Bobbies on the beat? Around 12,000 police will be on duty for the Olympics
Londoners, it seems, are not as excited about this summer’s Olympics as its organisers would like. Even the city’s Evening Standard newspaper acknowledges that ‘the sense of anticipation has been held back by recession and the fact that, as a major world capital, there is always something else to preoccupy us – from riots to a royal wedding’.
But as the London organising committee and most of the political and media establishment busily try to manufacture consent for the Games with funding for street parties and tickets for school children, insisting a ‘groundswell of support and excitement’ will soon emerge, the feeling among many residents in east London is less anticipation than trepidation.
I work in a community centre in Newham that is close to the Olympic Park, live locally and spend much of my time working with the borough’s charities and voluntary groups. What I hear, even from people who are not vocally antipathetic towards the Games, are growing concerns about massive travel disruption, scepticism about the promised legacy – and genuine alarm about plans for a massive security operation around the stadium in Stratford.
It seems to be taken for granted that the only way to stage the Olympics is to turn parts of east London into a militarised zone. There has been an almost gleeful media focus on the deployment of 13,500 uniformed military personnel, plans for ground-to-air missiles, snipers in helicopters patrolling the skies and even, at least according to the Sun, a new top-secret underground SAS bunker.
The commentator Simon Jenkins has warned that ‘the Stratford Olympics site will resemble Camp Bastion in Helmand’. On top of this rather chilling scenario, there are the expected 13,000 staff to be supplied by global private security firm G4S, alongside the security personnel of individual nations (the US has 500 FBI agents coming to the UK) and of sponsors like Coca Cola. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, around 12,000 police will be on duty across the different venues on peak days. There have also been reports that a central police control room will have the ability to remotely tap in to any CCTV network in London and that the police are planning to use unmanned surveillance drones.
At recent activist meetings I have attended, people hoping to highlight issues such as the conduct of London 2012 corporate sponsors like Dow Chemicals and BP have understandably begun to speculate whether they will be forced into the kind of ‘authorised protest zone‘ that has been a feature at every Olympics since Sydney in 2000. They also wonder what to make of the suggestion by the Metropolitan Police’s Olympic security co-ordinator Chris Allison that there may be a repeat of the pre-emptive arrests seen before last year’s royal wedding.
The imminent presence of large numbers of armed police brings back memories, particularly strong within Asian communities, of the anti-terrorism raids in Forest Gate in 2006. A neighbour in the next street from me, who had no involvement in the conspiracy that dubious police ‘intelligence’ accused him of, was shot and then held in Paddington Green police station for days on end. No Londoner, meanwhile, can forgot the terrible fate that awaited Jean Charles de Menezes as he travelled to his fatal shooting by police at Stockwell station in 2005. We have all seen how heightened tension can easily lead to a breakdown in channels of communication and command that has frightening consequences.
Stop and search
The community civil liberties group Newham Monitoring Project (NMP), which I am part of, is concerned that private security guards with limited training may have a poor understanding of the limits of their powers – as incidents in April at the O2 arena and the Olympic stadium (where guards forcibly and illegally attempted to stop the media taking photographs from public land) would seem to suggest. However, by far the greatest concern, shared by youth workers locally, is that young people without tickets who are out on the streets on summer evenings and are inevitably likely to gravitate towards events in Stratford become the targets of the repeated use of police stop and search powers – which studies have shown was a key factor in the level of the antipathy towards the police before last summer’s riots. Youth projects in Newham, which have suffered huge cuts over the past year, fear that they face severe challenges in trying to open their facilities for longer or provide young people with alternatives to renewed confrontation. Some plan to try to take their members away from the borough altogether.
Concerns about stop and search are based on experience. Late last year, a report by Newham Council acknowledged that during June and July 2010, compared to neighbouring boroughs, Newham’s police carried out the highest number of stop and searches under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which is most prone to accusations of racial profiling. A Freedom of Information request last year revealed that the use of this power on under-16s rose from 251 stops in 2007 to 6,503 in 2010, a staggering 2,540 per cent rise. ‘Section 60s’, unlike other stop and search powers, do not require an officer to justify having a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person may be about to commit a crime.
The government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill, which is expected to become law just before the start of the Olympics, plans to introduce another power that does not require evidence of reasonable suspicion. This is a replacement for the notoriously misused section 44 anti-terrorism powers that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was illegal in January 2010. It will require the prior authorisation by a senior officer who must ‘reasonably suspect that an act of terrorism will take place’, but given that we are repeatedly told there is a ‘severe threat level’ throughout the Olympics, it is inevitable that anti-terrorism stop and search powers will be used extensively. However, when pressed by NMP, local police have been extremely reluctant to explain the likely impact of the Olympics on the disproportionate use of the different stop and search powers on young people and black and Asian communities.
Monitoring the Games
With the prospect of overlapping, potentially chaotic security arrangements, it will be extremely difficult to monitor how often the civil liberties of local people are trampled on to facilitate the freedoms of the 40,000 members of the international ‘Olympic family’ heading to London. NMP is offering a dedicated Olympics telephone helpline, rights cards and, for the first time, street-level community legal observers who will monitor policing and security around Olympic venues. Looking back on our experiences after the riots last year, we have also decided to set up a network of local people who are trained to gather information about stop and search and are alert to incidents of heavy-handed policing in their neighbourhoods.
As well as ensuring access to proper legal advice and the opportunity to seek redress, the reason for gathering comprehensive evidence is to look at the security legacy long after the Games are over. Having created new policing powers, spent millions on security infrastructure and tested its effectiveness thoroughly over the summer, government and security institutions are looking for long-term gains. This means east London is likely to remain an ideal venue for major, heavily securitised events. Potentially this may mean far more than events such as the World Athletics Championship that will be held in London in 2017. When the UK takes over the G8 presidency next year, for example, it will need somewhere to host a summit. Where better than a part of the capital that the state knows how to militarise?
To volunteer to become a community legal observer with Newham Monitoring Project over the Olympics period, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.