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

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