Security Games: Surveillance, repression and activism around the London 2012 Olympics
Britain launched its biggest peace time security operation ever ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics. Nearly 20,000 armed forces personnel are providing security, almost double the number of British troops currently serving in Afghanistan. In addition to the direct militarisation and securitisation of the Games, it is worth remembering that the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is a publicly funded statutory corporation that basically protects corporate interests by implementing The London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006. It does this by regulating advertising and street trading in the vicinity of Olympic events, which means any publicity material using or subverting the Olympic rings or any other protected words or images can result in a fine. The Space Hijackers, a protest group that has been engaging in inventive campaigns around the Games and, as a result, had its Twitter account suspended, created its own billboard design to highlight the absurdity of the Olympic Act.
It had been promised that all the planning processes surrounding the Olympics would be subject to the new Freedom of Information (FOI) rules, yet this has not been the case, with many FOI requests falling on deaf ears or not answered fully. As a result, activists have often not had access to accurate, reliable information when taking action around the Games. Yet, despite the securitisation, censorship and repression enacted by the government at the behest of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), people have been resisting various aspects of the Games.
Here Corporate Watch's Beth Lawrence interviews Mike Wells from East London about security, surveillance, activism and repression around the London Olympics. Mike is a photographer, reporter and filmmaker working with the Games Monitor group, which has thoroughly documents many aspects of the Olympics and provides a comprehensive resource for anyone researching or taking action around the Games.
Mike was arrested in June 2012 after an incident on Leyton Marshes, the site of a contentious Olympic construction project. He was later released on bail, with bail conditions stating he should not go within a certain distance of a certain Olympic venue. The bail conditions last until his trial is over. The trial date has been set for the last day of the Olympics. His Olympic prison diaries can be read on the Games Monitor site.
1) Why did you get involved with documenting and campaigning around the 2012 Olympics?
Because I lived on the Clays Lane housing coop, which was demolished to make way for the London Olympic ‘Park’. The Olympic beast came after me, not vice versa.
2) What Olympics campaigning have you been involved in? Have you found it useful or interesting?
My connection with the Olympics has been a huge education for me. It is a fascinating thing to observe. It operates more or less like a state, yet it's small enough that, with enough effort, you can see its workings and mechanisms. It is 99.99% pure bullshit. The volume of lies and misinformation that has poured out of the Olympic communication office is impressive.
Personnel from Games Monitor have made use of the Freedom of Information Act in a bid to find out what has gone on on the site in relation to radioactive contamination. This has not been easy and we have felt that the Olympic Delivery Authority has been obstructive in the provision of information, a claim that is now supported by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
3) Official Olympics propaganda has been trying to portray the Games as 'cool' and good for young people. How do you think the security around the Olympics has affected young people?
At the bid phase, when the well-dressed Sebastian Coe and his cohort were keen to use local kids to promote their plans, some of those kids accompanied the bid delegation to Singapore. Coe’s strategy was to persuade voters on the International Olympic Committee that London’s bid would benefit local children from some of the most deprived parts of London. In the lead up to the Opening Ceremony, however, Olympic chiefs were ‘protecting’ the surroundings of the Olympic enclosure with so-called ‘dispersal zones’. Within these, a police officer has the power to order a group of two or more young people to leave an area and to ban them from returning for up to 24 hours. These control orders are aimed at the same local children they claimed would benefit from London 2012. 'Non-dispersal' can lead to a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment and/or a fine of £5,000. It is yet another way through which local young people may begin their relationship with the ‘justice’ system.
During my time in prison, at the state’s expense, I was able to talk to young people from poor parts of London. One likeable and charismatic young man with whom I arrived in prison told me he’d only been out of jail a week when he was rearrested and taken back to jail on a trivial charge not involving violence. He was hoping his mum and girlfriend would figure out he’d been rearrested. He’d been unable to contact them due to the prison’s bureaucracy regarding phone calls. He told me how he’d been in and out of young offenders’ institutes, and now, at 21, he's in jail.
I feel privileged to have been given this window into a world that I would otherwise not have been able to observe. I can report that the Olympics hasn’t even touched the problem of youth disenfranchisement, and claims that it would were just a smoke screen, simply lies, an attempt to persuade us that it really is ok to spend billions on an event that will benefit only a small elite. I'd like to ask Seb Coe: did you really ever believe that local kids would benefit from your project?
4) What’s been your direct experience of security around the Olympics site?
Throughout my time reporting on the Olympics, I’ve been repeatedly harassed, threatened and attacked; I had my camera broken by G4S contractors and have been arrested. I’ve seen other photographers being knocked unconscious by security guards. This sort of thing is often a part of photo-journalism, but it was getting worse the closer we got to the Games. I wouldn’t be surprised if people end up getting killed during the Games. This is all part of the increasing culture of impunity surrounding the elite who have billions of pounds of public money sloshing around for the express purpose of making sure nothing takes the shine off the Olympics. You have elite special forces, the military, police and 23,000 G4S security guards – you’d have to be very naïve not to see accidents and brutality as a serious issue.
