasworks Dock Partnership. This is a community project that has carried out some amazing work in transforming a derelict site into a open space for local people. The tour took in a memorial garden in the shadow of the former gasworks, but one that is largely inaccessible to visitors as it is now in the middle of Twelvetrees Business Park. Try walking in and you run the risk of security guards turning you back.

Next year's Open House London Weekend takes place on 21 and 22 September 2012. For information visit www.londonopenhouse.org

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Newham's Enforcement Officers Stop Forest Gate Campaigners From Handing Out Leaflets

As regular visitors to this site will know, I have a few disagreements with over-zealous anti-social behaviour officers in the past (in Newham and Redbridge) but today, I heard from campaigners trying to save the Old Spotted Dog pub on Upton Lane (above) that they had been stopped from leafletting outside of Forest Gate station and given a advice warning by Newham's 'Law Enforcement' officers.

Next Tuesday at 7.30pm, the new campaign has a public meeting at Durning Hall Community Centre about the appalling state of the former pub, which is a seventeenth century Grade II listed building and the borough's oldest secular building. Campaigners were giving out flyers today to encourage people to attend when council 'Law Enforcement' officers intervened, saying they were committing the offence of "distribution of free printed matter on designated land" under Schedule 3A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As the leaflets were given out on the public footpath, the enforcement officers were asked what 'designated land' meant and they replied that it probably meant the whole of Newham.

Forest Gate railway station is outside of the Woodgrange Conservation Area, which may well be 'designated land', but I'd be very surprised if the whole of the borough had been designated by the local authority. It was evident that the 'Law Enforcement' officer wasn't sure. Anyway, paragraph 1(4) of the Schedule says there is an exemption for the distribution of printed materials in the following circumstances:
(a) by or on behalf of a charity within the meaning of the Charities Act 1993, where the printed matter relates to or is intended for the benefit of the charity;

(b) where the distribution is for political purposes or for the purposes of a religion or belief.
Promoting a campaign meeting to preserve a 400 year old building strikes me as both charitable and political, so what is Newham council playing at?

The campaign is now seeking legal advice. This kind of petty officiousness has to be stopped.For more on the public meeting, see below.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Scar On Wanstead Flats As Olympic Fortress Departs

I was away over the weekend in Warwickshire: Saturday would have been the 42nd birthday my old friend Gilly Mundy, who passed away in 2007, so I went to spend time with his family. I therefore missed the removal of the Great Wall that surrounded Fortress Wanstead Flats, the Olympic police base that has been so bitterly opposed by local people (more from me on Wanstead Flats here)

So this evening, I popped over to take a look and to photograph the impact of the base on a much loved piece of public land. Sadly, as predicted, the destruction is huge - it may take months to recover and parts of the site are covered by gravel and hardstanding.

The dark scar on previously protected open land is a real test for the City of London Corporation, who are the nominal 'custodians' of Wanstead Flats as part of Epping Forest. Failing to completely restore the Flats to its condition before the base was constructed will undoubtedly fuel concerns - ones I share - that the site has been earmarked for future use as a "temporary" security space. With the Evening Standard reporting today that it may cost as much as £160 million to turn the Olympic stadium into a football arena, the worry is that the stadium will become the venue for more high-profile, high security events in order to recoup some of its vast costs. High security means a 'convenient' space for basing security operations - convenient for the police and the security industry that is, not for local people.

Here are a few photos of the sheer scale of the destruction - you can find more on Flickr.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Attica Locke at Stratford Picturehouse

Attica Locke with Cilius Victor
 Last night's event at Stratford Picturehouse with Attica Locke, author the the excellent Black Water Rising, in conversation with my old friend Cilius Victor, was one of the most enjoyable  Newham Bookshop has organised: more a relaxed chat between old friends than a literary gathering. In fact, Attica has spoken in public with Cilius before, back in 2009 when she was largely unknown and just before she was short-listed for the Orange Prize.

Attica's new book is 'The Cutting Season' and is set in a former slave plantation in Louisiana, now an historical site and tourist destination. Last night we discovered it is based on a real place, Oak Alley Plantation, where Attica attended a wedding in 2004. Like her previous novel, her new book examines race in the US and how progress for middle-class African Americans, especially women, is dependent upon the support of others, At a wider level this overwhelmingly means Latino immigrants and there are deep parallels between a new layer of people who hold up an economy but do not have full citizenship rights, who are divided from their families and who in many cases are expected to 'know their place'.

