Saturday 31 March 2012

Newham Police Racism - NMP Calls For CCTV Cameras In Every Police Van

Today's news has been full of the ugly face of racism in Newham's police, following the report in the Guardian about a young black man who recorded officers racially abusing him after he was stopped in Beckton.

This case first came to light with a press release from the Independent Police Complaints Commission on 14 September last year, after which Newham Monitoring Project contacted the young man and have been supporting him ever since. His case has attracted publicity now because of the disgraceful decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to bring no action against the officers whose abuse had been captured on the victim's mobile phone.The Director of Public Prosecutions has now agreed to review this decision after the threat of a judicial review from the lawyers NMP arranged for him. One officer, named as PC Alex MacFarlane, has been suspended.

The incident itself took place on Thursday 11 August, at a time when police officers had flooded the streets to enforce a crackdown in the aftermath of London's riots. However, the young man's car had been stopped at 6pm in a quiet street close to the Asda in Beckton and he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. He was taken to Forest Gate Police Station but no further action was taken against him for the suspected driving offence. The abuse he recorded took place in the back of the police van.

A spokesperson for Newham Monitoring Project gave the following comment:

"After years of re-branding its poor reputation on racial equality, the culture of racism within the Metropolitan police is still deeply embedded. Sadly, the shocking treatment of this young man at the hands of police officers, both the physical brutality he describes and the racial abuse he suffered are by no means unusual and quite illustrative of other reports we have received.

The CPS’ refusal to prosecute individual officers where such damning evidence of racial abuse exists is inexcusable. It is hard to think of what stronger proof could be provided and their failure to take action re-enforces the view that the police are still largely above the law.

Newham Monitoring Project has made the point that at times of increased tension, it is always black communities who seem to face the most repressive policing. With 12000 police officers again flooding the streets this summer for the Olympics, the failure of the CPS to send a message that racist policing will not be tolerated is astonishing - especially after the imprisonment of Liam Stacey for posting offensive comments on Twitter, when a senior CPS lawyer said "racist language is inappropriate in any setting" and cited the case as a warning to others.

NMP is calling for a far more robust approach from the CPS and for CCTV cameras to be placed in the back of all police vans. It says that without changes of this kind, people stopped by the police have no choice but to to take the risk of recording the police, even if this invites further assault and abuse. As their spokesperson said, "it's rare to capture and preserve evidence of this kind, it is highly risky and we commend the young man’s quick thinking and courage."

Friday 30 March 2012

Direct Action Against Olympic Plans At Leyton Marsh

Press statement here. Hat-tip: OccupyOlympics2012

Tuesday 27 March 2012

The Ongoing Battle Over PVE Transparency

Whilst I was away, Newham council responded to the Freedom of Information request I submitted on 20 February, which asked for "a detailed breakdown of the council's 'Preventing Violent Extremism' (PVE) spending in 2010-2011, including expenditure on PVE supported projects, information on salary costs, project expenditure, publicity or other budgeted items".

Unsurprisingly, their reply [PDF] did not included a detailed breakdown but rather a 'spending overview', which showed the following information:

Once again, this tells us very little. There is no detail on how the PVE-supported projects totalling just over £100,000 are broken down, although this represents (after staffing costs) the lion's share of the expenditure. It will also be necessary to submit a further FoI request to find out how many times the council's graffiti control officers responded to extremist vandalism and for what purpose - I know only of the incident in Plaistow where a Jewish resident 's home was daubed with swastikas and racist abuse and this was outside of the period covered by the PVE spending above. It would be helpful to know if the money was simply used instead to subsidise the council's overall response to graffiti and vandalism and if not, whether specific incidents of extremist graffiti indicate a more significant threat from the far-right than from Islamic fundamentalism. If this is the case, is this also reflected in other areas of PVE expenditure?

Getting information out of Newham council on PVE is still like trying to get blood out of a stone. The Freedom of Information Act makes clear that people requesting information have a right to all the relevant recorded information a public body holds and yet again, Newham has failed to provide it. A request for an internal review has now been submitted.

Why is this important? Because close to £400,000 of public money was spent on tackling local radicalisation, an issue that no participant in the research by the Office for Public Management mentioned in the spending overview (a report published in September 2010) said was "a particularly significant issue in Newham, especially when compared to wider issues of socio-economic deprivation in the borough".

