Sunday 29 April 2012

Remember Altab Ali

A reminder that this Friday (4 May) at 6pm, there is a rally to mark the anniversary of the racist murder of Altab Ali and to celebrate the anti-racist movement that grew in the East End in the late 1970s in response to his death.

On 4 May 1978, Altab Ali, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi clothing worker, was murdered by three teenage boys near the corner of Adler Street and Whitechapel Road, by St Mary's Churchyard (now renamed Altab Ali Park). His death mobilised the Bangladeshi community against the National Front and led to the creation of the Bangladesh Youth Movement. On 14 May more than 7000 people, predominantly Bangladeshis, took part in a demonstration against racial violence, marching behind Altab Ali’s coffin to Hyde Park.

Speakers this Friday include  Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushnara Ali, Tower Hamlets councillor Rajonuddin Jalal, Megan Dobney (SERTUC), the Rt Revd Adrian Newman (Bishop of Stepney), the author Mike Rosen and Dan Jones.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Plans Confirmed For Missiles Over Olympic Site

MoD Leaflet
This afternoon, the journalist Brian Whelan conformed, in a series of updates from his Twitter account, that the army plan to site a ground-to-air missile battery on the roof of the private apartment block in Bow where he lives, close to the Olympic site:
Kate Draper has also tweeted that she has received a similar leaflet:
The leaflet above (click to enlarge) indicates that the army plans to use Rapier missiles developed by Paris-based MBDA (formerly Matra BAe Dynamics UK) and the Starstreak HVM (High Velocity Missile), which the army says "is designed to counter threats from very high performance, low-flying aircraft and fast 'pop up' strikes by helicopter attacks".

There's a useful outline of Brian's tweets on this discovery and the issues it raises at the Latent Existence blog, which rightly speculates what on earth a missile battery over London would be used for: I have my doubts that prospective terrorists are capable of 'pop up helicopter strikes', so the obvious answer is shooting down a passenger plane in the event of a hijacking. But its also worth remembering that missiles can and do mis-fire - as this one filmed in the Falkland Islands did in early 2009. If something similar happened in east London, it is sobering to think that it's Whelan's neighbours that are under all that high explosive

Thursday 26 April 2012

Alternative Olympics Volunteering Opportunity: Become A Community Legal Observer

This is a piece I wrote for Red Pepper that wasn't used due to lack of space.

We are just months away from the London Olympics and preparations are almost complete. The venues are finished, the landscaping of the Olympic Park is underway and the ticket sales have been healthy, if controversial. With £9.2 billion to spend, there was never any doubt that the Olympic organisers would be ready, but one uncertainty remains, at least for local people: what impact will security for the Games have on those living near to the main Olympic venues in east London? Recent news coverage has tended to focus on the nation's preparedness against a major terrorist incident: on the deployment of ground-to-air missiles, on training sorties by the RAF and the Royal Marines practising with Metropolitan Police officers in speedboat exercises on the Thames. However, with an estimated 9 million additional visitors to London over the summer, an unprecedented and massive policing operation in London is what we are more likely to experience every day. I live just a mile away from the Olympic Stadium and for those of us who live in Newham, the Games feels less like an event we are part of and more something about to crash-land on us at any moment.

Speaking to people I work with locally, even those who are enthusiastic about the Games, has highlighted a growing unease that as more Olympic security provisions are introduced, public space is gradually disappearing under a blanket of buffer zones and security cordons. Land that has been used for years by local people for recreation, such as Wanstead Flats and Leyton Marsh, has been appropriated and will be fenced off for use by the Olympic organisers, despite vociferous objections from nearby residents. We have no idea how close we dare approach these controlled areas and what may happen if we do.

Meanwhile, parts of the built environment of newly regenerated east London, like the Westfield Shopping Centre and its surroundings, are already privately-owned, patrolled by uniformed guards and monitored by CCTV. In a drive to delivery the 'perfect' Games, these measures – backed by a massive budget driving new technologies that are better able to watch over us – are spreading outwards. For example, the whole of Newham will be patrolled during the Games by a fleet of vehicles using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) surveillance to monitor whether vehicles are owned by residents, backed by a new team of 'enforcement officers'. Everyone also expects the street-level containment of Stratford will involve a huge increase in the random and intrusive use of stop & search powers by the police, which even the local council's own research acknowledges is already a major cause of resentment amongst young people. With anything up to 23700 additional private security personnel on duty, there are also real concerns about how well these minimally-trained G4S staff will understand the limits on their powers – and whether anyone will really care too much if they exceed them.

