Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Why Is It So Hard To Find Out About The 'London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium'?

Every now and then Lee Jasper, once the Senior Policy Advisor on Equalities to former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, pops up in the press speaking on behalf of something called the “London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium” (LRCJC). Most recently it was in this article on the terrible experiences of one young man who had been repeatedly stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police, but Mr Jasper has been quoted as its Chair in national press articles on racism in the Met, race in Britain in 2012 and the racist comments of David Starkey.

After Friday's piece by Guardian journalist Diane Taylor, I started to wonder: who are LRCJC's  members and what work does it actually carry out? I have been an activist campaigning in London on racism and policing issues for 20 years but know absolutely nothing about it. I asked some activist friends with similar interests and contacts but they were equally mystified. A Google search failed to find an LRCJC website and every reference to the 'Consortium' seems to relate directly to a Mr Jasper personally. I did learn, from a article by Operation Black Vote, that back in 2010, LRCJC could be contacted via and it planned to “represent organisations such as Metropolitan Black Police association, Society of Black Lawyers and RESPECT the black and ethnic minority prison staff association”. But there was nothing more illuminating than that. Moreover, there are a number of organisations carrying out excellent work on the misuse of stop & search powers – nationally, Stop Watch in particular and at a local level, groups like Newham Monitoring Project. I wondered why the Guardian hadn't asked one of them for comment, rather than the chair (albeit a well-known, high-profile one) of an apparently obscure organisation.

Stuck for answers, I put out a fairly sceptical request for information to followers on Twitter, asking if anyone knew more about LRCJC. Despite a further prompt, no-one replied and, with more interesting things to do over a busy Bank Holiday weekend, that would probably have been that.

However, Lee Jasper then got in contact via Twitter and his reaction to a simple question was so combative and evasive that I was suddenly really interested to know why he seemed so concerned about it.

Jasper demanded to know why I was publicly asking for information about LRCJC and why I hadn't contacted him personally. I guess the latter is a fair question but it had never occurred to me to approach someone I don't really have a great deal of respect for and who I probably haven't spoken to since the early 1990s, although activism circles are fairly small. For a decade I helped organise the United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) with custody death families but until 2008, Mr Jasper was still working at City Hall, busy praising the senior officer in charge of the botched operation that shot and killed  Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station (taking a lead from his boss). So it's not as if we are remotely close (I don't even follow him on Twitter).

Just as importantly, what exactly is wrong with publicly asking about the membership of LRCJC when it is quoted regularly in the press?

Mr Jasper's responses to further questions about LRCJC were increasingly evasive and he adopted the classic tactic used by anyone trying to avoid giving an answer – attack the questioner:
As others joined the conversation, there was also an interesting allegation that I have a 'history of sectarianism with sections of black left', which came as news to me:
 In a request for more details, Mr Jasper added this:

I am really looking forward to Mr Jasper's blog post, if it ever appears (I guess this article may feature, as he mistakes 'sectarianism' for 'not accepting his word at face value'). But I'm still no clearer about who the 'London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium' actually represents or what work it has ever done.

In the circumstances, it therefore seems only fair to conclude that – at best – the LRCJC is nothing more than a name, a paper network of groups that Mr Jasper has links to (what the 'white left' might call a 'front organisation'), with no real purpose other than getting his name into the press.

If, however, the LRCJC is not a 'front' but a genuine consortium as Mr Jasper insists, then perhaps he can outline what actual work its members have together carried out on stop and search, or on last summer's riots, or in providing practical support to black students during recent student demonstrations? Other than speeches by its chair and sole spokesperson, what proposals have LRCJC members collectively developed on, say, the changes to the Educational Maintenance Allowance that have negatively affected so many minority students at FE colleagues? What campaigning has it organised against, for example, the abuse of anti-terror laws? What work, indeed, has the 'Consortium' ever undertaken on anything?

Lee Jasper once held a high-profile public position and as an individual, I'm sure he has an interesting point of view on some issues. That doesn't mean he speaks for anyone else but himself. So why don't journalists just ask him to comment in an individual capacity? Why insist on quoting him as a spokesperson of a grandiosely named 'Consortium' that sounds as if it might genuinely represent a wide range of opinion, when there is little evidence that it even exists?

Equally, why does the press insist on doing this, when there are plenty of other respected organisations with a proven track record of casework, research and campaigning on issues around racism or policing? Wouldn't it be more interesting to readers to speak to people in a position to offer something far more helpful than a few words of outrage? 