As the Office for Public Management also reported, "mistrust of the agenda is also a function of people feeling that there has been a significant lack of information and communication about Prevent funding and delivery at the local level". As far as I can see, that significant lack of information and communication is still an ongoing issue.


I have tried to see whether the PVE 'overview' makes any more sense by comparing it to the budget that I eventually managed to drag out of Newham council last year. These are the results, based on guesses on what the different areas of expenditure actually relate to ( for example, I've assumed that the 'resettlement project' relates to work with prisoners, which was tendered to St Mungo's Trust).

Either the information provided is incomplete to a staggering degree, or the council had a major underspend in 2010-11. My view is that it simply misleading -yet again.

Monday 26 March 2012

Back From Travels To India

I haven't posted anything for a while because I have been away in India, visiting the Gilly Mundy memorial Community School in Haryana and spending a few days in Delhi: there was fairly limited internet access in the village and we were rushing around in the city.

The event that marked the fifth anniversary of Gilly's death in 2007 was huge, very emotional and it was great to see the school again after my first visit last October. It was also good to spend some time talking with the children, without the teachers present, to find out what they like about their school, what changes they would like to see and what hopes they have for the future - there are many aspiring teachers and engineers in this particular rural corner of India.

Delhi is a city that I have found it hard to warm to on previous visits, unlike Mumbai, which I love returning to. Having seen much of the vast number of incredible historical monuments in the city before, this time we were based in the more affluent south Delhi, staying in the Safdarjung Enclave and spending a lot of time in Haus Khas Village. I'll try and write more about this later, but the highlights were definitely weaving through the alleys leading up to the Nizamuddin Dargah to see the qawwali singers and being the only non-Punjabi male at a concert by the extremely popular singer Satinder Sataaj (although I missed some of it because I had to dash out with a dodgy stomach - inevitable in Delhi).

Meanwhile, here are some photos of the anniversary event:

Monday 12 March 2012

Does No-one REALLY Want To Protest At the Olympics?

Last Friday, the Metropolitan police assistant commissioner and national Olympic security co-ordinator, Chris Allison, told the Guardian that his officers are monitoring Twitter and other social media for signs of disorder and, in particular, for organised protest, but that “there doesn't appear to be anyone who wants to protest against the Games”. This seems like a pretty bold statement to make when there have been demonstrations of one kind or another in every previous Olympic host city. And even if Allison is at least partly right and no-one 'appears' to want to protest, is anyone wondering why so little has been formally announced, with just over four months to go before the opening ceremony?

It is undoubtedly the case that critical voices opposing the impact of the Olympics have been fairly weak and disjointed, so the underlying local unease and resentment that many of us are aware of has hardly registered amid the relentless cheerleading from the London Organising Committee and the corporate sponsors. However, speaking to people I work with locally, even those who are generally enthusiastic about the Games, this growing unease results from fears about the level of Olympic security and what it will mean in practice. I live just a mile away from the Olympic Stadium and it does seem less like an event we are actively part of and more like something about to crash-land on us at any moment. For example, the imminent presence of large numbers of armed police brings back memories, particularly strong within Asian communities, of the anti-terrorism raids in Forest Gate in 2006, when one of my neighbours, who had no involvement in the conspiracy that dubious police ‘intelligence’ accused him of, was shot and then held in Paddington Green police station for days on end. No Londoner, meanwhile, can forgot the terrible fate that awaited Jean Charles de Menezes as he travelled to Stockwell station in 2005, a matter of weeks after the announcement of the successful London bid, or that heightened tension can easily lead to panicked mistakes with frightening consequences.

Anyone planning to exercise their right to freely assembly and to publicly express their views by staging a protest will have strong memories too – memories of marches and pickets swamped by police, memories of pre-emptive arrests before last year’s Royal wedding (which Allison says could happen again), memories of demonstrators manhandled, arrested and occasionally facing charges that are later quietly dropped. The introduction of the Metropolitan police’s new “total policing” approach, supposedly about taking a tough line against crime, has also represented a wholesale rejection of the apparently more tolerant approach that followed the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s ‘Adapting to Protest’ report in 2009.

