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.