 Unlike at previous Games, critical voices opposing the impact of the Olympics have been fairly weak and disjointed, so underlying local unease and resentment hardly registers against the relentless cheerleading from the London Organising Committee or the corporate sponsors. The realistic prospect of protest in east London during the Games is also low, not least because there is so little public space near to the main venue where it can even take place. That is why the focus for Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), the campaign group I am part of, is mainly to ensure that local people are aware of their rights this summer and have a way of seeking redress if they believe their civil liberties have been ignored. We are offering a dedicated Olympics telephone helpline backed by case workers, a basic rights information card, legal workshops for youth and community groups and, for the first time, trained Community Legal Observers near to event venues. Amidst the many people in fluorescent jackets around Stratford during the Games, we felt there should be some concerned primarily about the civil rights of local residents to carry on with their lives as normal.

There are also important practical reasons for monitoring the impact of the Olympics this summer. Having supported the family of Jean Charles de Menezes after he was shot dead at Stockwell station in 2005, a matter of weeks after the announcement of the successful London bid had been followed by an appalling attack on London commuters, NMP is very conscious that it is never more important to scrutinise policing and security than at times of heightened tension. Even if the chances of a major incident are slim, we have all seen how the possibility of panicked mistakes with frightening consequences are real.

 There is the issue, too, of the 'Olympic security inheritance'. The fencing and 'sterile zones', the CCTV cameras, the carefully crafted public order and anti-terrorism planning and the new technologies were intended to remain long after the Games are over. We know, for instance, that Newham council plans to buy the ANPR vehicles and keep its 'enforcement database', whilst east London's newest permanent sporting venue will inevitably require high levels of security well in the future (it hosts the World Athletics Championships in 2017). London 2012 is therefore a testing ground for a legacy that few people expected back in 2005, one designed to place severe limits on uncontrolled public space in east London with relative ease. As other host cities have shown, the surveillance and communication systems designed to monitor traffic and the movement of visitors also happen to be very helpful in monitoring public gatherings and the maintenance of 'public order'.

To volunteer to become a Community Legal Observer with NMP over the Olympic Games period, contact

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Newham's 'Social Cleansing' An Inevitable Consequence of Olympic Gentrification

The coverage today about Newham council's shocking decision to write to more than 1179 housing associations to try to move families claiming housing benefit to other parts of the country has been presented as a battle over the government's housing benefits cap. Housing Minister Grant Shapps has accused the council of "playing politics" in the run-up to the local elections and insisted there no justification for forcing families out of London.

But there is more to this story than how best to tackle long waiting lists and whether the council can afford to place families in private accommodation. It may well be true, as the council claims, that the government's new weekly limit on housing benefit (between £250 for a one-bedroom flat and £400 for a four-bedroom property) is already starting to push people out of expensive parts of London into Newham. However, the letter it sent to the Stoke-based Brighter Futures Housing Association makes clear that one of the main reasons why the local private rental sector in the borough is beginning to "overheat" is the "onset of the Olympic Games and the buoyant young professionals market".

As Dr Mary Smith of the University of East London's London East Research Institute explained in A report on the impacts of the Olympic Games and Paralympics on host cities [PDF] in 2008:
“Olympic host cities usually see rises in house prices due to an expectation of inward investment, a belief in regenerative abilities of the Olympics to change the neighbourhoods around it, value and kudos accruing to the Olympic area as a site of some symbolic worth, and a process of gentrification in areas surrounding the Olympics”.
Dr Smith adds that “as a result, each modern Olympics has displaced people – whether from their homes or accommodation”. The result in Sydney in 2000 was that in ‘greatly accelerated gentrification corridor’ in the district leading from the centre of the city, house prices rose exponentially and there was “a move into the area by middle income professionals and an eventual move out by lower income earners or those on government benefits who were hit worst by the rises in rent, or at least could not guard against them”. What we are seeing in Newham is the same effect – an inevitable consequence, it seems, of becoming an Olympic host city.