The result has been to make many people wonder whether taking part in protest, even entirely peaceful acts of dissent, is an increasingly dangerous choice – and whether the greatest threat to their safety comes from the highly aggressive unformed officers that surround them. As I am now physically disabled and in chronic pain because of the cycle accident I suffered in March 2010, I can speak with experience on this – over the last two years I have been repeatedly forced to choose to stay away from protests I’ve wanted to participate in, because of the realistic prospect of being pushed around and assaulted by officers intent on ‘total containment’. In these circumstances and with an evident intention to deliver the 'perfect' Games, one that from the police’s point of view is incident-free, why would anyone concerned with their safety choose to willingly mark themselves out as a ‘protest organiser’, a target for the next four months, by announcing anything now?

Then there is the issue of where to protest near enough to the Olympic sites in order to achieve the fundamental reason for holding one in the first place – to make an impact, to ensure that a minority voice is not ignored. Much of the built environment of newly regenerated east London, like the Westfield Shopping Centre and its surroundings, are already closed off, privately-owned, patrolled by uniformed guards and monitored by CCTV. What little of the ‘public domain’ remains is gradually disappearing under a blanket of buffer zones and security cordons.

Anyone wanting to hold a protest in, say, Stratford and taking up Chris Allison’s offer to “come and speak to us” is likely to find themselves shunted down a back street, well away from any possibility of attracting attention or making a difference. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if, in the coming months, we hear an announcement of the kind of “authorised protest zonethat have been a feature at every Olympic Games since Sydney in 2000. The Metropolitan police now has such a narrow definition of “freedom of speech” that it sees the act of staging a protest as an end in itself, even one that has zero influence, is stuck behind a three-deep line of fluorescent jackets and where participants can talk to nobody but each other. But after years of ineffectual protests like this, fewer and fewer people see any value in this kind of approach.

So whilst the level of protest at this year’s Olympics is unlikely to replicate the strength of opposition seen, for example, during the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, my guess is that the Met’s recent heavy-handed approach to the policing of protest will directly result in sporadic, mobile affinity-group demonstrations that are unlikely to be widely publicised on Facebook or Twitter but organised by people who know and trust each other. This is certainly the feeling I picked up from some activists I spoke to at the Counter Olympic conference in January. I also suspect that many people (disabled or otherwise) who are fearful of the risk of arrest and assault will reluctantly have no part in them – even something that involves little more than a peaceful but unauthorised stunt or ‘flash mob’.

Ironically, by making it so difficult for larger numbers to demonstrate effectively during the Olympics, the direct consequence may be protests that the police find impossible to contain. Frankly, they have no-one to blame but themselves.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Yesterday's Save Leyton Marsh Rally

Yesterday afternoon, local people in Leyton held a rally against the enclosure of Leyton Marsh for the Olympics, which resonates with our own campaign in defence of Wanstead Flats.

Waltham Forest council has granted planning permission for the construction of a temporary Basketball training centre on the Marshes and work has already begun. The newly established campaign is seeking a judicial review, which as we know is a difficult process, especially when the courts are reluctant to stand in the way of the Olympics juggernaut. Anyway, this is what Wanstead Flats will look like from June - only with 11 foot high fencing. Here are some photos:

Friday 9 March 2012

Security Contract Pushes Costs of Olympics Towards £11 Billion

Today the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that the £9.3 billion Public Sector Funding Package for this summer's Olympics is close to running out, because of a £271 million increase in the cost of security for the venues and £41 million for more extravagant opening and closing ceremonies. The report states that "the increase in the overall cost of venue security is the main reason why the Public Sector Funding Package is now so finely balanced". In a statement, the committee chair Margaret Hodge now estimates that the full cost to the public of the Games and legacy projects is "already heading for around £11 billion".

The report highlights that in December 2010, the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) contracted with the global private security firm G4S to provide 2000 guards, expected that the remainder would come from volunteers and a government funded programme through colleges of further education. By the end of 2011, however, the overall estimated number of security guards required had more than doubled to a maximum of 23700 on peak days. This is why the Ministry of Defence has agreed to provide 7500 military personnel to work during the Games, in addition to around 3300 civilian volunteers. The remaining requirement of 13000 will be supplied by G4S.

G4S has done very well financially out of the barrel that LOCOG finds itself bent over. Following the renegotiation of the contract, there has been a 6-fold increase in the number of security guards it provides - but a nearly 9-fold increase in programme management costs (from £7 million to £60 million) and more than a 20-fold increase in operational costs (from £3 million to £65 million). The value of the contract has risen from £86 million in December 2010 to £284 million in December 2011. The Public Accounts Committee says that "it is not clear from the information provided to us that the increased costs under the contract with G4S reflect only the changed requirements, or whether, they are also the consequence of renegotiating the contract in a non-competitive environment".

