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Illustration by Cressida Knapp
Resistance to the 2012 Olympics has been widespread and under-reported, starting with London’s bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the Games back in 2004. Protests are planned to continue through to after the sporting events finish, in order to challenge the ‘legacy’ of a corporate spectacle. Many of the campaigns have organised around local issues, but the range of tactics has been impressive and has often strengthened community organising on issues beyond the Games.
The Olympics, wherever they are hosted, present a significant challenge to local, grass-roots politics because built into the nature of the ‘mega event’ is an anti-democratic value system that puts profit over people. This is demonstrated by the ‘host city contract’ that any city hosting the Games must sign, but which is not easily available to the public. It requires the host city to operate using different laws for the duration of the Games. It is required, for example, to ban any event that could have an impact on the successful staging of the Games taking place in or near the city during or in the weeks before the Games. This amounts to the temporary outlawing of protest.
During the bid process, the No London 2012 campaign fought to prevent London hosting the Olympics. The campaign started in December 2004, with a broad network of people involved, from boat owners to squatters, sporting enthusiasts to local residents, campaigners against racialised policing to environmental activists. The network opposed the bid for a wide variety of reasons, including the destruction of local housing and sporting facilities, the loss of common land and habitats, civil liberties implications and the inadequate consultation process designed to manufacture consent.
No London 2012 organised protests during the IOC visit in February 2005 that included a cycle protest, a march and a narrow boat regatta. They set up an online petition, sent all voting IOC members a lobby submission highlighting the damaging impacts the Games would have, and did local media work to get information to people in the five Olympic boroughs. During the bid process, the Hackney and Leyton Football League was campaigning around sports issues, the Marshgate Lane traders’ association was fighting the effects of compulsory purchase and associated job losses, the Clays Lane Housing Co-Op was attempting to negotiate its survival should the bid be won and the Hackney Marshes User Group was opposing the bid on the grounds that the Olympics would negatively affect Hackney Marshes and other green spaces.
In July 2005 London won the Olympic bid. Many campaigners were demoralised because they knew that once the bid was won it would be difficult to fight the separate problems the Games would bring. Yet organising continued and still does. This demonstrates commitment and shows that when grass-roots campaigning is ongoing, and not simply reactive, it is sustainable.
The key to this community activism has been to connect specific struggles to existing groups already working on housing, conservation and so on. This gives more purpose to campaigns as the aim is not to stop the Games, which would be impossible given the PR, money and power of the IOC and associated corporations, but to fight for various causes before, during and after the Games. If this continues, the real legacy of the Games will be the resilience of communities against the Olympic profiteers.
Once London had won the bid, there were immediate battles to be fought over land and home evictions and the taking over of green spaces. For example, 425 tenants from the Clays Lane Housing Co-op, which was situated on the site of what is now the athletes’ village, had to be relocated when the LDA (London Development Agency) was granted a compulsory purchase order. Tenants were dispersed into accommodation across London and were, on average, left £50 a week worse off as well as losing the community and social make-up of the estate.
Julian Cheyne, one of the residents of Clays Lane and a Games Monitor activist, had his home forcibly taken by the 2012 juggernaut. ‘Compulsory purchase is a brutal process and from day one the Clays Lane community was lied to while promises were made and broken without a second thought,’ he says.
One of the consequences of the Olympics is that communities have been set against each other. The Manor Gardens allotment holders, who fought a long and successful fight to preserve their community, found they were to be relocated to Marsh Lane Fields, which was common land being defended by the Lamas Lands Defence Committee. Likewise, the Clays Lane travellers, having successfully resisted being sent to live next to a flyover at Jenkins Lane, in the east of Newham, found their alternative move involved the loss of open space and a community centre at Major Road. These different communities did find ways of working together to try to resist the moves. However, when another small group of travellers was moved to a site on Hackney Marshes it caused deep resentment among those defending the Marshes.
There have been other arguments over the loss of open space. The situating of equestrian events in Greenwich Park has met strong opposition from the NOGOE 2012 campaign; local footballers have denounced the loss of football pitches at East Marsh; and residents at Leabank Square and elsewhere have protested at the loss of Arena Field. The decision to create a ‘temporary’ police operations centre at Wanstead Flats has resulted in an application for judicial review, which is due to be heard shortly. The Save Wanstead Flats campaign has seen lively community events, such as protest picnics on the site of the proposed police base, and has received wide support.