5) What's your impression of the security, surveillance and repression around the London Olympics and the Olympics in other cities?
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics are generally remembered for two US athletes giving the black power salute. But about two weeks before those famous salutes, there were student protests in Mexico City. Chanting at these demonstrations included “No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución” - in English, "We don't want Olympics, we want revolution”. Perhaps not the image the Mexican ruling class would like propagated to visiting VIPs during their Olympics. The Olympia Battalion was called on to sort things out. This was a secret Mexican government security outfit set up to ensure the safety and security of the 1968 Games. A massacre followed. Women, children, bystanders and protesters - a hundred or more people were murdered. The numbers are disputed, but probably somewhere between 100 and 500.
Peak surveillance is reached in the London Olympic ‘Park’, which is surrounded by a 17.5 km, 5,000 volt electric fence. The fence is topped with 900 daylight and night vision surveillance cameras spaced at 50 metre intervals. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Chris Alison has publicly stated that the authorities will be monitoring social media and gathering intelligence on Olympic dissenters. The extent of the monitoring remains unknown. New software is planned to integrate all of London's CCTV cameras, and will have the capability to follow you through the city. As well as an array of biometric screening, entrance to the Olympics will also require you and your vehicles to be searched. This will include the use of machines capable of looking through your clothing.
For me, another commonality that jail and the London Olympics share is machismo. Both are muscle-flexing exercises. In the case of the London Games, it appears the power of the elite athlete is to be over shadowed by the state’s display of weaponry - a hijack of the state’s security apparatus as a projection of power, a display of machismo.
Missiles are dotted around the Olympic village, though it is unclear who or what they are supposed to protect 'us' from. There are pilotless drones with laser guided bombs, and battleships on the Thames armed with missiles. I wonder what would happen if these weapons are actually used in a densely populated area like London. Surely the ‘collateral damage’ would be significant, or would that be called a ‘friendly fire incident’?
Command Perimeter Security System, sonic cannons, water cannons, attack dogs, sniffer dogs, fast patrol boats, drones, battleships, bombs, missile batteries, snipers, side arms, fire arms, special-forces, fighter jets, no-fly-zones, control-zones, stun-grenades, stun-guns, undercover personnel, uniformed personnel, biological agents, double agents, close protection, protesters, anarchists, domestic extremists, foreign extremists, self-radicalised individuals, terrorist cells, prison cells, anthrax, Taliban, al-Qaeda, organised crime, disorganised crime, dissident republicans, rubber bullets, CS gas, nuclear detection equipment... The list of suspects and the shopping list of equipment designed to neutralise them is endless.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking London 2012 is a giant security exhibition – ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity’ for manufactures of security equipment to showcase their wares. Because the streets are saturated with security personnel, there is a sense of being untouchable. It’s really not funny. They are militarising our city and it’s a class-based thing – an elite expecting to be protected with this bunker mentality.
6) What do you think about the Host City Contract and the ostensibly temporary suspension of our supposed right to protest?
I like the fact that so many people are finally seeing that, as a nation, we’re walking into a condition of corporate fascism.
7) Is the Olympics mainly about corporate profit?
Of course not! It is honestly all about sports!
8) Do you think there is anything positive about the Olympics?
I have thought a lot about this question and the only thing I can see that is positive about the Games is the fact that middle England can now see that the nation is a multi-racial entity, and the fact that ‘non-indigenous’ people are representing the nation may reduce prejudice.
9) What will the real legacy of the Olympics be?
I can’t wait for the London Olympics to be over. But the Olympics is only a manifestation of a wider problem. The problem won't be over when the five-ringed circus leaves town, especially as the technology and apparatus of control and surveillance will be left as its most meaningful legacy.
I learned the other day about the involvement of academics working with the police on new forms of crowd control. They are using a form of Psychological Operations (PSYOP), which is a branch within the US military, and now perhaps the UK security apparatus. Psychological Operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups and individuals.
I think the authorities are getting quite twitchy due to the likelihood of economic melt down, which would inevitably also cause a social melt down. They seem to be attempting a form of total policing. The problem with this is that there has always been an unwritten pact between the ruled and the rulers – that if the rulers get too cocky, the ruled will rebel. What happens when the rulers no longer need to fear rebellion? What would that kind of society look like? It’s likely that all the surveillance being put in place now, from phone tapping to drones, won’t be wound down after the Games. The London Olympics is more of a security event than a sports event - security outnumbers athletes by a factor of five to one.
10) Do you think the Olympics could ever be run in a way that avoids these negative aspects?
It could be based in Athens for good if the Greeks can be bothered to repeatedly host it! The way the Olympics is organised is just a mirror of the way most other things on our planet are being run – for the benefit of a small elite. I can't see how the Olympics could be run differently unless the whole global system is also changed.
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