Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Policing dissent at London 2012

With numerous groups planning to protest during the Olympics, Jules Boykoff asks how British security forces will respond to people exercising their right to dissent

July 19, 2012
6 min read

Photo: WBUR/Flickr

The Olympic Games are set to kick off in London, replete with a sheepalicious £27m opening ceremony choreographed by Danny Boyle. Boyle’s live-animal master-plans have raised the hackles of animal rights groups, but Olympics-induced dissent spans far beyond the Peta circuit. With a jaw-dropping five-ring price-tag, dodgy corporate sponsorships, a militarised public sphere, and a hyper-vigilant brand protection racket revving its corporate engine, it’s hard to blame Londoners for wanting to take to the streets. Activists with the Counter Olympics Network have planned a mass mobilisation for 28 July in East London, and numerous other marches and events are set to spring. The looming question is how will British security forces respond to people exercising their right to dissent?

To be sure, the private security firm G4S has demonstrated Olympian incompetence, failing to properly prepare the 13,700 guards that its £284m contract stipulated, and forcing Olympics honchos to literally call in the troops as back-up. The mainstream media have roundly—and rightly—criticised the company’s bone-headed blunders, but meanwhile a bigger threat to the expression of dissent has receded from public attention: Scotland Yard. After all, in theory, G4S’s guards-for-hire are only supposed to patrol inside Olympic venues. Workaday policing outside official Olympic spaces will largely be left to the Met, so it’s important to forecast what we can expect from Scotland Yard.

Early clues were not encouraging. In late 2011, Chris Allison—Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner and the national coordinator of Olympic security—briefed the London Assembly on policing costs for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He highlighted ‘four key risks to the Games’—terrorism, protest, organised crime, and natural disasters. Singling out protest as a ‘threat’ and then sandwiching it between terrorism and organised crime was revealing. For political activists it was ominous. Security officials should most assuredly do their best to prevent acts of terrorism—that’s their job—but this does not give them carte blanche to conflate activism with terrorism and criminality. Keeping the Games safe from terrorism is one thing—green lighting the squelching of individual freedoms and human rights is another entirely.

Over the last few months Allison’s public pronouncements have been laced with a bit more suavity. He has assured civil libertarians that Scotland Yard will not crack down on protesters as long as they remain within the law, acknowledging, ‘They have a right to peacefully protest.’ Last month he said, albeit with a hefty dose of paternalism, ‘If you want to protest, speak to us beforehand so we can manage your right to peacefully and lawfully protest.’ He went on to warn, ‘But if as an individual we think you are going to disrupt the Games in some way, then I am telling you that we will take whatever action we can within the law to prevent you from disrupting the Games.’ Despite breathless media accounts about activist plans to disrupt the Games, the mobilisation in late July is designed to be family-friendly, or ‘fluffy,’ as organisers put it. Sure, campaigners with visions of spikier tactics are always a possibility, but the Met needs to remember these people are activists, not terrorists.

Security officials—and their private partners at G4S—have treated the Olympics like their own private ATM, using the Games as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to jack up their plastic-bullets-per-capita quotient. They’ve stockpiled an array of high-tech—and sometimes military-grade—policing tools, from a Long Range Acoustic Device (used against insurgents in Iraq) to surface-to-air missiles (that, it turns out, are useless in wet weather). Three months before the start of the Games, police set up ‘dispersal zones’ in Stratford whereby officers have license to order groups of two or more people to vamoose if they’re deemed to be engaging in anti-social behaviour. Police also have expansive stop-and-search powers under the Protection of Freedoms Act of 2012. Officials have vowed to carry out pre-emptive arrests in order to prevent disruptions at the Games, though Allison has said legal protesters will not be targeted. Still, Olympics security officials have built up a disquieting arsenal that could be deployed to quiet dissent.

What we’ve seen so far does not jibe with Allison’s assurances that peaceful protesters will be left alone. Jelena Timotijevic, convenor of the Defend the Right to Protest campaign, said police have proffered ‘a whole range of intimidating tactics and techniques.’ In April, police ostentatiously filmed activists as they filed into an anti-Olympics public meeting at Bishopsgate Institute in East London. Officials have doled out an ‘Olympic Asbo’ to Simon Moore after he protested the construction of an Olympics basketball facility on Leyton Marsh. His Asbo forbids him from traveling within 100 yards of any Games venue or the torch route. London-based photojournalists Martin Slavin and Mike Wells independently report being accosted by security officials simply for snapping photographs near the Olympic zone. Meanwhile, the brand police have also reported for duty—the activist group Space Hijackers had its Twitter account suspended after it declared itself to be ‘the official protesters of the London 2012 Olympic Games.’ A disjuncture seems to be emerging between the police public-relations podium and the real world.

Civil libertarians have good reason to be on edge, but Allison and his colleagues have the opportunity to prove their critics wrong. In the lead-up to the Games and during the actual Olympics, they could—and should—allow the hassle-free expression of political dissent. As Kevin Blowe of the Newham Monitoring Project said recently, ‘The rights of free speech shouldn’t disappear just because of a sporting event.’ The mobilisation on 28 July provides a prime occasion for security officials to align their public rhetoric with boots-to-pavement policing. It’s not too much to expect police forces to forgo sacrificing the rule of law on the altar of Olympics-induced exception.

The protest starts 12noon, Saturday 28 July in Mile End Park, London. More info.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead


86