The 2012 Summer Olympic Games officially get underway today in London, but they have already been marked by scandal involving privatized security operations, a heavy overall military presence and debates about who benefits from this multi-billion dollar mega-event.
Of course, those of us in Vancouver know a little bit about the threats to civil liberties that come along with the IOC’s spectacle. So while the world’s television networks showcase the gala Opening Ceremonies today, I thought it was important to check in on the preparations being made by social justice and anti-war activists in London.
Lindsey German is an author and anti-war activist in London. She is the co-author of the just-released A People’s History of London. Earlier this month I interviewed her for the W2 morning show on Vancouver’s Co-op Radio. Below is a transcript of the interview, minus the bitter, incredulous laughter I failed to suppress at the first mention of Tony Blair’s “political comeback.”
Derrick O’Keefe: A High Court denied a petition by London residents against putting missiles on top of their apartment buildings. What is the justification for the missiles, from the government?
Lindsey German: What they’re saying is that this is to protect that Games, and that they need to be able to have missiles so that if anybody does attack the Olympics Stadium they’ll be able to respond. But what most people think, including most of the residents who went to Court, is that there’s already a ‘No Fly Zone’ over London during the Olympics and that, anyway, how can you possibly use surface-to-air missiles in an area as densely populated and crowded as East London?
So people feel, having these missiles on the roofs of their flats — the missiles are also in parks in East and South London — and people feel very, very resentful about it because they haven’t been consulted, they don’t want this to happen and they thought the Olympics was a sporting event and not an opportunity for the military to show off its latest hardware.
DO: For the past 10 years, we’ve been told, or people in the UK have been told by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron that the UK was fighting these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to protect the homeland against a terrorist attack. So why would there even be a threat? What’s the connection between British foreign policy and the militarization of the Games?
LG: Well, of course, the justification they’ve given for these wars is to make us in London, or you in Vancouver, much safer. But actually, of course — even acknowledged by the former head of the British Intelligence services — the wars have made London and Britain a more dangerous place. There is more likelihood of a terrorist attack than there was 10 or 15 years ago.
So there’s a very direct connection between the foreign policy of the British government and the need to protect these Games. And it’s not just the missiles. There are now thousands of soldiers… They’ve had to bring in another three and a half thousand soldiers because the privatized security firm that they wanted to do this job has been found wanting and can’t provide the number of staff needed. So there will be up to 17 thousand British soldiers engaged in security around the Games. Now, nobody signed up for this, we were never told this when we won the Games back in 2005. It’s a very dangerous situation, to have thousands of soldiers wandering around East London, backing the police in certain circumstances, which they say they will do. And with half a dozen sites with missiles… this is not the atmosphere we expect in London and not the kind of situation that Londoners should find themselves in.
DO: The 2010 Games here were also used to promote Canadian foreign policy in general. How much is the British government using ‘national pride’ around the Olympics to push what they’re doing abroad. I mean, there’s supposed to be a thing called the ‘Olympic Truce’ that all the countries sign onto, where wars will stop during the Olympics. But it seems that the PR effort war war and militarism is just amplified by the TV and other coverage of the Olympics. Are you seeing this?
LG: Yes, definitely. We’ve had the Jubilee, which was days and days of flag-waving, promoting the military and all these other kinds of things. The military is supposed to be above criticism, even though something like 70 per cent of people in Britain are against the war in Afghanistan and want the troops to be brought home. So there’s that question.
Also, if you remember the Moscow Olympic Games back in 1980, one of the reasons for the boycott of the Moscow Games was that the Russians were fighting in Afghanistan. Now, if you draw a parallel to today, then a lot of countries should be boycotting the London Games because of Britain’s involvement of Afghanistan. So there’s a lot of double-standards here.
The other thing we’re very worried about is that once you have people accustomed to seeing soldiers on the street, once they’re accustomed to seeing weapons sited in residential areas, this may be something that the military and the government will do more often.
DO: Is there any kind of ‘People’s Olympics’ kick-off planned in London?
LG: Yes, we’ve already had a demonstration and a very big public meeting against the missiles, but on July 28, which is the first full day of the Games, there will be a demonstration in East London, there will be a sort of ‘People’s Olympics.’ And that isn’t just over the questions of militarism and the missiles; it’s also about the corporate sponsorships, the fact that most Londoners have no access to tickets at all — simply can’t afford them — as the vast majority of tickets have been distributed through corporate sponsors and other businesses.
If you’re a spectator at the Games, the only way that you can buy chips — or fries, as you say in Canada — is if you do it through McDonald’s. No other source is allowed to sell people chips, which is a staple food here in London, so that’s making people pretty cross…
DO: Does anyone have a beer sales monopoly at the Games?
LG: Yes, I think it’s Heineken… So there’s all these questions, and people of course find this absolutely ridiculous, it’s the corporate sponsors who will be making huge amounts of money from these Games. And they’re closing the roads — they have special lanes to take around VIPs, and the athletes, and the media. This is mainly aimed at the VIPs, to take them from their 5-star central London hotels as quickly as possible to the Games, and that means, if you live in East London, we’ll have our roads closed, you won’t be able to cross the roads, we’ll have huge traffic problems. And lots of the taxi drivers are saying ‘we’re going on holiday during the Games.’
People in East London in particular are fed up with it. There was a poll nationally [on July 13] which found that 65 per cent of people found that the beneficiaries of these Games will be big business.
DO: That number is similar to the overall opposition to Britain’s wars abroad. And yet you have this unpopular Cameron government looking to be involved in more wars, to rattle more sabres. I’m wondering what specifically the Stop the War Coalition has planned during the Olympics and over the summer around the threat of new wars with Iran, or perhaps even Syria.
LG: We have had a number of activities. Tony Blair is trying to make a political comeback, if you can believe it. So we’re doing our best to stop that from happening. He’s just been appointed as an adviser to the leader of the Labour Party about the ‘Olympic legacy’ and what happens to the Olympic Stadium afterwards. But we’re also very concerned about the threat of war in Iran, and Syria, particularly after the U.S. elections in November. There is a great deal of covert intervention going on in these countries, and this may become an open war in six months or nine months time.
So we’re not at the end of these wars. It’s incredible that it’s nearly 11 years since we first went to war in Afghanistan and still there are more than 100,000 troops there, including more than 10,000 thousand British troops there. And they’re talking about more wars. They have no mandate for this but they keep on doing it.
On Saturday, July 28, there will be a mass demonstration to “to stand up to a government that prioritises sporting spectacles over the needs of the poorest.” For news on this and other protest activities related to the 2012 London Games, check out the website of the Counter Olympics Network (CON).