Monday, 20 August 2012

A People's History of Protest in Newham

History has a habit of repeating itself. Thus the Occupy movement, it turns out, has long forgotten ancestors in Plaistow: at the turn of the twentieth century, unemployed workers occupied land in an attempt to set up a farm colony called the Triangle Camp. The local council brought legal action for trespass against them, they were evicted and then tried to reoccupy the site, leading to scuffles with the police and the imprisonment of one Benjamin Cunningham. Nor are deaths in police custody an entirely modern phenomenon: in 1931, clashes between the police and the unemployed outside West Ham town hall in Stratford led to the savage beating of a protester with the unlikely name of Walter Disney, who was arrested and died on his way to hospital. In a echo of the claims made about the death of Ian Tomlinson, police alleged that his death was the result of him falling and hitting the road.

These stories were part of a fascinating talk today on the history of protest in Newham, held at the temporary 'People's Museum and Gallery of Newham' on Stratford High Street. In a little over an hour, Geoff Bell, chair of Eastside Community Heritage, covered a very broad period from early examples of racism, against the Irish in 1781, up to activism by Newham's black communities in the late 1980s. In between was a reminder of the rich history of dissent that this borough can take pride in. It includes the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (who lived on Upton Lane in Forest Gate) and her brother Samuel Gurney, the anti-slavery campaigner, as well as the Coloured Men's Institute set up in Canning Town by Kamal Chunchie, the militancy of dockworkers led by Jack Dash and the community resistance to racism and fascism that led to to the creation of the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP) in 1981.

It still gives me particular satisfaction to know that NMP continues to contribute to the long history of anti-racist struggle in the borough, despite the unsuccessful efforts of its politically ambitious first worker to shut the project down in the late 1990s. However, there is much more to tell – other stories of protest in Newham, against the racist murder of Panchadcharam Sahitharan in 1991 and the unlawful killing in police custody of Ibrahima Sey in 1996, against the 'war on terror' and the war in Iraq during the last decade – were not covered in today's talk. In many cases, these stories (like NMP's refusal to give up when its council funding was cut) have not yet been written, although I hope that soon they will. Nevertheless, in a borough so often associated nowadays with an outright rejection of dissent by our imperious Mayor and his council colleagues, it was helpful to be reminded today that protest has always played an important part in the social fabric of Newham. Long may it continue to do so.

The People's Museum and Gallery of Newham is based at the former West Ham Labour Party offices at 306 High Street, Stratford E15 1AJ and continues until the end of October. Geoff Bell will told a talk on the Coloured Men’s Institute and Kamal Chunchie on 1 October at 4pm.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Newham Bookshop Hosts UK Launch Of Orange Prize Nominee's New Novel

On Thursday 13 September, the Orange Prize short-listed author Attica Locke will return to Stratford for another conversation with my old friend and Newham Monitoring Project comrade Cilius Victor, at the official UK launch of her new novel "The Cutting Season".

The event is organised by Newham Bookshop, who were one of the first to recognise and promote Attica's brilliant first novel "Black Water Rising" back in 2009. The last encounter between her and Cilius was hugely enjoyable, as was her book - a crime thriller set in 1980s Houston in Texas that centres on the discovery of a body by a struggling African-American lawyer. The new novel also starts with a dead body, this time found in the grounds of Belle Vie, a historic plantation house in Louisiana's Sugar Cane county that is managed by the book's central character, Caren Gray. The murder of a migrant worker unravels dark secrets about the plantation’s past and the history of slavery in the American South.

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke in Conversation
at Stratford Picturehouse, Salway Road  London E15 1BX
Thursday 13 September, 7pm

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Tickets are £5 and available directly from the Picturehouse cinema by calling 0871 902 5740 or booking online here

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Met's Commissioner And The Right To Avoid Becoming 'Police Intelligence'

This evening, the Commissioner of the Metropolis spoke at Stratford Picturehouse as part of the local council's “Ideas Olympiad”, a series of events aiming to bring “high profile and interesting speakers to the borough”. Well, at least I think it was the head of the Metropolitan Police. It might have been the HR manager of a medium-sized Sheffield engineering firm in a borrowed uniform, for all the insight it provided.