However, there is another reason why Newham, unlike other Labour councils, has taken the drastic decision to transport people on benefits out of the borough. Gentrification, regeneration and the influx of a new middle-class has long been central to the council's vision of the borough's future and as the Newham Recorder pointed out today, Mayor Sir Robin Wales “has spoken previously about the post-Games regeneration of the likes of Stratford and Canning Town resulting in more people being attracted to living in the borough”. Having 'the UK's largest regeneration project' in Newham may 'overheat' the market but if it is a choice between the 'buoyant young professionals' and the homeless, a Mayor who has persistently linked housing entitlement to worklessness (it's a common thread through the council's “Sustainable Community Strategy”) will always blame the 'undeserving poor' and their failure to find a job.

Displacement is always, as Mary Smith observes, “a matter of planning and priority”. Choosing to ignore the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable is why the the council is prepared to ship the 'problem' elsewhere, no matter how traumatic this may be for the people who are forced to move and who may have depended on their neighbours and their local communities. It is also why, regardless of the housing benefits cap, the accusation of 'social cleansing' by the council is entirely legitimate.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Anti-Terror Police Powers Re-Emerge in Time For Olympics

So what new police powers that restrict people's freedom of movement can we expect during the Olympics this summer? The answer lies in the ironically titled “Protection of Freedoms Bill”, which was introduced in February 2011 to 'restore freedoms and civil liberties through the abolition of identity cards and unnecessary laws'. The Bill includes a revision of anti-terrorism stop and search powers that had been abused so routinely that the European Court of Human Rights ruled they were illegal in January 2010. What is strange is the government plans to hang onto a hastily cobbled-together interim power that, according to statistics, is never used.

The contentious anti-terrorism stop and search powers were under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allowed police officers to stop and search pedestrians and vehicles without needing any suspicion. As a result of the European Court's ruling, the Home Secretary issued a remedial order in May 2011 under the Human Rights Act, which repealed immediately sections 44 to 47 of the 2000 Act and introduced a new section 47A, which was supposed to be more more targeted, proportionate and relate only to a specific area or place.

The only difference, however, was that authorisation to use section 47A powers required a senior officer to “reasonably suspect that an act of terrorism will take place” and considers that “(i) the authorisation is necessary to prevent such an act; (ii) the specified area or place is no greater than is necessary to prevent such an act; and (iii) the duration of the authorisation is no longer than is necessary to prevent such an act.” After that, there was very little real change: section 47A still did not require an police officer to have reasonable suspicion that a person was a likely terrorist. The remedial order still said that powers "may be exercised whether or not the constable reasonably suspects that there is such evidence".

Stop and search in the Protection of Freedoms Bill is covered under sections 58 to 63 of the draft legislation, which is currently working its way through Parliament. Subject to any amendments, its wording is currently identical to the existing section 47A powers. In this sense it is not 'new', but what is interesting is that last month, a Home Office Statistical Bulletin [PDF] revealed that police have ceased using anti-terrorism stop and search powers completely. From April to September 2011, a period that included a royal wedding and a host of different street protests, there was not a single section 47A search. This seems to back up the argument made by many of us that separate anti-terrorism stop and search powers are completely unnecessary. So why hang on to section 47A in the name of 'protecting freedom'?

One answer is likely to be intense lobbying from senior levels of the police to keep these powers and reintroduce them at a time when the stain of their misuse can be wiped away. As we have seen over the last six months, the Olympics has provided an ideal opportunity for demanding ever greater security provisions that are likely to turn east London into a semi-militarised zone. There seems little doubt that places like Stratford will be designated as specific areas where there is 'reasonable suspicion' - the whole Olympics security industry has been telling us an attempted attack on the Games is almost inevitable. The Protection of Freedoms Bill will become law just before the start of the Olympics and it is therefore highly likely that anti-terrorism stop and search 'necessary to prevent' a potential outrage will return with a vengeance over the summer. In an area like Newham, it is obvious who the most likely candidates for such stops and searches are likely to be, I think it is telling that the local police, when pressed by Newham Monitoring Project recently to explain the likely impact of the Olympics on the disproportionate use of all the different stop and search powers on black and Asian residents, were so reluctant to respond.