Signed copies of The Cutting Season are available from Newham Bookshop - drop in and see if they have any copies left.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Alternative Olympianism

This is my book review for Red pepper magazine of Mark Perryman's Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. It appears in the current issue and online here

In Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, Mark Perryman offers a timely reminder that sport and politics are always intertwined, and this has been just as true of the Olympics as other major sporting events. He argues, however, that a significant change began in 1984 in Los Angeles, as sponsorship and product placement started to gain greater prominence. By the time of the 1996 Games in Atlanta – the home of Coca Cola – global corporate interests had completed their takeover and aligned the proprieties of the International Olympic Committee to their own.

The book, a collection of short essays, goes on to explain how little evidence there is for the alleged benefits – everything from tourism and jobs to regeneration and increased participation in sport – of becoming a Host City. In unpicking the fallacies that demolish ‘the entire promise of the Olympics as something socially benevolent’, it provides a helpful summary of arguments familiar to critics of this summer’s Games.

What I find less convincing is the idea that this critique provides the basis for an ‘alternative Olympianism’. Perryman offers ‘Five New Olympic Rings’ to reform the Games. These include decentralising the hosting from cities to nations, and making individual events more open and more of them free-to-watch. The fifth of the new principles is the disconnection of the Games from corporate interests. Perryman is right to argue that the commercialisation of sport is not irresistible, but I see little evidence of a groundswell of grassroots opposition in defence of a genuine ‘Olympic spirit’.

More than other events, the Olympics historically has been the plaything of a tight, mainly European clique, an almost arbitrary gathering together of different, largely minority sports. Perryman’s ideas would undoubtedly make a positive impact on the nature of the Olympics as a participatory event. But he seems unclear where the pressure for change, pressure strong enough to topple the powerful commercial interests that control the IOC, might actually come from.

Nonetheless the book is an enjoyable polemic – and after a summer of relentless hyperbole about the London Olympics, it will come as a welcome relief to many Red Pepper readers.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Update On Newham Campaign To Save Independent Advice

Back in April I wrote about a campaign set up by local advice agencies who were trying to stop the destruction of independent advice work in the borough and the introduction of a bizarre new system that plans to 'motivate' people not to bother the council with their difficult problems.

As part of that campaign, one Newham resident had brought a judicial review of Newham council's decision on 17th November 2011 to cease funding voluntary sector advice services in the borough and to replace it with an in-house system. On 1st June, this challenge was unsuccessful but Mr Justice Cranston held that it appeared the council had ruled out providing funding to voluntary sector organisations for advice services at the November meeting. As a result of this court case, Newham council has effectively withdrawn its decision and assured the court that it would now consider whether to involve the voluntary sector. The judge made it clear that before the council makes a final decision, it must consult properly.

The consultation was launched on 2nd August, will run until the 25th October 2012 and residents affected by the changes are encouraged to take part. The council's questionnaire is available online at www.newham.gov.uk/adviceconsultation

A paper version of the questionnaire is supposedly available at any local service centre or library. However, campaigners who recently attempted to collect copies from two local libraries discovered that they are not readily available to the public. One of the key arguments of the Save Independent Advice in Newham campaign is that a significant number of Newham residents do not have access to the internet or have the ability to easily navigate online council services. They are therefore urging local people to make a point of going into their local libraries or service centres and asking for paper copies of the consultation questionnaire. If you find there are problems providing one, let the campaign know by e-mailing: saveadvice@romasupportgroup.org.uk

A list of libraries is available here and the few remaining service centres here. Drop in and ask for a questionnaire!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Rebellious Weekend

This afternoon I headed over to Newham Bookshop's stall at Goldsmith Row Book Market, where Clive Bloom was signing copies of his interesting new book "Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital". I will review the book soon, but Bloom argues that the unprecedented level of unrest in London over the last 12 years has turned the capital into "a battleground for a host of new demands and new ideological standpoints, so much so that protesters and authority alike have had to invent new tactics to cope with the pressure of new demands". There was plenty of evidence of these new demands and new tactics of civil disobedience this weekend, with activists from Climate Siren closing Tower Bridge for around an hour yesterday afternoon, Unite Against Fascism successfully blocking the route of an EDL march in Walthamstow and disabled activists teaming up with UK Uncut to blockade the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Atos headquarters on Friday.

Eleven anti-EDL protesters were arrested, as were three Climate Siren activists and one campaigner outside the DWP. Disabled People Against Cuts has complained of a heavy-handed response from the police. Here's more on two of the weekend's direct action protests:

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Why Is It So Hard To Find Out About The 'London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium'?

Every now and then Lee Jasper, once the Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities to former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, pops up in the press speaking on behalf of something called the “London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium” (LRCJC). Most recently it was in this article on the terrible experiences of one young man who had been repeatedly stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police, but Mr Jasper has been quoted as its Chair in national press articles on racism in the Met, race in Britain in 2012 and the racist comments of David Starkey.