Sadly, the reality is that like everything else to do with the Olympics, the costs remain obscured by a lack of transparency. After all, it was only a week ago that the government was claiming that more than £100m of the £9.3bn budget would be handed back to the Treasury. What we do know is that the biggest beneficiaries of the Olympics are more likely to be companies like G4S than local people - the profits of its UK operations rose by 11% in 2011 to £50 million.

Monday 5 March 2012

Some Thoughts On Unite's New Community Membership

Back in December, my union Unite announced that it would become the first trade union in Britain to open its membership to the unemployed, students and others not in paid work, including retirees. For 50p per week, community members would have access to the union’s financial and legal support, but as Unite’s press release made clear, they hope that community members will become campaigners against cuts in services:

Community members will be developed as community activists, bringing together people across their locality who have felt left down or excluded by politics to ensure that they too have a voice at a time of economic turmoil and social change for the nation.

The idea not only reaching out to a new constituency but specifically training new members as campaigning community organisers is an exciting development, one that I really want to succeed. I was delighted to receive an invitation to take part in Unite’s first Community Members training course last week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

The first problem was that Unite forgot, in their enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly a ground-breaking approach for British trade unionism, that there are very few genuinely new ideas – and community organising certainly isn’t one of them. There is a wealth of experience out there already about building permanent community-level campaigning networks. Saul Alinksy’s book ‘Rules for Radicals’, has been in print since 1971 and there are organising models from grassroots activist groups in the US like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and MoveOn to faith-based organizations like Citizens UK to learn from. There are some very useful resources online, including this from Education Action. Even the government is funding a Community Organisers programme as a pillar of its ‘Big Society’ nonsense, although inevitably this version avoids any critical perspective on economic inequality and seems more concerned with self-help and reducing ‘dependence’ on the state.

Whether people agree or disagree with Alinksy’s insistence on working inside the system, are troubled by the evangelism of Citizens UK and its rather dismissive attitude towards mobilising individuals rather than institutions, or even endorse the concept of full or part time "Community Leaders" (I don't, as it happens), the point is that there is no need for Unite to start from scratch. At the very least, it would have been sensible to consult first with the union’s own voluntary and community sector branches and then talk to local and national organisations (the National Coalition for Independent Action, for instance), to draw up materials tailored to the specific needs of training community-based campaigners.

For that’s the second problem to overcome: organising in the workplace is very different from community campaigning. People are usually in daily contact with their work colleagues, union meetings are usually held in the workplace and the solidarity of trade unionism is built predominantly around employment issues. Staying in touch with a community network of members, particularly those who are stuck at home, who are busy searching for work or who have childcare responsibilities, throws up completely different challenges. How do they stay in touch and where do they meet? There is the question too of what interests and issues are likely to motivate people to become community organisers - and if we want durable community branches, how do we ensure members remain motivated? The argument has to be more than ‘the cuts are bad’, which may be a reason why people might support a local anti-cuts coalition, but how is union-affiliated community membership different? And who are Unite hoping will become the coordinators of local community branches – presumably not overstretched workplace organisers? So who?

I attended the Unite course hoping to find some answers to these questions, but instead sat through a rehashed version of its workplace activist training and was expected to flag up the many problems with it. This was incredibly frustrating, especially as I had taken annual leave to attend (those of us who aren’t already shop stewards don’t get time off for union work and as I’ve said, busy workplace organisers are the last people who should be at a course for a completely new way of campaigning). It struck me that in its haste to roll out its new level of membership, Unite had carried out too little preparation and had simply taken too many short cuts. I was almost relieved that unexpected events at work meant I couldn’t attend the second day.

In a slightly mischievous article in 2008 on the difference between community organising and other forms of activism, Aaron Schultz said:

Activists feel very good about how they are "fighting the power." But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don't accomplish much.

I largely agree - this could almost be a fifty word explanation of the general failure of the left to build sustainable institutions and movements. In the context of Unite’s community membership, it’s not enough to just announce a new way forward with little understanding of how to get there. I still really want this initiative to succeed, but based on experience so far, there is still an awful lot more thinking and planning to undertake if this is even a possibility.

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