This is one of those Olympics legacies. Powers that the police were briefly forced to stop using because of the controversy around their misuse - powers that the last 12 months suggest weren't that important in the first place - start to make a reappearance under the guise of unique circumstances. What these powers replace is essentially little different from what preceded them, but they emerge refreshed and reinvigorated from the cleansing influence of a 'successful Olympic security operation'. In a couple of years, civil rights campaigners are back complaining that powers supposedly targeting 'terrorists' are being used excessively against ordinary citizens.

And all this happens, with typical British hypocrisy, under the guise of 'Protection of Freedoms'. No wonder efforts to restrain the growth of more and more unnecessary police powers often feels like a war of attrition.

Friday 20 April 2012

LAZY FRIDAY - Happy Birthday David

It has been a while since I offered a Lazy Friday video for your enjoyment but this is quite brilliant: I only hope the movie itself is as good. Introducing the David 8 - Michael Fassbender's android character in Ridley Scott's Aliens prequel "Prometheus".

Tuesday 17 April 2012

ASBOs Are Latest Weapon Against Olympics Dissent

An ‘interim ASBO’ (anti-social behaviour order) given to one of the three people arrested during a protest at Leyton Marsh on 10 April gives an indication of the kind of harsh restrictions likely to face anyone daring to protest against the Olympics this summer.

Simon Moore, who along with Daniel Ashman and Anita Olivacce pleaded guilty to breaching Section 14 of the Public Order Act, after refusing to comply with police instructions to leave. All three also refused to pay a £200 fine and were therefore sentenced to five days imprisonment. On leaving Belmarsh prison in Thamesmead on Saturday, Simon was handed details of the ASBO by a Detective Sergeant from the Metropolitan Police’s Public Order Operational Command Unit (CO11), which prohibits the following activities:

  • Entering or remaining within 100 yards of any existing or proposed Olympic competition or practice venue or route or participant’s residence within England or Wales.

  • Entering or remaining within 100 yards of any road being used on that day for the passage of the Olympic torch or on which any Olympic practice or competition is taking place, e.g. the Marathon, within England or Wales.

  • Trespassing on, or without the permission of the owner to interfere with, any building or land.

  • Taking part in any activity that disrupts the intended or anticipated official activities of the Olympic Games or Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

  • Obstructing the movement or passage of any Olympic participant between their residence, practice venue, or place of work, and venues being used for competition or cultural purposes.

According to the order, "participants" include competitors, accredited officials and spectators, at or in the vicinity of venues at which Olympic events are taking place or are anticipated or intended to take place. "Diamond Jubilee celebrations" relates only to the State Opening of Parliament 9th May, the Royal River Pageant and other Jubilee events from 2nd-5th June and the Trooping of the Colour on 16th June.

Essentially, large areas of central and east London have potentially become prohibited spaces for Simon from May until the end of September, although I imagine the order will be vigorously challenged. But it looks as though ASBOs with widely drawn prohibitions are likely to become one of the weapons - along with pre-emptive arrests - that are used against Olympics opponents engaged in peaceful protest.

Monday 16 April 2012

More Olympic Poster Madness

There has been a steady flow of e-mails about the Olympics poster competition I announced last year and reported on in January, with more late entries arriving. Here are a few of my favourite - thanks to Smuzz and PK Monroe for these designs:


This is brilliant: a response "to being instructed by an ODA project manager telling me to be excited by the Games as he explained how he was building over Leyton Marsh".