After Friday's piece by Guardian journalist Diane Taylor, I started to wonder: who are LRCJC's  members and what work does it actually carry out? I have been an activist campaigning in London on racism and policing issues for 20 years but know absolutely nothing about it. I asked some activist friends with similar interests and contacts but they were equally mystified. A Google search failed to find an LRCJC website and every reference to the 'Consortium' seems to relate directly to a Mr Jasper personally. I did learn, from a article by Operation Black Vote, that back in 2010, LRCJC could be contacted via www.leejasper.com and it planned to “represent organisations such as Metropolitan Black Police association, Society of Black Lawyers and RESPECT the black and ethnic minority prison staff association”. But there was nothing more illuminating than that. Moreover, there are a number of organisations carrying out excellent work on the misuse of stop & search powers – nationally, Stop Watch in particular and at a local level, groups like Newham Monitoring Project. I wondered why the Guardian hadn't asked one of them for comment, rather than the chair (albeit a well-known, high-profile one) of an apparently obscure organisation.

Stuck for answers, I put out a fairly sceptical request for information to followers on Twitter, asking if anyone knew more about LRCJC. Despite a further prompt, no-one replied and, with more interesting things to do over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, that would probably have been that.

However, Lee Jasper then got in contact via Twitter and his reaction to a simple question was so combative and evasive that I was suddenly really interested to know why he seemed so concerned about it.

Jasper demanded to know why I was publicly asking for information about LRCJC and why I hadn't contacted him personally. I guess the latter is a fair question but it had never occurred to me to approach someone I don't really have a great deal of respect for and who I probably haven't spoken to since the early 1990s, although activism circles are fairly small. For a decade I helped organise the United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) with custody death families but until 2008, Mr Jasper was still working at City Hall, busy praising the senior officer in charge of the botched operation that shot and killed  Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station (taking a lead from his boss). So it's not as if we are remotely close (I don't even follow him on Twitter).

Just as importantly, what exactly is wrong with publicly asking about the membership of LRCJC when it is quoted regularly in the press?

Mr Jasper's responses to further questions about LRCJC were increasingly evasive and he adopted the classic tactic used by anyone trying to avoid giving an answer – attack the questioner:
As others joined the conversation, there was also an interesting allegation that I have a 'history of sectarianism with sections of black left', which came as news to me:
 In a request for more details, Mr Jasper added this:

I am really looking forward to Mr Jasper's blog post, if it ever appears (I guess this article may feature, as he mistakes 'sectarianism' for 'not accepting his word at face value'). But I'm still no clearer about who the 'London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium' actually represents or what work it has ever done.

In the circumstances, it therefore seems only fair to conclude that – at best – the LRCJC is nothing more than a name, a paper network of groups that Mr Jasper has links to (what the 'white left' might call a 'front organisation'), with no real purpose other than getting his name into the press.

If, however, the LRCJC is not a 'front' but a genuine consortium as Mr Jasper insists, then perhaps he can outline what actual work its members have together carried out on stop and search, or on last summer's riots, or in providing practical support to black students during recent student demonstrations? Other than speeches by its chair and sole spokesperson, what proposals have LRCJC members collectively developed on, say, the changes to the Educational Maintenance Allowance that have negatively affected so many minority students at FE colleagues? What campaigning has it organised against, for example, the abuse of anti-terror laws? What work, indeed, has the 'Consortium' ever undertaken on anything?

Lee Jasper once held a high-profile public position and as an individual, I'm sure he has an interesting point of view on some issues. That doesn't mean he speaks for anyone else but himself. So why don't journalists just ask him to comment in an individual capacity? Why insist on quoting him as a spokesperson of a grandiosely named 'Consortium' that sounds as if it might genuinely represent a wide range of opinion, when there is little evidence that it even exists?

Equally, why does the press insist on doing this, when there are plenty of other respected organisations with a proven track record of casework, research and campaigning on issues around racism or policing? Wouldn't it be more interesting to readers to speak to people in a position to offer something far more helpful than a few words of outrage? 

Monday, 20 August 2012

A People's History of Protest in Newham

History has a habit of repeating itself. Thus the Occupy movement, it turns out, has long forgotten ancestors in Plaistow: at the turn of the twentieth century, unemployed workers occupied land in an attempt to set up a farm colony called the Triangle Camp. The local council brought legal action for trespass against them, they were evicted and then tried to reoccupy the site, leading to scuffles with the police and the imprisonment of one Benjamin Cunningham. Nor are deaths in police custody an entirely modern phenomenon: in 1931, clashes between the police and the unemployed outside West Ham town hall in Stratford led to the savage beating of a protester with the unlikely name of Walter Disney, who was arrested and died on his way to hospital. In a echo of the claims made about the death of Ian Tomlinson, police alleged that his death was the result of him falling and hitting the road.