The period spent by Bernard Hogan-Howe, who took over from Sir Paul Stephenson at New Scotland Yard last September, as Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources has clearly had a significant impact on both the man and his method of presentation. His speech this evening was littered with the kind of customer service platitudes that are so commonplace in the corporate world, long on aspiration but just as short on specifics as a morning briefing for call centre staff. And, for a man so closely associated with the concept of Total Policing, it was just as carefully crafted – the picture painted Hogan-Howe of his “total war on crime” seemed so benign that it would be hard to imagine the outbreak of anything resembling a minor skirmish, let alone a declaration of war.

After some fairly inane audience questions, there was only one slip as Hogan-Howe began to bat away concerns about the use of police powers to stop and search. The Commissioner was asked about a personal experience, involving police officers in Newham engaged in a stop & search who had become particularly confrontational when the audience member had insisted on his right not to give his name and address. This right was been one that Newham Monitoring Project has been pushing over the summer in the rights cards its volunteers have distributed and with good reason. Handing over personal details may seem innocuous enough, but if you happen to be one of the 83% of Londoners stopped and searched based on 'reasonable suspicion' that turns out to be wrong, there is nothing to stop this information finding its way onto police databases as 'intelligence gathered', even though in in legal terms the sole aim of stop & search is detection of crime. The retention of this data goes a long way to explaining why so many subsequently find they are targeted and stopped again and again.

Hogan-Howe used to run the Met's Professional Standards Directorate that handles complaints: all he had to do was agree that anyone has the right not to give their name and address and then move on to ignoring some other questions. But instead he fumbled his response, suggesting that providing personal details might “help with a complaint” (search receipts are numbered, so this is irrelevant) or even in “identifying an offender on bail”. Forget that the vast majority of people who are stopped and search are innocent of any crime. In a room filled with some of the more ambitious of Newham's local senior officers, their boss gave a green light to exactly the kind of aggressive intelligence-gathering that had been raised by the member of the audience – who also happens to work for Newham Monitoring Project.

Everyone knows that stop & search powers are deeply alienating. The Guardian and the London School of Economics study of the August 2011 riots, “Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder”, found that “the focus of much resentment was police use of stop and search, which was felt to be unfairly targeted and often undertaken in an aggressive and discourteous manner.” The Riots Communities and Victims Panel in their March 2012 final report [PDF] said that “the issue of trust in the police in London is hugely influenced by the exercise of stop and search powers... the importance of getting it right should not be underestimated”.

Getting it right must surely mean accepting that members of the public, who statistically are most likely to be entirely innocent when they are stopped & searched, have rights that include anonymity if they have committed no crime. Amidst an otherwise lifeless performance, Hogan-Howe managed to convey the impression that this right really isn't all that important. Perhaps his “total war on crime” isn't quite so benign after all.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

How Is This Not Impersonating a Police Officer?

My thanks to Mike Law for flagging this up. Take a look at his photo above, snapped in East Ham, of 'London Borough of Newham Law Enforcement' officers. For all the world, they look like WPCs.

Back in 2005, Newham council's former Head of Legal Services, Amanda Kelly, was commissioned to undertake an independent external investigation [PDF] into the borough's Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Division Community Constabulary. This followed allegations of mismanagement and serious misconduct by some its 'Community Constables', which included unlawful stop and search operations, illegal possession of potentially lethal extendable batons while on duty and an allegation that a member of the Constabulary's staff had handcuffing a Stratford resident.

In the course of her investigation, Kelly found that as a result of the gradual adoption of police ranks and titles and the choice of Hertfordshire police as its uniform supplier, the appearance of council staff patrolling Newham's streets was “almost indistinguishable from police officers”. As a result, Community Constables had started to behaviour as if they actually possessed police powers when they did not. The council had allowed, in effect, the growth of a private quasi-police force in the borough. Kelly added:
“Indeed, when I went out with the Constabulary, the officers I accompanied were mistaken for Police officers and I am not aware that they did anything to disabuse those making the mistake.

I consider that the uniform currently worn by the Constabulary is such that it closely resembles that of the police and therefore brings its wearers into danger of contravening s.90 of the Police Act 1996 – impersonating a police officer”.
Section 90 says:
Any person who, not being a constable, wears any article of police uniform in circumstances where it gives him an appearance so nearly resembling that of a member of a police force as to be calculated to deceive shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

Unsurprisingly, Kelly recommended that council officers's uniforms were “clearly differentiable from that of MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] officers”.

