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Suppressing Dissent at the Olympic Games

“Total Policing” in London

by JULES BOYKOFF

London.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the London riots. In the wake of last summer’s destruction and the flurry of finger-pointing about who was to blame, London’s Metropolitan Police launched what they called “Total Policing.” A peculiar brew of creepy branding and wishful thinking, “Total Policing” has always been freighted with fuzziness—no one’s quite sure what it really means.

But with the recent outburst of political activism during London’s Olympic moment, Scotland Yard’s hazy notion has come into sharper focus. In the Olympics-induced state of exception, “Total Policing” means total paternalism plus political preemption. Two outbursts of activism spotlight this trend: the overzealous arrests of both Greenwash Gold’s “Custard 7” and Critical Mass cyclists.

A week before the Olympic opening ceremony, activists from the Greenwash Gold campaign took to Trafalgar Square to award the gold, silver, and bronze for corporate greenwashing. As mock representatives from Olympics sponsors Rio Tinto, BP, and Dow stood on the stand to receive their well-earned medals, they were doused with lime-green custard. As if they were part of the spoof, police swooped in and arrested seven participants on suspicion of criminal damage. After all, they had committed the heinous act of slopping just desserts onto the Square’s hallowed bricks.

Mind you, no one from “the Custard 7” has been charged with any crime. Yet their bail conditions restrict their movement and thus curtail their political freedom. One activist’s bail prohibits entering Trafalgar Square, Wimbledon, Wembley Football Stadium, Horseguards Parade, Hyde Park, and Lords Cricket Ground because “It is feared that” the individual “will attend these sites to commit further offences due to the fact that they are being used for Olympic venues.”

“The Custard 7” are due back to the police station in late September after the Paralympics have concluded. How convenient. The police tactic of arresting activists on dodgy grounds without leveling formal charges temporarily demobilizes the most committed campaigners at a vital moment. This forces them to carefully monitor their movements for fear of stepping on the wrong parcel of politicized turf. 

Not only does this limit free expression, but it also surreptitiously squelches the possibility of solidarity work. Greenwash Gold activists couldn’t attend a recent protest by No Sochi 2014—a group of indigenous Circassians in diaspora who are challenging Russia’s use of their native land to host the 2014 Winter Olympics—because the event took place on the edge of Hyde Park.

On the night of Danny Boyle’s £27m opening ceremony, Critical Mass cyclists took to the streets for their comparably low-budget monthly ride, something they’ve been doing for some eighteen years. However, police trotted out Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986 to try to undercut the odious act of riding one’s bike with friends north of the River Thames. The law states police can intervene to stop a public procession if they reasonably believe it “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community.”

Never mind that the House of Lords ruled in 2008 that the relevant sections of the Public Order Act requiring prior notice did not apply to Critical Mass. Never mind that the ride was peaceful and not a threat to public order or the “life of the community.” And never mind the irony that the cyclists were enacting the very health legacy the Games supposedly create. Police kettled and arrested 182 people, even using CS gas in the process. Again, activists were arrested but not charged (only three of the 182 received formal charges). And again, draconian bail conditions were imposed, which forbid the arrested from going within 100 yards of any Olympic venues and from entering the borough of Newham with a bicycle.

This is a classic example of what the late Alexander Cockburn described as “emergency laws” and measures that “lie around for decades like rattlesnakes in summer grass.” When activists take to the streets, the rattlesnakes pop their heads up to sink their fangs into the nearest ankle. And should campaigners make their way into an Olympic venue or training facility, another serpent lurks: the remarkably vague “Olympic Offence,” which is defined as “Any crime that has or may have an impact upon the effective delivery or image of the Games.”

This is the state of exception writ large. The concern for activists—and for anyone who values their fundamental freedoms—is that the Olympics will serve as a historical hinge, swinging toward a grim future where these temporary measures become the new normal, where the exception becomes the rule.

Perhaps we should have known this was coming. Back in November 2011 Chris Allison—The Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner in charge of Olympic security—told the London Assembly he believed the “four key risks to the Games” were terrorism, protest, organized crime, and natural disasters. Identifying protest as a “threat” and nestling it between terrorism and organized crime foreshadowed what activists are experiencing today.

In the wake of Allison’s blunt admission, he became a bit more PR savvy—if strikingly paternalistic—suggesting activists contact police in advance “so we can manage your right to peacefully and lawfully protest.” In hopes of channeling dissent, police officials have even done outreach, sending notes to groups like Space Hijackers—the self-appointed “Official Protesters” of the Olympics—asking them to reveal their protest plans. More recently police contacted Critical Mass participants who might be plotting another ride.

In the Olympics context, “Total Policing” translates to hitting democracy’s pause button. As activist and Critical Mass arrestee Kerry-anne Mendoza told me, “You have the right to protest—unless you do.”

Jules Boykoff is an associate professor of political science at Pacific University and a visiting scholar at the University of Brighton’s Chelsea School of Sport in the UK. He is the author of Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming) and Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games (Routledge, forthcoming) as well as is the author of Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (AK Press 2007) and The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch USAmerican Social Movements (Routledge 2006).  He played for the US Olympic soccer team in international competition.