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.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Isn't monitoring Twitter and other social network sites a euphemism for hacking? It might be a bit lame but my own protest will be not to be within 100 miles of Newham whilst the games are on.

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