The Olympics and the uprising

August 18, 2011

Only a few miles from Tottenham, the epicenter of the recent London riots, and between the east end of Hackney and the west end of Stratford--neighborhoods where rioting quickly spread to--sits London's Olympic Park, home to the main Olympic Stadium and Athletes' Village, as well as a multitude of other venues for next summer's 2012 Summer Olympics.

As the British government imposes austerity measures on its poor and working-class citizens, it has dumped billions of dollars into these venues and security for the 2012 Games. As the riots in London escalated, many in the media began to question what impact it would have on the Games--with the fear that tourists might stay away or more rioting might occur.

Bob Quellos spoke with anti-Olympic activists Debbie Shaw, of London's Counter Olympics Network, and Martin Slavin, of the website, about the impact preparations for the Olympics have had on London's poor and working-class neighborhoods.

THE GOVERNMENT has spent billions on building the venues for the 2012 Olympics while people in surrounding neighborhoods are suffering the effects of austerity measures. Can you describe the dynamic in these neighborhoods?

Debbie: It's no coincidence that the riots kicked off in Tottenham following the murder of yet another Black man who just happened to get on the wrong side of the police. And it's also no coincidence that Monday's activities kicked off in Hackney, one of the five Olympics boroughs, with a long history of insurrection and large Black and homeless populations.

A Hackney resident interviewed by one of the news networks said, "This is an Olympic borough. There's a lot of money been spent here recently, but none of it is trickling down." There's a video on YouTube right now where a masked woman coming out of a shop is asked what she's doing, and she says, "Just getting my taxes back."

It's also no coincidence that the majority of the people involved are from the generation that are suffering most from the cuts to government spending. They're the same kids who got politicized last year when they marched to demand the reinstatement of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the money allocated to poor families to help teenagers study for university entrance exams, which was one of the first casualties of the cuts.

A man crosses through burning wreckage during rioting in London
A man crosses through burning wreckage during rioting in London

People have been Tweeting that they don't understand how this could happen less than a year before the start of the Olympics, but what they are really not understanding is that these kids couldn't care less.

Support for the Olympics was manufactured in the first place. Since then, the most vulnerable people have been the ones to suffer most. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if you see services being cut all around you, and you or members of your family are suffering while a huge Olympic Park is being built in your neighborhood--which you, indirectly, are paying for, but which is completely irrelevant to your life--then you're going to take action to take back some of that wealth right from the source. That is, the corporations that will be the only ones to benefit in the long run.

Martin: Stratford is the main transport interchange for access to the Olympics and the site of a huge new retail shopping center. That area has some of the most acute poverty and social deprivations. It's an area where the poor have been getting poorer for at least the last 15 years, and during the recession, the state has removed whatever social welfare has been in place.

IT'S OFTEN believed that the Olympics jobs for the local community, but the neighborhoods surrounding the Olympics sites are suffering from high levels of unemployment. Can you speak to that disconnect?

Martin: Hackney is one of the poorest boroughs in London, and the boosters of the Olympics have promised that the Olympics will begin the turning around of that situation. They promoted it by saying that everybody will benefit.

But as we know from the history of the Olympics, the opposite is true. Politicians, construction companies and certain large corporations in the sporting business do very well out of it. But for the local poor, the situation just gets worse for them.

Debbie: During the construction of the Millennium Dome, only 12 percent of the jobs went to locals. The same thing is already happening with the Olympic development. The training schemes set up to equip local residents to take advantage of the construction jobs created by the project aren't keeping pace with demand, meaning that the majority of the jobs are taken by migrant workers from Eastern Europe.

The outcry from businesses and corporations against the current government's cap on immigration proves the need for these workers and the impossibility of sourcing sufficiently skilled employees from the local population in time to meet building deadlines.

In May 2007, a report from the Centre for Cities predicted that less than 8,000 jobs would be created prior to the games, and only 311 would be added after the event. The same report pointed out that the displacement of industry from the region would see the loss of 30,000 manufacturing jobs.

Any gains in employment prospects are likely to match the pattern of Canary Wharf, with high-earning professionals both living and working in the area and lower-paid service sector employees on minimum wage, short-term contracts having to negotiate London's phenomenally expensive transport network to bring home a meager pay packet.

ONE OF the complaints from people on the street is the constant stopping and searching of young men by the police. At the same time, the Olympic sites have created a heightened security state at their perimeter. Is there a relationship between the stopping and searching by the police and the Olympic security?

Debbie: Undoubtedly. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act allows police to stop and search anyone they believe is "carrying drugs, stolen property or a weapon" or if they have reason to believe that you might be involved in acts of "terrorism." In reality, Section 60 is used disproportionately to harass young, particularly Black, men.

The police don't have to justify why they are searching you, they just have to tell you that they suspect you. And, of course, if they find what they're looking for, they can take you to the local station for processing, effectively making sure that you are off the streets, and sowing paranoia among communities. I know people who have been arrested because they were carrying tools that they had borrowed to fix up a squat. "Weapon," in other words, is very loosely defined.

The effect that this has, overall, is to keep people deemed "undesirable" off the streets and away from the tourists. I'm guessing here, but I suspect that the recent escalation of stop-and-search has been largely orchestrated to wear down resistance and instill a culture of fear. But the real effect is that the police have set themselves up as targets for the anger that has been simmering within these communities for some time.

Martin: The most direct link is the ramping up of [closed-circuit] TV everywhere, and the fact that the whole security operation is aimed at the prevention of anything like a terrorist attack.

The Olympics site is a highly surveilled and militarized site. The amount of surveillance that takes place in various forms in the streets and areas around the site is ramped up to a different level, and that is accompanied by a number of private security companies. You just have to be a tourist and go to the main tourist viewing spots to become aware of security guards being everywhere. The impact of that is that the stop-and-search either of Muslim and Afro-Caribbeans has increased, especially in areas like Stratford.

GIVEN THE rebellion, what do you expect to see from the government's in terms of its security response during the 2012 Olympics?

Debbie: That's an interesting question. London's Mayor Boris Johnson has recently said that "with the world looking" at the UK ahead of the Olympics, it was time for the government to "have another look" at police funding. I can't remember the exact figures, but there are plans to substantially cut police budgets, and Boris is likely to have a lot of supporters in proposing that the cuts be postponed.

On the other hand, there is the terrifying prospect that the Olympics could be policed by private security. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that the cost of such a project could be offset by the resale value of the Olympic infrastructure. It would make sense to employ private security who would have less accountability than the police and whose tactics would be less likely to be scrutinized. That aside, what the recent insurrection has demonstrated is that people are not so easily intimidated.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of people who were out on the streets over the last few days, but 850 were arrested in London alone. This puts a huge strain on the system and many of these kids know only too well how it works and how to play it.

The other thing is that the government are going to have to deal with the fact that the Olympics takes place exactly a year from now, when schools and colleges have closed for the summer. So even if things calm down now, there is another flashpoint waiting to happen, and the targets will not be the Olympic sites themselves, but the shopping centers and other tourist traps which are spread out right across a mega-sized city.

So they've either got to make real efforts to talk to these communities and understand their grievances, or else bring in the army.

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