The twin spectres of eviction and gentrification work together as long term processes, often preceding and outlasting mega events, to reshape communities with damaging results. Community campaigns have emerged around gentrification in the Olympic boroughs.
In Dalston, Hackney, a squatted social centre, called Everything4Everyone, was established in a listed theatre building. It was occupied between February and November 2006 in response to the gentrification of Hackney and the threat to the building being posed by the new Dalston Junction station and blocks of luxury flats. The area was being ‘developed’ in preparation for the Olympics. The space had a roof garden, hosted film and music nights and a daily café. The theatre was eventually demolished but the social centre brought local people together and events continued in the square opposite after the building had gone. One such event was a public assembly to discuss how ‘regeneration’ affected locals.
Hackney’s Broadway Market faced similar problems. The estate agents appointed by Hackney Council sold off commercial properties worth £225 million for just £70 million, the majority of which went to offshore developer cartels. A campaign to save Broadway Market was initiated.
One of the threatened properties was Tony’s Cafe, which had been running from the same building for 30 years. Tony repeatedly tried to buy it from Hackney Council but he was passed over in favour of a wealthy developer. This happened to many tenants. A campaign to save the cafe saw people occupying the property on three occasions to resist eviction and even re‑building it after it was partially demolished by the developer. In the end, it was evicted to make way for luxury flats, but the resistance saw many people taking direct action for the first time.
Initially, 2012 was going to be the ‘greenest games’ – until the organisers realised this promise could not be kept. The Eastway Cyclists had to argue long and hard to get adequate facilities to replace those lost. Clays Lane residents tried to take the ODA to court, but were refused legal aid, over the threat to their health posed by the disturbance of radioactive materials on the Eastway Cycle Track.
This campaign over the botched remediation of the park has been continued by members of the Games Monitor group, who have uncovered serious health concerns through a prolonged Freedom of Information campaign. ‘They said the Olympics would provide “a unique opportunity to clean up this contaminated area”,’ recalls Games Monitor researcher Mike Wells. ‘Rather than clean up the site, works have spread the contamination far and wide and include the deliberate and illegal burial of radioactive contaminants in the Olympic Park, 250 metres from the main stadium.’
The Nuclear Trains Action Group (NTAG) has long protested over the transport of nuclear waste from Sizewell through London. These shipments have been suspended during the Olympics, which the group claims as a victory for its long-running campaign.
Official and unofficial activities by workers have shown that London 2012 is vulnerable to organised action. The RMT transport union has secured a bonus for drivers working during the increased traffic of the Games alongside a 5 per cent backdated pay increase with inflation guarantees for the next three years for all London Underground staff.
However, outside of its transport power base, the RMT has had activists and members organising around the Olympics subject to blacklisting, alongside members of the building workers’ union UCATT and Unite. John McDonnell MP said that the blacklisting is ‘one of the worst cases of organised human rights abuse in the UK’.
Workers on the various Olympic construction sites have struggled to organise effectively, due to the intentional corporate bureaucracies of the Games and direct harassment. Yet there has been lively resistance to the blacklisting of union organisers with creative demonstrations at dawn among other actions. Facing the prospect of a near 30 per cent pay cut, electricians in the Unite construction national rank and file action committee have staged a series of walkouts and road occupations in London and beyond.
And it is not just the official unions that have been active. A report published in 2010 by the IWW union highlighted the poor safety record that has lead to a number of incidents, some fatal, which have been covered up.
Activists have recognised the need for the wide variety of Olympic campaigns to unite to support each other in the short term and use the spectacle of the Games to build long term, grass-roots networks. There have been several attempts to build anti-Olympics networks, such as the Counter Olympics Network (CON), which is currently hosting information nights, film screenings and history walks and organising actions in the lead up to the Games.
Beth Lawrence from CON explains: ‘It’s essential to bring campaign groups together, so we can learn from each other and also bring a global dimension to resisting the Olympics. We’ve learnt from Canada and Chicago and will help others resist the bid in their city.’ Radical media and research groups have been working hard attempting to bring people together and tell the real story of their, not our, Games. These include the Spectacle film collective, the corporate-critical research co-op Corporate Watch and the Games Monitor website, a comprehensive collection of resources dedicated to exposing the myths of the Games.
Mega events present a massive challenge to community organising, as they throw so many issues at us simultaneously and they are almost impossible to stop in their tracks once the bid has been won. Yet the willingness of people to struggle against the Games shows that the legacy will not be entirely theirs.