Sunday 15 April 2012

The Austerity Games: Some Thoughts On Yesterday's Counter Olympics Meeting

One of the reasons why I generally oppose the exclusion of the media from activist events, unless people are genuinely planning something that is likely to end in their arrest, is that outsiders can bring something useful to any discussion: they can help prevent activists from reinforcing each others assumptions and make us explain why we are planning to organise action. Clearly, the Bishopsgate Institute near Spitalfields Market, the venue for yesterday's Counter Olympics planning meeting, is hardly the place for clandestine plotting – it was a publicly advertised event, with two City of London police officers standing outside with very little to do. Yet journalists were asked to leave after the morning session. That's the decision of the organisers – it was their meeting, after all – but before leaving, one young journalist I was chatting to about the level of opposition to the Olympics in east London asked me what I thought were some very good questions: if someone gave me a ticket for the men's 100m final, wouldn't I take it? Wouldn't I want to be part of this incredibly exciting event?

I think I answered honestly by saying I'd want to sell the ticket (an act that definitely would be arrestable – touting is one of the greatest offences against the unprecedentedly powerful London Olympic committee), but I didn't have time to properly explain why I fail to share the apparently overwhelming enthusiasm for the Games this summer. This is important because one of the biggest challenges for those of us who are unhappy about the Games is to coherently articulate why all the unrelenting pro-Games propaganda is hiding some ugly truths about what the Olympics, for all the values it claims to represent, has really become.

But lets be clear from the start. I meet a lot of people in Newham through work and whilst there is an underlying scepticism, even indifference, about the promised Olympic legacy (hardened by how few locals seem to have managed to get tickets), as well as widespread concerns about the level of heavy-handed security and general expectations of severe inconvenience, most people are genuinely excited about this summer. In many ways, the tidal wave of Olympic boosterism is largely unnecessary. This is why, when I hear talk of “mass opposition” over the summer, I wonder where some activists think it will magically spring from. There is an obvious reason for the excitement that the majority of people feel – it's a yearning for some kind of collective experience, a desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves, the reason why people cram themselves into football grounds, church pews, cinemas and occasionally, street protests. In the case of the Olympics, it doesn't matter that few people really care that much about track events, swimming, the Keirin or beach volleyball, all fairly minor sports compared to, say, football or cricket. The Games are massive, a global event – why wouldn't anyone want to be part of something that hugely collective?

It's only when people start to notice that the dedication of the sportsmen and women is almost incidental to the Olympic sponsors and their desire to convince a global audience to buy stuff, or the governments and security institutions looking for a long-term political gain, that the doubts start to creep in. Is spending almost £10 billion, probably far more, on what is essentially a form of entertainment, in the midst of mounting austerity and with most cuts yet to hit home, really such a good idea? Why are the Olympic organisers so desperate to defend companies like Dow and BP, whilst claiming to believe in an 'ethical' and 'environmentally sustainable' Games? Why is McDonalds, a worldwide purveyor of fatty burgers and greasy fries, the official food retailer of an event associated with athleticism and fitness? Is significantly curtailing hard-won civil liberties – which are more difficult to hang on to than to give away – a price worth paying for the security of six weeks of sport? And what will we be left with once the circus packs up and heads out of town?

In some ways, the issue isn't about whether there are protests this summer, how big they are or what form they take. It's more about encouraging people to start to think differently about the Games, to ask awkward questions, to look beyond the high-pressure marketing. Many Olympic years are remembered for something other than what happens in the venues: in 1936 it was the appropriation of the Olympics by the Nazis, in 1980 we had the Cold War Games, in Vancouver in 2010 it was indigenous opposition to the theft of land. We have to try and make sure London 2012 is remembered as the Austerity Games, when the same global capitalists whose gambles almost bankrupted economies around the world were given billions that could have helped alleviate crippling cuts so they could try to rebuild their markets and profits.

It may be to late – organised opposition to this year's Games remains small. But next time a journalist asks if I'd happily accept a ticket for the men's 100m final, the answer won't just be that I'm not particularly interested in athletics. It will also be that a huge sales opportunity for companies to make vast amounts of money simply isn't the kind of collective experience most of us are eagerly searching for.

Friday 13 April 2012

NMP Calls For Newham Pilot Scheme For CCTV In Police Vans Before Olympics

Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) is launching a campaign calling for the Metropolitan police to install CCTV cameras in the back of police vans as soon as possible.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has said both on London radio station LBC and at a roadshow at Lambeth College a few days ago that he is broadly sympathetic to the idea, but NMP wants the Met to make an immediate start with a pilot scheme in Newham, where the local police have been rocked by racism allegations, that is in place before this summer's Olympics.

