Yesterday’s ‘Countering the Olympics’ conference at Toynbee Hall certainly didn’t lack ambition: nothing less than constructing an alternative narrative to the constant, almost cult-like cheerleading in support of this summer’s Games. It brought together many of the local campaigns that have tried to resist the anti-democratic imposition of the Olympics on London, one that has pressed ahead with little regard for Londoners as anything other than passive spectators and with even less interest in the notion that ‘consultation’ means listening and acting upon the concerns of local people.
There were valuable contributions from campaigners concerned with the issues that have dogged previous Games: the International Olympics Committee’s obsession with satisfying the money-making needs of its corporate sponsors, the use of sweatshop labour in manufacturing athletes’ kit and the dubious claims that the Games will be ‘ethical and green’. Colin Toogood gave an interesting account of the campaign by the Bhopal Medical Appeal against the involvement of Dow as the ‘official chemical company of the Olympics’ and Anna Minton, author of ‘Ground Control’, was excellent in highlighting how London 2012 represents just as much of a government ‘bailout’ as the one gifted to RBS. Despite promises that £738 million would come from the private sector for core Olympic costs, companies have contributed only 2% of the overall figure.
My own contribution was on the security implications of the Games, both on local people and on the right to legitimately protest. There are genuine reasons to fear that east London will resemble a militarised zone in July and August (more so now that soldiers drafted in to support G4S private security will wear their own uniforms) and concern about the excessive use of police powers to stop and question anyone, especially the young. It was good to focus on some positive plans already in place to deal with this: the lead by the Network for Police Monitoring on legal observation of protest and plans by Newham Monitoring Project to offer an Olympics civil liberties helpline, trained Community Legal Observers near to event venues, a basic rights information card and workshops for youth and community groups.
What I couldn’t shake, however, was the feeling that 100 people in a hall in Whitechapel, six months before the start of the Games, have an enormous task in providing a critical perspective on the Olympics that will be listened to. It felt as though the yesterday’s conference was happening rather late in the day, although it probably would have been impossible until now to both get everyone together and to encourage a disparate group of activists to recognise why the Olympics will have an enormous impact on everything from policing to planning.
I also detect a degree of wishful thinking in seeing the experience of previous Olympic cities as a model for how opposition can be mobilised, particularly Vancouver’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2010. The reality is that there has simply been no history of active anti-Olympic resistance in London since the announcement of the winning bid in 2005 that is anything like the scale that there was in British Columbia. Nevertheless, there will be media organisations from all over the world in our city this summer and the majority, carrying no official accreditation from the London Organising Committee, will be eager for stories. The strapline that appears at the top of this blog has therefore never been more true: if you don’t like what’s in the news, then go out and make some of your own.
If nothing else, London activists will need their own independent media centre to coordinate and distribute information on the news we create and, considering the Metropolitan police’s enthusiasm for clamping down on the squatting of empty buildings, we preferably need one that is secure and cannot easily be raided and closed down. So does anyone have an empty building or a hall they want to offer over the summer, preferably near Stratford and on a peppercorn rent, for a independent media convergence space?