These stories were part of a fascinating talk today on the history of protest in Newham, held at the temporary 'People's Museum and Gallery of Newham' on Stratford High Street. In a little over an hour, Geoff Bell, chair of Eastside Community Heritage, covered a very broad period from early examples of racism, against the Irish in 1781, up to activism by Newham's black communities in the late 1980s. In between was a reminder of the rich history of dissent that this borough can take pride in. It includes the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (who lived on Upton Lane in Forest Gate) and her brother Samuel Gurney, the anti-slavery campaigner, as well as the Coloured Men's Institute set up in Canning Town by Kamal Chunchie, the militancy of dockworkers led by Jack Dash and the community resistance to racism and fascism that led to to the creation of the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) in 1981.

It still gives me particular satisfaction to know that NMP continues to contribute to the long history of anti-racist struggle in the borough, despite the unsuccessful efforts of its politically ambitious first worker to shut the project down in the late 1990s. However, there is much more to tell – other stories of protest in Newham, against the racist murder of Panchadcharam Sahitharan in 1991 and the unlawful killing in police custody of Ibrahima Sey in 1996, against the 'war on terror' and the war in Iraq during the last decade – were not covered in today's talk. In many cases, these stories (like NMP's refusal to give up when its council funding was cut) have not yet been written, although I hope that soon they will. Nevertheless, in a borough so often associated nowadays with an outright rejection of dissent by our imperious Mayor and his council colleagues, it was helpful to be reminded today that protest has always played an important part in the social fabric of Newham. Long may it continue to do so.

The People's Museum and Gallery of Newham is based at the former West Ham Labour Party offices at 306 High Street, Stratford E15 1AJ and continues until the end of October. Geoff Bell will told a talk on the Coloured Men’s Institute and Kamal Chunchie on 1 October at 4pm.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Newham Bookshop Hosts UK Launch Of Orange Prize Nominee's New Novel

On Thursday 13 September, the Orange Prize short-listed author Attica Locke will return to Stratford for another conversation with my old friend and Newham Monitoring Project comrade Cilius Victor, at the official UK launch of her new novel "The Cutting Season".

The event is organised by Newham Bookshop, who were one of the first to recognise and promote Attica's brilliant first novel "Black Water Rising" back in 2009. The last encounter between her and Cilius was hugely enjoyable, as was her book - a crime thriller set in 1980s Houston in Texas that centres on the discovery of a body by a struggling African-American lawyer. The new novel also starts with a dead body, this time found in the grounds of Belle Vie, a historic plantation house in Louisiana's Sugar Cane county that is managed by the book's central character, Caren Gray. The murder of a migrant worker unravels dark secrets about the plantation’s past and the history of slavery in the American South.

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke in Conversation
at Stratford Picturehouse, Salway Road  London E15 1BX
Thursday 13 September, 7pm

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Tickets are £5 and available directly from the Picturehouse cinema by calling 0871 902 5740 or booking online here

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Met's Commissioner And The Right To Avoid Becoming 'Police Intelligence'

This evening, the Commissioner of the Metropolis spoke at Stratford Picturehouse as part of the local council's “Ideas Olympiad”, a series of events aiming to bring “high profile and interesting speakers to the borough”. Well, at least I think it was the head of the Metropolitan Police. It might have been the HR manager of a medium-sized Sheffield engineering firm in a borrowed uniform, for all the insight it provided.

The period spent by Bernard Hogan-Howe, who took over from Sir Paul Stephenson at New Scotland Yard last September, as Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources has clearly had a significant impact on both the man and his method of presentation. His speech this evening was littered with the kind of customer service platitudes that are so commonplace in the corporate world, long on aspiration but just as short on specifics as a morning briefing for call centre staff. And, for a man so closely associated with the concept of Total Policing, it was just as carefully crafted – the picture painted Hogan-Howe of his “total war on crime” seemed so benign that it would be hard to imagine the outbreak of anything resembling a minor skirmish, let alone a declaration of war.

After some fairly inane audience questions, there was only one slip as Hogan-Howe began to bat away concerns about the use of police powers to stop and search. The Commissioner was asked about a personal experience, involving police officers in Newham engaged in a stop & search who had become particularly confrontational when the audience member had insisted on his right not to give his name and address. This right was been one that Newham Monitoring Project has been pushing over the summer in the rights cards its volunteers have distributed and with good reason. Handing over personal details may seem innocuous enough, but if you happen to be one of the 83% of Londoners stopped and searched based on 'reasonable suspicion' that turns out to be wrong, there is nothing to stop this information finding its way onto police databases as 'intelligence gathered', even though in in legal terms the sole aim of stop & search is detection of crime. The retention of this data goes a long way to explaining why so many subsequently find they are targeted and stopped again and again.

