Thursday, May 03, 2012

Roughed up then cuffed. Olympic trial run?

WHILE we wait for the results of the elections in London, those privileged to reside in the area affected by the Olympics must continue to worry for their rights and wonder how much democratic say they have in the running of their neighbourhoods.

When some Bow residents heard that ground to air missiles were to be based on the roof of their flats they must have thought this was a late April Fools Day hoax, but it is deadly serious. A meeting being held in Bow tonight will voice residents fears over the stationing of missiles in their area.

On the less dramatic level people in Leyton were not happy about the space where they walk their dogs or go jogging being taken for a basketball training centre. Couldn't existing basketball places be used, they asked. Must east London lose yet another open space? An attempt to block the invasion was firmly, even roughly, dealt with. The Games must go on.

The Greenway which afforded views of the Olympic site and had become a tourist attraction for walkers and cyclists is being closed off now for security reasons, leaving a popular cafe without its customers.

Of course we must not forget the benefits to come from the Olympics. Newham council which has about 70,000 on its housing waiting list has been promised no less than 350 homes to let from the Olympic Village. For now more impressed with rising property prices and curbs on housing benefit it is trying to ship people to the other end of the country.

We have heard several cases in recent years of people with cameras being treated as terrorists and though I'd thought this hysteria by the police was dying down, it could be the Olympics are giving it another boost, to judge from this story, which also relates to the domination of private property over public space, as well as the issue of construction safety. It comes from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom:

On Thursday 26th April, Mike Wells, a citizen journalist who writes for the Games Monitor website, was filming unsafe working practices on Leyton Marsh at the 'chaotically managed' Olympic construction site. As a result of his attempt to film and draw attention to the unsafe practices of an excavator working close to pedestrians on Sandy Lane (the pathway running adjacent to Leyton Marsh), Mike was assaulted first by the driver who did not want the activities filmed and was then brutally restrained by a number of bailiffs resulting in injuries to his ribs and forehead.

Several Shergroup employees dragged him 200m to Lea Valley Ice Centre car park under duress. Several shocked members of the public tried unsuccessfully to intervene and prevent further injury to Mike who had a gash on his forehead and was clearly in pain.

His assailants refused to show ID or explain their actions but appeared very agitated and were ordering people to keep away. One of them was recording the scene and bystanders on video. Police arrived and immediately arrested Mike, who was driven away in handcuffs after being treated for some time in an ambulance.

It was very difficult to get information about where Mike was being held. Eventually we discovered that he was at Stoke Newington Police station, from where he was transferred to Leyton Custody Centre (a facility specially built for the Olympics).

He was tried in an emergency Saturday court session at Bow Magistrate Court on Saturday, and this is where Mike's case becomes even more troubling. Despite being assaulted and injured, the CPS requested that Mike be denied bail. They claimed that the members of the public that witnessed the incident were protestors, taking part in a 'highly organised event' in which protestors were menacing security staff by taking images of them. They claimed that members of the public were 'professional' and had set out to intimidate staff and security. Mike is a professional. He's a professional journalist. Mike, like all of us, should have the right to document the destruction, contamination and unsafe working practices on our marsh without being accused of criminal activity.

It was claimed that Mike 'jumped into the excavator' (a completely unfounded accusation) and in the next breath that he 'published events about the Olympics' as if Mike were involved in propagating incitement to violent protest. Mike is completely dedicated to covering the truth about the Olympics and its effect on communities; he has never incited or carried out any violent protest and in fact has been the victim of violence from the bailiffs. Despite what Mike has suffered in pursuit of covering the truth, he was denied bail on the basis he was of 'no fixed abode'. Mike lives on the Lea in a narrowboat. This is exploiting the strict use of the term in a disingenuous way to justify denying bail.

What is even more shocking is that the Magistrate mistakenly claimed that Mike should not have been on Sandy Lane as this is an area 'covered by the injunction'. The injunction prohibits blocking construction vehicles and staff; it does not prohibit walking or filming on Sandy Lane, until recently a tranquil public footpath that the ODA claims is open to full public access. On the completely erroneous basis that Mike had broken the injunction, Mike was remanded in custody in Thameside prison for seven days.

He has been allowed very little access to the outside world and visits from his friends have been denied.

What further punishment will Mike face for speaking the truth?

What threats may we face for speaking the truth about Mike? That remains to be seen. However, for entirely peaceful actions people trying to save our marsh have faced litigation threats, two High Court Injunctions, prison sentences, an eviction, threat of a further possession order and one individual has been slapped with an ASBO which could result in a 5 year prison sentence. The signs are not good.

This is one incident. The CPBF says that had it happened before the Beijing Olympics it might have made the national media, but it happened in London and so it hasn't. But I wonder how long it is before such treatment of an independent journalist or photographer who upsets business interests becomes quite "normal", after it has been tried out in the Olympics "security" zone?

Hearing that an American company like KBR is in line for privatised police contracts does not make me feel any safer.

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