NMP has set up a petition online and has issued the following campaign statement:

Thanks to the courage and quick-thinking of Mauro Demetrio, who managed to record racist insults by police officers in the back of a police van in Newham, the Crown Prosecution Service has been forced to review its initial decision to take no action against any officer involved in his alleged ill-treatment.

What Mauro's experiences highlight are long-standing concerns about the potential risk posed to the personal safety of individual members of the public who are arrested and detained by the state. In the absence of robust systems of accountability, this risk is far greater when there is inadequate monitoring of such detention, especially inside a police vehicle.

Cameras to monitor citizens are now unfortunately commonplace in almost every part of public life, but the same enthusiasm for their use has never been shown where they are most needed – in the back of police vans transporting detainees. CCTV in police vehicles would provide greater protection to potentially vulnerable members of the public and, equally, to police officers themselves: cameras would provide strong evidence in disputed cases of alleged misconduct.

Following the recent public outcry over Mauro Demetrio's treatment, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe indicated that he might consider support the installation of CCTV cameras in police vans, although he has gave no indication of when this might be implemented.

Whilst we recognise that rolling out a nationwide scheme may take time and money, the Home Secretary must respond to public concerns and take action to rebuild public confidence at the earliest opportunity. Millions of pounds from the public purse have already been spent on preparing London for the Olympics, which includes increased levels of policing. We believe an essential part of this huge investment should be set aside to take reasonable steps to prevent potential abuses of civil liberties.

We call on the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to prioritise this issue and take steps now so that, as a absolute minimum, there is a pilot scheme of CCTV cameras in operation in police vans in the main Olympic host borough, Newham, by the start of the Olympics on July 27th 2012.

Next week, the Met Commissioner is in Newham, speaking at the University of East London's Duncan House campus in Stratford on “Policing in the 21st Century” and activists from NMP will be pressing him there to agree to pilot CCTV cameras in police vans in the main Olympic host borough. The group is also asking people to sign the petition and to spread the word on FaceBook and Twitter (using the hashtag #policevancam).

Thursday 12 April 2012

Resilience In Action: Council To Offer 'Motivational Support'

Local advice agencies in Newham are launching a campaign, starting with a FaceBook page and online petition, to try and stop the destruction of 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.

For the last eight years, Newham council has funded independent advice services for Newham residents and since 2008, it has commissioned a consortium of eight voluntary groups to deliver these services to the hard-to-reach communities they work with. However, at the end of July 2011, the council cut all funding for advice work and November 2011 – at a meeting lasting just 18 minutes – Mayor Sir Robin Wales’ Cabinet agreed a plan to radically change the way advice is offered in the borough. In future, all advice services will be provided by its own officers, but these new arrangements do not commence until April 2013. This leaves a 21-month period when local people will have no access to independent advice on housing, debt and welfare benefits.

What this is really about is the council’s ‘Building Resilience’ project - the gradual withdrawal of the local state beyond a core of support for the most vulnerable, leaving more of us dependent on making our own arrangements. This is a classic slice of New Labour authoritarianism that is essentially blames people for their poverty and provides a dubious ideological justification for local cuts. The council’s vision for how Newham’s residents will access advice shows what ‘resilience’ really means in practice and is frankly astonishing, really out there on the fringes: It proposes a three tier system:

Tier 1: A website (as yet, not created) with general information about housing, debt and benefits

Tier 2: Council officers telling people to resolve their problems for themselves using the website.

Tier 3: From April 2013, the council offering people with housing, debt and benefit problems one-to-one “motivational support” by a member of council staff – but only if they have lived in Newham for at least two years, have not used the Tier 3 service before and only if they have been referred by another council officer.

Incredibly, 'motivational support' will focus on reducing any individual's reliance on public services rather than advice based solely on their best interests. New arrivals to the borough, such as women fleeing domestic violence, will be shut out completely.