Hogan-Howe used to run the Met's Professional Standards Directorate that handles complaints: all he had to do was agree that anyone has the right not to give their name and address and then move on to ignoring some other questions. But instead he fumbled his response, suggesting that providing personal details might “help with a complaint” (search receipts are numbered, so this is irrelevant) or even in “identifying an offender on bail”. Forget that the vast majority of people who are stopped and search are innocent of any crime. In a room filled with some of the more ambitious of Newham's local senior officers, their boss gave a green light to exactly the kind of aggressive intelligence-gathering that had been raised by the member of the audience – who also happens to work for Newham Monitoring Project.

Everyone knows that stop & search powers are deeply alienating. The Guardian and the London School of Economics study of the August 2011 riots, “Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder”, found that “the focus of much resentment was police use of stop and search, which was felt to be unfairly targeted and often undertaken in an aggressive and discourteous manner.” The Riots Communities and Victims Panel in their March 2012 final report [PDF] said that “the issue of trust in the police in London is hugely influenced by the exercise of stop and search powers... the importance of getting it right should not be underestimated”.

Getting it right must surely mean accepting that members of the public, who statistically are most likely to be entirely innocent when they are stopped & searched, have rights that include anonymity if they have committed no crime. Amidst an otherwise lifeless performance, Hogan-Howe managed to convey the impression that this right really isn't all that important. Perhaps his “total war on crime” isn't quite so benign after all.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

How Is This Not Impersonating a Police Officer?

My thanks to Mike Law for flagging this up. Take a look at his photo above, snapped in East Ham, of 'London Borough of Newham Law Enforcement' officers. For all the world, they look like WPCs.

Back in 2005, Newham council's former Head of Legal Services, Amanda Kelly, was commissioned to undertake an independent external investigation [PDF] into the borough's Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Division Community Constabulary. This followed allegations of mismanagement and serious misconduct by some its 'Community Constables', which included unlawful stop and search operations, illegal possession of potentially lethal extendable batons while on duty and an allegation that a member of the Constabulary's staff had handcuffing a Stratford resident.

In the course of her investigation, Kelly found that as a result of the gradual adoption of police ranks and titles and the choice of Hertfordshire police as its uniform supplier, the appearance of council staff patrolling Newham's streets was “almost indistinguishable from police officers”. As a result, Community Constables had started to behaviour as if they actually possessed police powers when they did not. The council had allowed, in effect, the growth of a private quasi-police force in the borough. Kelly added:
“Indeed, when I went out with the Constabulary, the officers I accompanied were mistaken for Police officers and I am not aware that they did anything to disabuse those making the mistake.

I consider that the uniform currently worn by the Constabulary is such that it closely resembles that of the police and therefore brings its wearers into danger of contravening s.90 of the Police Act 1996 – impersonating a police officer”.
Section 90 says:
Any person who, not being a constable, wears any article of police uniform in circumstances where it gives him an appearance so nearly resembling that of a member of a police force as to be calculated to deceive shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Unsurprisingly, Kelly recommended that council officers's uniforms were “clearly differentiable from that of MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] officers”.

Following a scandal like this, it might be expected that the local council would take extra special care in future. Seven years on, Newham's Community Constables are now called 'Enforcement Officers' and since 2011, a number had been granted limited police powers under the government's Community Safety Accreditation Scheme. However, it seems that with the passage of time, little has been learned from Amanda Kelly's warnings. As the photo above shows, the new-look 'law enforcement officers' are just as indistinguishable from Metropolitan police officers as they were back in 2005 and just as likely to be mistaken for such by the public.

This failure to clearly differentiate from the uniforms of police constables still potentially contravenes section 90 and more alarmingly, there is the danger – just as there was seven years ago – that council 'enforcement' staff, seen as police by the people they meet on the streets, start to believe they really are cops. Anyone who has already encountered 'enforcement officers' will know many seem to have already mastered the arrogance, swagger and refusal to negotiate of the worst kind of unreconstructed police officer.
If the disreputable pranksters pictured above (my good friends the Space Hijackers) can be wrongly dragged before the courts for allegedly impersonating police officers in the most ridiculous circumstances, then breaches of section 90 must be an issue that the Met takes extremely seriously. So why, yet again, is history repeating itself in Newham?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Olympic Exploitation - Not OK Anywhere

On Sunday evening, as crowds were leaving the Olympic Park in Stratford after the men's 100m final, War on Want projected a giant video message onto a nearby building, in protest at the exploitation of Adidas workers around the world.