Following a scandal like this, it might be expected that the local council would take extra special care in future. Seven years on, Newham's Community Constables are now called 'Enforcement Officers' and since 2011, a number had been granted limited police powers under the government's Community Safety Accreditation Scheme. However, it seems that with the passage of time, little has been learned from Amanda Kelly's warnings. As the photo above shows, the new-look 'law enforcement officers' are just as indistinguishable from Metropolitan police officers as they were back in 2005 and just as likely to be mistaken for such by the public.

This failure to clearly differentiate from the uniforms of police constables still potentially contravenes section 90 and more alarmingly, there is the danger – just as there was seven years ago – that council 'enforcement' staff, seen as police by the people they meet on the streets, start to believe they really are cops. Anyone who has already encountered 'enforcement officers' will know many seem to have already mastered the arrogance, swagger and refusal to negotiate of the worst kind of unreconstructed police officer.
If the disreputable pranksters pictured above (my good friends the Space Hijackers) can be wrongly dragged before the courts for allegedly impersonating police officers in the most ridiculous circumstances, then breaches of section 90 must be an issue that the Met takes extremely seriously. So why, yet again, is history repeating itself in Newham?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Olympic Exploitation - Not OK Anywhere

On Sunday evening, as crowds were leaving the Olympic Park in Stratford after the men's 100m final, War on Want projected a giant video message onto a nearby building, in protest at the exploitation of Adidas workers around the world.

While almost everyone, it seems, is currently losing all sense of proportion and critical faculty  over this summer's Games, this action by the brilliant campaigning charity was a reminder of the other, darker side of the Olympics. Adidas has already sold around £100 million of Olympic-themed clothing whilst workers making its goods are paid poverty wages and are having to skip meals to survive.  In Cambodia, for example, workers receive £10 a week basic pay, are forced to work overtime, cannot afford decent food and live in squalid conditions. In April, the Independent reported that Indonesian workers, making Adidas clothing worn by Team GB athletes and Games volunteers, were working up to 65 hours a week for poverty pay and suffered physical and verbal abuse. Meanwhile, Adidas recorded £559 million profits  in 2011, with full-year net profits in 2012 expected to rise by 15-17%. In contrast to the company's poverty-stricken workers in the Global South, Adidas chief executive Herbert Hainer received €5.9 million (£4.6 million) in "compensation" last year.

One of the things I'm looking forward to after the Olympics are finally over is the return of decent people getting angry about this kind of thing. It can't come a moment too soon.

Monday, 6 August 2012

London Pleasure Gardens - A Local Council Scandal?

Photo: Diamond Geezer
Since I started blogging regularly, I've also started receive e-mails from people with stories they really want told. On Friday morning, I received one saying that the London Pleasure Gardens (LPG) at the Royal Docks near the ExCel Centre, opened to fanfare only five weeks ago with a loan of £3 million from Newham council, had gone into administration. This is a project that, in July, the council had lauded as an example of its new 'resilience' philosophy, an exciting new venture that “helps to build the economic resilience of the area by attracting people to a new destination”. Throughout Friday it was difficult to find direct confirmation of whether LPG had gone bust, despite a tweet I sent out, but by the end of the day, an council statement had finally confirmed:
"The decision by London Pleasure Gardens Limited to enter into voluntary administration is regrettable but understandable. It is disappointing that the anticipated visitor numbers and revenue from recent planned events have not materialised”.
The loan to London Pleasure Gardens Limited and its three directors (John O'Sullivan, Garfield Hackett and Robin Collings) was agreed by the Mayor and his Cabinet, rather than the full council, who nodded through the Cabinet's plans during the 19 minutes it took to hold a twenty-item meeting on 27 February. A report on what had been described as “an unrivalled partnership between enterprise, culture and public sectors” was discussed by the Cabinet in January [PDF], in which much was made of the proposal's ability to “substantially persist continued momentum” in ensuring that that “the Games period euphoria does not fade away in Newham”. The report added that “the project is in line with the Council's vision for the regeneration of the Royals and indeed it is seen as a vital catalyst in making this vision a reality”. There was a promise of new employment - 300 mainly part time sessional jobs for local people over the life of the project, although only the equivalent of 30/40 full time jobs. The council's Finance Officer notes that “the proposal is not considered to be high risk.”

