Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ain't Got No Highs: How the Olympics are Changing London

Guest post by David Renton, who runs the lives; running blog. I've asked David to give a first hand account of what impact the Olympics are having on the lives of people living in London.

It’s the small things you notice. Getting ready to board a train from Waterloo station, I see six police officers with semi-automatic pistols. There were of course policemen carrying guns in London before the Olympics; just now, there are more of them. In Stratford, an ugly red observatory tower is built and named after Britain’s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal. There were plutocrats before; somehow this seems more brazen.

In the first quarter of 2012, a greater proportion of London tenants were subject to possession orders than anywhere else in Britain. Lord Coe did not invent the phenomenon of the avaricious landlord. But the London Organisers were well aware that London 2012 would represent a windfall for private landlords to charge inflated rents, this indeed was part of the Games’ supposed attraction. They can hardly have been ignorant of the corollary, that in order to create the necessary empty spaces in which corporate travellers can stay tenants are being forced from their homes.

Speaking at a meeting within one of the London boroughs, the discussion turns to the multiple plastic boxes that have been left at the side of the roads. “Originally, I thought they might be something to do with the London missiles”, a friend tells me, before continuing (ruefully), “now I just think they are holding Olympic road signs”.

I have not myself seen a sign for the Olympic Route Network, nor for the Games Lanes that will cover central and East London, although I like many other Londoners have started to ask myself how I will get to work, when between my home and my workplace there are a series of what posters on the London underground now euphemistically describe as “hotspots”, i.e. parts of the public transport network through which travel times will be reduced to slower than the slowest crawl.

Nor have I seen any graffiti against the Olympics, although images being shared on Facebook are easily traceable to that long expanse of low-rise Victorian housing that covers much of the former marshes of Hackney, Newham and Walthamstow.

My children ask me about the Olympics. For my eldest, already at school, the Games represents a rushed and decontextualized “special topic” on an otherwise unknown ancient Greece. His school took part in a competition to construct a special Olympic torch. There was a vague suggestion that by taking part the children would earn tickets to the Games. Needless to say they have not materialised. And there are similar complaints from schools a
ll across London.

The corporate travellers in their designated coaches, due to be booked in large numbers by the world’s wealthiest companies, have not arrived yet. Neither is their word yet of the super-rich, who will be expecting bespoke parking space for their private yachts and jets on the Thames and in London’s public airports.

'The military manoeuvres have begun. As part of Exercise Olympic Guardian, the airspace above our heads was “buzzed” for several days by fast-flying military jets. More troubling was the photograph, leaked to the BBC, of the sonic crowd-control device now stationed on HMS Ocean in the Thames. The soldiers controlling the weapon have refused to rule out the use of the device on its ear-splitting settings, intended to disorientate and deafen potentially hundreds of people at a time.

The distinctive combination of the Olympics to London life is that it accentuates trends which were already established towards the geographical segregation of the rich and poor, and towards the greater use of aggressive policing, as the old mechanisms atrophy that were formerly intended to generate social consent.

Some of these trends are embodied in the new Westfield shopping centre, which contains almost-unvisited units for designer fashion brands well out of the reach of the ordinary London budget let alone that of Stratford residents. A tell-tale sign is the way in which the shops advertise clothes and watches, but not their price (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it).

The Westfield squats in the space that might otherwise be a genuine civic centre (libraries, town halls, etc). The Westfield is a large shopping area surrounded by private roads, with police and security guards pervasive. You are allowed in to the centre shop, but excluded if you have no money with which to purchase. And if any of the many organisations of the East London left were daft enough to set up a stall, they could expect to be moved on in seconds.

Inevitably the word comes back – from workers and pensioners, as well as those with more money – that they are leaving London for the Games. Meanwhile, those of us who are organising protests against the Olympics do our best to restrain people from voting with their feet. You can’t run from oppression.