While almost everyone, it seems, is currently losing all sense of proportion and critical faculty  over this summer's Games, this action by the brilliant campaigning charity was a reminder of the other, darker side of the Olympics. Adidas has already sold around £100 million of Olympic-themed clothing whilst workers making its goods are paid poverty wages and are having to skip meals to survive.  In Cambodia, for example, workers receive £10 a week basic pay, are forced to work overtime, cannot afford decent food and live in squalid conditions. In April, the Independent reported that Indonesian workers, making Adidas clothing worn by Team GB athletes and Games volunteers, were working up to 65 hours a week for poverty pay and suffered physical and verbal abuse. Meanwhile, Adidas recorded £559 million profits  in 2011, with full-year net profits in 2012 expected to rise by 15-17%. In contrast to the company's poverty-stricken workers in the Global South, Adidas chief executive Herbert Hainer received €5.9 million (£4.6 million) in "compensation" last year.

One of the things I'm looking forward to after the Olympics are finally over is the return of decent people getting angry about this kind of thing. It can't come a moment too soon.

Monday, 6 August 2012

London Pleasure Gardens - A Local Council Scandal?

Photo: Diamond Geezer
Since I started blogging regularly, I've also started receive e-mails from people with stories they really want told. On Friday morning, I received one saying that the London Pleasure Gardens (LPG) at the Royal Docks near the ExCel Centre, opened to fanfare only five weeks ago with a loan of £3 million from Newham council, had gone into administration. This is a project that, in July, the council had lauded as an example of its new 'resilience' philosophy, an exciting new venture that “helps to build the economic resilience of the area by attracting people to a new destination”. Throughout Friday it was difficult to find direct confirmation of whether LPG had gone bust, despite a tweet I sent out, but by the end of the day, an council statement had finally confirmed:
"The decision by London Pleasure Gardens Limited to enter into voluntary administration is regrettable but understandable. It is disappointing that the anticipated visitor numbers and revenue from recent planned events have not materialised”.
The loan to London Pleasure Gardens Limited and its three directors (John O'Sullivan, Garfield Hackett and Robin Collings) was agreed by the Mayor and his Cabinet, rather than the full council, who nodded through the Cabinet's plans during the 19 minutes it took to hold a twenty-item meeting on 27 February. A report on what had been described as “an unrivalled partnership between enterprise, culture and public sectors” was discussed by the Cabinet in January [PDF], in which much was made of the proposal's ability to “substantially persist continued momentum” in ensuring that that “the Games period euphoria does not fade away in Newham”. The report added that “the project is in line with the Council's vision for the regeneration of the Royals and indeed it is seen as a vital catalyst in making this vision a reality”. There was a promise of new employment - 300 mainly part time sessional jobs for local people over the life of the project, although only the equivalent of 30/40 full time jobs. The council's Finance Officer notes that “the proposal is not considered to be high risk.”

This "vital catalyst" turned out to be some low risk. Its failure is being blamed in part on events' organisers deciding to stay away, perhaps understandably given the débâcle over overcrowding at the Bloc Weekend event on 6 July. However, in a BBC report, Newham council has also tried to pass the rest of the blame onto the London Olympics organisers LOCOG for restricting visitors numbers. They in turn have hit back at Newham council and LPG, saying:
“Sensible business planning to allow the DLR to cope with a large influx of passengers during the Olympic events at the Excel Centre meant that temporary limitations on promoting the Pleasure Gardens at Games time were agreed with the venue at the outset and would have been factored into their business model.”
After I tweeted out a request for information on Friday, I started to receive more stories from people who had worked at LPG. They told of staff, mainly local young people, who were in tears when they heard the news that the company had gone bust. Many had not been paid. One 20-year old girl had been looking for work without success for four years before starting at LPG and was supporting her entire family on her wages from a vendor at the venue. Former staff also complained about a complete lack of communication from LPG. Publicly, some traders have come forward with complaints about promises that were made to them by the LPG management and how they felt angry and cheated.

What this looks a lot like is a full-blown local authority scandal, with wildly over-optimistic financial projections by the LPG management, who seem to have also been far from ready when the venue actually opened. Their rather high-risk business case (dependent in part of the whims of LOCOG's decision-making) was aided by the fact that Newham's Mayor had clearly been bowled over by another ill-conceived idea. The loan was almost inevitable, with few doubts raised by officers whose due-diligence was either incredibly weak or driven with half an eye on the proposal being a mayoral pet-project. As for LOCOG, it is clear from its ruthlessness that the Games and nothing but the Games - most certainly not the ambitions of a minor local elected Mayor or any impact on local people - was their only consideration.