This "vital catalyst" turned out to be some low risk. Its failure is being blamed in part on events' organisers deciding to stay away, perhaps understandably given the débâcle over overcrowding at the Bloc Weekend event on 6 July. However, in a BBC report, Newham council has also tried to pass the rest of the blame onto the London Olympics organisers LOCOG for restricting visitors numbers. They in turn have hit back at Newham council and LPG, saying:
“Sensible business planning to allow the DLR to cope with a large influx of passengers during the Olympic events at the Excel Centre meant that temporary limitations on promoting the Pleasure Gardens at Games time were agreed with the venue at the outset and would have been factored into their business model.”
After I tweeted out a request for information on Friday, I started to receive more stories from people who had worked at LPG. They told of staff, mainly local young people, who were in tears when they heard the news that the company had gone bust. Many had not been paid. One 20-year old girl had been looking for work without success for four years before starting at LPG and was supporting her entire family on her wages from a vendor at the venue. Former staff also complained about a complete lack of communication from LPG. Publicly, some traders have come forward with complaints about promises that were made to them by the LPG management and how they felt angry and cheated.

What this looks a lot like is a full-blown local authority scandal, with wildly over-optimistic financial projections by the LPG management, who seem to have also been far from ready when the venue actually opened. Their rather high-risk business case (dependent in part of the whims of LOCOG's decision-making) was aided by the fact that Newham's Mayor had clearly been bowled over by another ill-conceived idea. The loan was almost inevitable, with few doubts raised by officers whose due-diligence was either incredibly weak or driven with half an eye on the proposal being a mayoral pet-project. As for LOCOG, it is clear from its ruthlessness that the Games and nothing but the Games - most certainly not the ambitions of a minor local elected Mayor or any impact on local people - was their only consideration.

The council insists it will recoup the £3 million of local taxpayers moneyi it has loaned, which it must at a time when it is busy making significant cuts to services. But what about the human costs? As yet, it hasn't said anything about what happens to the local people who worked at LPG, overwhelmingly poor and owed money that is due to them. Will they find themselves at the bottom of the list as the administrators from Deloitte pick over what is left from the ruins of the company?


I saw this today (6 August):
See also this BBC London report on 7 August (from the Stop City Airport Masterplan website)

[Flash 10 is required to watch video.]

Friday, 3 August 2012

Update: Newham Council Jumps On Olympic Brandwagon

Whatever the sporting achievements this summer, it is certain that we will remember the 2012 Olympics for the extraordinary lengths that London organisers have gone to in oppressively protecting the brands of its corporate sponsors. Even Michael Payne, the former marketing director at the International Olympic Committee who devised the rules to prevent 'ambush marketing, has said “the controls and protections have gone too far”. LOCOG chair Lord Coe has insisted that he has a responsibility to protect the commercial "rights of sponsors" but managed to create even more confusion about what kind of t-shirt and trainers were acceptable for a visitor to wear inside the Olympic Park.

This bring us back to the banning of Community Legal Observers from Stratford Park. As I noted on Monday, Newham council security guards had accused Newham Monitoring Project voluneers of handing out material that was "making it easy for criminals and giving them tips". Later that day, the council's Head of Events Sue Meiners came down to the park in person to offer a new justification for excluding the legal observers: the accusation that they  would cause littering by handing out legal rights cards.

Now the local authority has cobbled together a new explanation, one that Lord Coe and the Olympic brand enforcers would be proud of. In an e-mail to NMP, Newham's Head of Communications Douglas Trainer (who some may recognise as a New Labour former NUS President) claims that a community event in a public park has been designated a 'corporate event' and as a result, the council does not allow organisations "to come into the park with a branded presence - including the wearing of branded shirts or bibs."

If this were true, you would imagine Trainer's colleague Sue Meiners might have mentioned it on Monday. Having lived and worked in Newham for over two decades, I'd add that if this were true, it has been applied so inconsistently over the years that it's likely to cause as much confusion as Coe's own pronouncements on 'branded t-shirts'. Instead, what it looks suspiciously like is a really poor excuse, one targeted specifically at volunteers who have given up their spare time to provide an important service to local communities.

In its public response to the council, Newham Monitoring Project says:
There has been much debate about the rules used to protect corporate brands during the Olympics and we are genuinely surprised that the council would adopt and enforce similar rules against its own citizens, especially those who are volunteering for a local not-for-profit group with charitable aims.
Quite so. We can add this to the growing list of unlikely Olympic legacies: Newham council borrowing from LOCOG to oppressively protect a brand - its own - in local public spaces.

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