This is Newham so inevitably there has been no consultation with users of advice services or the expert organisations who support them. Indeed, the plan ignores advocacy on the behalf of clients completely, as well as the principle that advice should always be independent and impartial. Worse still, it discriminates against the needs and interests of the borough’s most vulnerable by prioritising instead the needs and interests of Newham’s ‘Building Resilience’ policy.

The council acknowledges that this plan carries significant risk: that vulnerable people might not receive advice because they do not meet the residency criteria, that it may be difficult to manage the demand for housing and homelessness advice and that changes to legal aid will make it more difficult for those in debt to challenge court actions. Its solution is to identify other already hard-pressed, underfunded services that it can 'signpost' people to rather than fund. The council also plans to 'lobby' for the Money Advice Service - which was set up by government and funded by a levy on the financial services industry - to offer debt advice in the borough.

But ultimately this plan is really about cuts, rather than people's needs - not only the £284,820 funding to the Newham Advice Consortium in 2010/11 but a "savings target of £1m" across the local authority by the end of the current financial year.

Cuts dressed up as 'innovation' - as it is rolled out, the council's "Building Resilience" project looks more and more like Cameron's Big Society every day.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Independent Monitoring Leaves Newham Police In Turmoil

In an episode worthy of any during its long, 32-year history of holding public bodies to account, the community-based civil liberties group Newham Monitoring Project has managed to create turmoil within the borough's police, which is rocked by allegations of racism within its ranks that has led to the suspension of an acting sergeant and two PCs - allegations were that were triggered by the support NMP has provided to Mauro Demetrio, the 21-year old who secretly recording officers racially abusing him.

On Wednesday, the acting Borough Commander Craig Haslam sent a damage limitation e-mail around to residents saying that he "wanted to take this opportunity to reiterate, clearly and categorically, that there is no place for racism in the Metropolitan Police Service and here at Newham." The evidence, however, does rather suggest otherwise - indeed, had it not been for one young man's quick-thinking and courage in recording on his mobile the racist behaviour of officers based in Forest Gate, it is doubtful that anyone at a senior level would have taken his claims seriously. Even with this overwhelming evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service took no action until the Guardian, with NMP's help, released the recording. What is evident is that without independent scrutiny provided by groups like NMP (and few parts of the country have similar local organisations), most complainants can have few expectation that their allegations will lead to even the most limited justice and accountability, never mind real change within the police.

As the testimony of another Newham resident Terelle Ferguson shows, Mauro Demetrio's experiences are, sadly, far from unique in east London. I know that Newham Monitoring Project frequently receives reports of discriminatory behaviour by police officers and most rarely attract the headlines we have seen over the last week. This is why NMP activists argue that there is an unchallenged culture of racism embedded within the Metropolitan police, a culture that is all the more alarming at a local level because Newham is the main Olympic host borough and at the heart of the huge security operation planned for this summer.

The front-line of the discrimination monitored by NMP remains the use of police powers to stop and search, the blunt instrument that disproportionately targets black and minority residents. Of particular concern is the use of powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which are most prone to accusations of racial profiling. A Freedom of Information request last year revealed that in Newham, the use of section 60 rose from 251 stops in 2007 to 6503 in 2010, a staggering 2540% increase. The expected deluge of stop and search over the period of the Olympics is one of the reasons why NMP is training and deploying Community Legal Observers for the first time during the summer around event venues. It will be interesting to see the police response to this example of civil society in action.

NMP's work since it started providing practical, legal and emotional support to Mauro Demetrio is an fine example of why local monitoring and scrutiny, independent of councils and the police, remains vital if issues like stop and search are ever likely to become less contentious. I have often been asked whether I think the NMP model can be replicated in other places and of course in theory it can - but it means a long-term commitment both to individuals seeking help and the communities that are most vulnerable to misconduct by police officers.

Too often, activists have taken the easier route of parachuting into an area, making some noise, attracting some media interest and then moving on. If people want to start monitoring the police in their own area, they can simply start building a dossier of cases in the neighbourhoods they know best. But seriously - they should expect to still be carrying out this work three decades later. Police racism shows few signs of withering away.

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