The council insists it will recoup the £3 million of local taxpayers moneyi it has loaned, which it must at a time when it is busy making significant cuts to services. But what about the human costs? As yet, it hasn't said anything about what happens to the local people who worked at LPG, overwhelmingly poor and owed money that is due to them. Will they find themselves at the bottom of the list as the administrators from Deloitte pick over what is left from the ruins of the company?

UPDATES

I saw this today (6 August):
See also this BBC London report on 7 August (from the Stop City Airport Masterplan website)

[Flash 10 is required to watch video.]

Friday, 3 August 2012

Update: Newham Council Jumps On Olympic Brandwagon

Whatever the sporting achievements this summer, it is certain that we will remember the 2012 Olympics for the extraordinary lengths that London organisers have gone to in oppressively protecting the brands of its corporate sponsors. Even Michael Payne, the former marketing director at the International Olympic Committee who devised the rules to prevent 'ambush marketing, has said “the controls and protections have gone too far”. LOCOG chair Lord Coe has insisted that he has a responsibility to protect the commercial "rights of sponsors" but managed to create even more confusion about what kind of t-shirt and trainers were acceptable for a visitor to wear inside the Olympic Park.

This bring us back to the banning of Community Legal Observers from Stratford Park. As I noted on Monday, Newham council security guards had accused Newham Monitoring Project voluneers of handing out material that was "making it easy for criminals and giving them tips". Later that day, the council's Head of Events Sue Meiners came down to the park in person to offer a new justification for excluding the legal observers: the accusation that they  would cause littering by handing out legal rights cards.

Now the local authority has cobbled together a new explanation, one that Lord Coe and the Olympic brand enforcers would be proud of. In an e-mail to NMP, Newham's Head of Communications Douglas Trainer (who some may recognise as a New Labour former NUS President) claims that a community event in a public park has been designated a 'corporate event' and as a result, the council does not allow organisations "to come into the park with a branded presence - including the wearing of branded shirts or bibs."

If this were true, you would imagine Trainer's colleague Sue Meiners might have mentioned it on Monday. Having lived and worked in Newham for over two decades, I'd add that if this were true, it has been applied so inconsistently over the years that it's likely to cause as much confusion as Coe's own pronouncements on 'branded t-shirts'. Instead, what it looks suspiciously like is a really poor excuse, one targeted specifically at volunteers who have given up their spare time to provide an important service to local communities.

In its public response to the council, Newham Monitoring Project says:
There has been much debate about the rules used to protect corporate brands during the Olympics and we are genuinely surprised that the council would adopt and enforce similar rules against its own citizens, especially those who are volunteering for a local not-for-profit group with charitable aims.
Quite so. We can add this to the growing list of unlikely Olympic legacies: Newham council borrowing from LOCOG to oppressively protect a brand - its own - in local public spaces.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Update On Accessing Newham Council's Accounts

On 19 July, I reported that Newham council has broken the law by failing to publish details of the period when local people have the right to inspect its draft accounts. This failure included both details on its website and a notice in the local newspaper at least 14 working days before the start of public inspection. An e-mail I have seen, from the council's Chief Accountant Barry Stratfull, explains that "following a technicality", meaning a lack of forethought that no-one managed to catch when it happened last year, "we will be reissuing the required public notice detailing when the accounts will be available for inspection".

The council has now managed to post the correct notice online and an advertisement is tucked away on the bottom of page 44 of this week's Newham Recorder. Residents will be able to inspect any and all contracts, invoices, receipts and bills and make copies from 9 August to 7 September 2012.

This remains one of the most powerful rights available to citizens in the UK to uncover the details of how local councils are spending public money. Therefore, if there are burning questions that residents and local campaigners have wanted answers to, from expenditure on the council's headquarters, its payments to consultants or indeed, how exactly the Preventing Violent Extremism budget has been spent, now is the time to pop along to Newham Town Hall on Barking Road, between 10am and 4pm, to try and find out.

The draft Statement of Accounts for 2011-12 can be found here. Happy hunting!

Monday, 30 July 2012

Newham Council Bans Legal Observers From Stratford Park

Photo: Simon Shaw
It may come as little surprise to many that Newham council looks upon local people with deep suspicion, but with the huge Olympic policing and security operation now under way in Stratford, its decisions are quickly becoming a microcosm of the excesses that many predicted. Not only are council security guards searching people hoping to watch Games events at open-air screenings, but now the borough's officers have placed a ban on legal observers handing out civil rights information in public parks.

