Tuesday 26 June 2012

Welcome To The Security Games

This is a piece I wrote for Peace News - an edited version appears in its next issue.

With weeks to go before the start of this summer's London Olympics, a sense of foreboding has descended on many of the people who, like me, live and work in Newham in east London, one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse parts of the capital. This anxiety, shared even by those who are enthusiastic about the spectacle of the Games, has been raised by the stories over the last six months about snipers in helicopters, missile launchers on tower blocks and RAF fighters in the skies during the Olympics and repeated predictions that it may be almost impossible to leave the borough during peak periods. People speak of feeling trapped by the arrival of an event that seems more like an invading army of occupation than a welcome visitor.

Welcome to the Security Games. This summer sees the largest peacetime military and security operation since 1945, with a budget that has soared to around £1 billion. Since 2010, the number of security personnel required by Olympic organisers has risen sharply to an overall estimated 23700 on the busiest days, more than double the original predictions. As well as up to 12000 police from forces across the country, the Ministry of Defence has provided more troops deployed (in uniform) to work during the Games than are currently stationed in Afghanistan. More CCTV has been installed in a part of London already awash with cameras and around £80 million has been spent on the construction of an an 11-mile long 5000-volt electric fence around the Olympic zone. One of the chief beneficiaries of the huge level of spending is the global private security corporation G4S, which has seen enormous expansion of its contract for providing security guards, from £86 million in December 2010 to £284 million in December 2011. The reality is that, like everything else to do with the Olympics, costs remain obscured by a lack of transparency and may be far higher.

Most military and all private security personnel will work inside the 'ticketed areas' of the event venues, according to promises made by the London Olympic organisers. Whether this turns out to be true in practice is one of the issues that the community civil rights group Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), with whom I have been an activist with for twenty years, will keep a close watch upon. However, in the streets surrounding the Olympic Park in Stratford and the ExCel Centre in Canning Town, it is the massive policing operation and its impact on local people that is of our greatest concern.

Newham's population has one of the highest percentages of young people in London, with a long history of difficult relationships with the police. Teenagers enjoying the long break from school, many of whom live in temporary or overcrowded homes, will inevitably be out on the streets during the summer and although most will not have tickets for Olympic events, every youth worker in the borough predicts that most will gravitate, out of excitement and curiosity, towards Stratford. Even before the start of the Games, the new Westfield shopping complex next to the Olympic Park has been described by one of my colleagues, who runs a community project for young people in East Ham, as “the largest youth club in east London, drawing in young people from five boroughs”.

The period of the Games also coincides with the start of Ramadan on 20 July, a week before the opening ceremony. This continues until 18 August (after the close of the Olympics but before the start of the Paralympics) and means that Muslims will be preparing to break their fast with their evening iftar meal between 8.30 and 9pm. The streets of Newham, which has a Muslim population of 24.3%, the second highest in the UK, are likely to be very busy late into the evening.

However, Olympic security measures have been designed to target people out on the streets, especially in crowds and during the evenings. Stratford will be covered by a 'dispersal zone' during the Games, giving police officers the power to instruct groups of two or more people who live outside of the area to leave for up to 24 hours. Refusing to comply with an officer's direction can lead to arrest and charge, with a conviction potentially leading to a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment or a fine of £5000. In addition, officers have 'curfew' powers: young people aged under 16 are effectively prohibited from public spaces within the dispersal zone overnight, from 9pm to 6am, unless they are accompanied by a parent or a responsible adult over 18 years of age. The use of these kind of powers is borne from a stereotypical view of the dangers posed by young people and the perceived 'threat' they represent to Olympic visitors, but as we saw in August last year, draconian police powers are, if anything, more likely to lead to increased tension and resentment.

Coupled with a range of stop and search powers under criminal, anti-social behaviour and anti-terrorist legislation, NMP's fear is that young people in particular and ethnic minorities in general will be subjected to a level of intrusive policing that is likely to lead arrests and criminalisation. We know already that the Metropolitan Police will have at least one mobile police station with the capacity to detain people on the Olympic site and facilitate video link appearances to Magistrates Courts. What we are unable to confirm is what will happen if there is any kind of major incident – all we have been able to discover is that an area covering one mile around the Olympic Park would be designated a 'Blue Zone' but the powers available to the police in these circumstances remain a secret.

Amidst the far more powerful media narrative of the 'greatest show on earth', our worry is that the impact of heavy-handed policing on the communities around the Olympic sites is likely to be largely ignored. That is why Newham Monitoring Project has already trained over 90 volunteer 'Community Legal Observers' who will patrol in teams as the Games take place, monitor the conduct of the police and hopefully, by our very presence, help to restrain some of the police's worst excesses. One of the reasons for recording the experiences of local people is in preparation for the future: we believe that, having built and tested a vast, expensive security infrastructure in east London, much of it will remain in place long after the Games are over. The Olympic stadium and its complex layers of secure and sterile zones is ideal, from the point of view of security planners, for future events – and not just sporting ones. Where better to hold a future gathering of world leaders?

The effect of a massive police presence, as well as the recent treatment of demonstrators (especially the 'pre-emptive arrests' of anti-monarchy campaigners during last year's royal wedding) has also inevitably has an impact on the ability of people to exercise their right to protest. Unlike previous Olympics, the level of planned opposition has been extremely limited and it is evident, from conversations I have had with activists, that many are reluctant to put their heads above the parapet for fear of the consequences during such a huge level of intensive security. NMP is working with other members of a coalition called the Network for Police Monitoring (which includes experienced legal observers from groups like Green & Black Cross, FITwatch and Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp) to ensure that any protest during the Olympics has access to expert legal support, but the reality is that sheer scale of the Security Games has already made a mark on the expression of freedom of speech and assembly. No-one wants to find themselves – like Simon Moore, who took part in demonstrations at the site of an Olympic basketball training facility in Leyton Marshes – hit with an anti-social behaviour order that severely restricts the right to demonstrate long after the Olympics are over.

Eventually the Olympics 'army of occupation' will leave east London and there will be time to assess the extent of any security 'legacy' but until then, there is a crucial role for activists in helping to gather evidence of its immediate impact. This is exactly how NMP first started to build up a picture of the extent of police racism and harassment within Newham's black and Asian communities when it was founded back in 1980. If anyone has some free time and is willing to train and volunteer as a Community Legal Observer, we welcome your participation. The scale of the security operation may seem daunting, but that doesn't mean we need to feel completely powerless. Nor can the job of monitoring the Security Games be left to local people alone.

If you would like to get involved, please contact NMP at http://www.nmp.org.uk/p/e-mail-nmp.html

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