The council's "Newham Live" events take place in Central Park and Stratford Park, offering the chance, the council says, "to watch all the live action from the Olympic and Paralympic Games on two giant screens". It claims that "all events are free and open entry" but those attending are searched before they enter and there have been complaints this weekend that there are no female security staff at Stratford Park. Notices outside also say that by entering the park, the public agree to be photographed, ostensibly for Newham council's publicity but implying the  systematic recording of all those who are attending. Then today, Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) reported that its volunteer Community Legal Observers were banned from entering Stratford Park because the community group's stop and search rights cards are "making it easy for criminals and giving them tips".

The idea that providing people with information about their rights is in any way a threat to public order or likely to cause criminality is, of course, utterly ludicrous. It is also deeply insulting to local people, whom the council's security evidently look upon with immense distrust, a crowd ready to explode if it discovers that there is no need to provide their names and addresses if they are stopped by the police.

It seems that even the council recognises how ludicrous this is. After NMP made a complaint,  the council's Sue Meiners, Head of Events & Sponsorship, Communications Team Policy, Partnerships & Communications (what a job title!) fell back on the catch-all excuse for banning things: anti-social behaviour. She claimed that the rights cards were causing "litter". Bearing in mind that NMP has very limited funds for its work during the Olympics and its volunteers have been asked to hand out rights cards sparingly to those who actually want them, this seems very unlikely. But when NMP's Community Legal Observers generously offered to stop handing out any further cards, they were still asked to leave the park.

There are legitimate reasons for monitoring the police this summer and the role of legal observers is simply to record what they see, not to intervene. One of NMP's aims is that the very presence of legal observers and the scrutiny they provide may help to moderate potentially excessive policing. People who are prepared to give up their spare time in defence of civil liberties should be applauded for their public-spiritedness - dare I say it, their 'resilience' - not barred from entering a public space by Newham's security guards.

The council has yet to respond to the complaint it has received.from NMP. If it wants to avoid the 'Olympic brand' of the council that tried to ban civil rights protection during this summer's Games, it needs to overturn this mean-spirited decision and let NMP's volunteers get on with their important work.

To find out more about Newham Monitoring Project's Community Legal Observer programme, click here.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Mission Improbable - Photographing The Olympic Park

Over the next few weeks, there will be tens of thousands of photographs taken inside the Olympic Park, so there will be nothing remarkable about mine. Nevertheless, I bought a day pass to the park some months ago and wanted to take a look at the architecture, half-glimpsed over the last year as the construction carried on behind the high security fences (see results on Flickr). I also wanted to see what had happened to the River Lea, which I used to cycle by before construction on the site started.

So in spite of a longstanding scepticism about the Olympics dating back to 2004, this morning I headed over to Stratford and, following the advice of a friend who is an Olympic volunteer, I made my way into the secure zone via the Greenway entrance on Stratford High Street. She had been right: there was no queues and I pass through screening, carried out by soldiers drafted in as replacements for G4S, in under ten minutes.

Inside, the park was very much as expected, although little of the River Lea that I remember was familiar (see photos from today). Prominent reminders of the corporate sponsors were everywhere, with exuberant Coca Cola staff adopting a particularly American style of true-believer perkiness. There were more volunteers, the Games Makers, than was probably necessary at this stage (although the park will become busier when the athletics starts next Friday), armed police (right) on patrol and very few G4S staff. I think I spotted two all day.This being the 'Khaki Games', there was also a very significant military presence.

Mercifully, 'attractions' provided by the likes of BP seemed unappealing to the majority of visitors but queues for the London 2012 Megastore and the world's largest branch of McDonalds were long. It is clear that, like other modern mega-venues, the park is designed to encourage people to shop as much as enjoy the events. I'm glad I took advice, however, to bring in an empty water bottle (a full one won't pass security) and my own food, as everything is incredibly expensive.
Around one, the ominous black clouds over the stadium turned into a thunderstorm and it absolutely chucked it down. For some reason, the park's designers have offered little (non-retail) shelter in the event of rain in a British summer,  which meant that people had to improvise. Hundreds huddled under the bridges crossing the River Lea, an example of crowd behaviour that I don't think the planners ever expected. It was so packed (see below) that, had the park been busier, I can imagine someone tumbling off the river bank.
At around 3pm, by now thoroughly exhausted, I finally met up with my friend at the end of her shift and was able to fulfil the arrangement we'd made beforehand. It was a proud moment (below) as I became the first person to be photographed inside the Olympic Park wearing one of the Space Hijackers' Official Protester™ t-shirts. I guess this explains the extremely cheesy grin - but I also guess it may now be more difficult gaining entry in the future... One for the National Domestic Extremism Unit database I suspect.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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