Monday, April 30, 2012

Cannabis - The Green Shoots of Recovery

Cannabis is back in the news again. First Russell Brand gave the suits on the Home Affairs Select Committee an education in compassion - and made them look like a bunch of complete tools in the process. Then this morning the BBC ran a piece stating that 21 cannabis farms are shut down every day here in the UK. Finally, in a move of genuine environmental friendliness, I see that a Green Party councillor in Brighton wants to turn the city into the new Amsterdam! ARGH! It must be reefer madness! Since I'm too busy researching stuff on the Olympics at the moment to write anything new, I'm putting up a piece called the Politics of Prohibition that I originally wrote for the esteemed Weed World magazine a couple of years ago, just after the last general election. In answer to the hippy, and deeply dippy, argument that all we need to do is educate those in power about the true nature of the herb, I argue that, as with the moral panics about single-mothers, striking public sector workers, or asylum seekers, politicians love nothing more than to keep the issue of cannabis at hand, ready to deploy whenever they need to go on the offensive. I'll attempt a more up-to-date, researched piece at some time in the future. I promise. Unless I'm stoned.

The Politics of Prohibition

“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:i

In 1928, without debate or second thought, the government of the day made marijuana illegal. Now over 80 years later that ban remains in place, with scant chance of change. With the new government in the UK just six months old, now seems as good a time as any to examine the usefulness of prohibition to governments and politicians.

Following the news that we might have a hung parliament my response was, I suspect, much the same as everybody else: “Hung? Hanging’s too bloody good for ‘em”. The truth is that we now have a coalition consisting of a reactionary Tory party and the Liberal Democrats, the only mainstream political party to have advocated the legalisation of cannabis. All of this is fronted by Prime Minister David Cameron, a millionaire toff who was nearly expelled from Eton for skinning up behind the Bentley sheds.

Of the two parties, the Lib Dems are very much the junior partners in the coalition. This means that the question of cannabis legalisation will most certainly not be on the political agenda. It also remains a distinct possibility that the Liberals will distance themselves from the policy in order to appease their coalition partners. The evidence available so far would suggest that the Con Dem coalition will follow the New Labour example. And it is their track record in office that will allow us to understand the importance of prohibition

 New Labour

For many an optimist, New Labour’s decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug was seen as a stepping stone to a more enlightened policy on drugs. Marijuana was - as it remains - a hugely popular and relatively ‘safe’ recreational drug and the move by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett appeared to be an acknowledgement of its widespread usage. Whilst movement may have been slow, surely legalisation (or, at least, decriminalisation) would not be far behind.

Yet within five years the judgment was reversed - the only time that a Blunkett decision was ever considered too liberal. In and of itself the pronouncement was not overly surprising. Whilst much was made of New Labour’s decision to reclassify dope down from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004, it is worth remembering that far from being a progressive blow against prohibition, it was rather a grudging recognition that threatening millions of people with imprisonment for having a quick toke was simply not a viable proposition.

The question then became why re-classify?  Some have pointed towards Gordon Brown’s own prejudice against drug usage – ironic given that during interviews Brown’s jaw would jut and gurn all over the place as though he had sprinkled MDMA over his morning cornflakes. Yet he did make much of his “moral compass” and his dour Presbyterianism certainly fitted the policy decision. However, is this really the whole story?

The official reason for the change was that powerful new strains of “Super Skunk” were readily available to young people across the country. The supposed potency of the dope was apparently behind all sorts of acts of anti-social behaviour and was a direct cause of schizophrenia.  Brown even went so far as to talk of the dangers of “lethal cannabis”.

But the rhetoric was far removed from reality.  Most obviously Brown’s statement was quite blatantly untrue. There are no recorded instances of marijuana being the cause of someone’s death. It begs the familiar question as to why dope is illegal when cigarettes, which kill over 100,000 people a year in the UK, are on sale in thousands of shops across the country?

As Weed World pointed out at the time, even if the strength of dope had increased, it still paled into insignificance compared with the hash on offer in the 1960s. And, hidden in the depths of the scare stories, it was usually revealed that people committing crimes had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs - only one component of which was cannabis. As any youth worker (or cop) will tell you, the gate-way drug for so called anti-social behaviour isn't weed - it's alcohol.

The questions that surrounded a possible link between marijuana and mental illness seemed to carry more weight, supported as they were by findings in The Lancet medical journal. Yet there are problems with the study. It is a summary of other work rather than a truly original piece and the base figures are low (for instance, a 100% increase sounds a huge amount, but if the starting point is one or two then the jump, in real terms, is minimal).

An additional problem is that it is, obviously, a single report. There are numerous other studies in the public domain arguing a contrary position. The levels of attention lavished on it were in no small part down to the Home Office, who believed that it offered empirical proof of the policy decisions they had already reached. The politicians devalued the study by holding it up as the definitive piece of work rather than a contribution to an ongoing debate.

Disregarding any counter arguments (and cherry picking the scientific evidence to validate their conclusions) officials maintained that once more making cannabis a Class B drug would help to keep strength down and pull the rug from underneath organised crime.

The decision to reclassify was remarkable not insofar as it represented a U-turn in policy but that it ran contrary to the advice of the government’s own scientific advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Comprising scientists, clinicians and a variety of other specialists in the field, the ACMD was charged with producing a report into cannabis in 2008. Of the 24 recommendations to come from the group, the government accepted 23. The only one that they rejected was the advice to retain the Class C status of cannabis.

In the ensuing furore Professor David Nutt, Chair of the ACMD, resigned with the words of the Home Secretary, Alan Johnston, ringing in his ears; “I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy”. Nutt retorted by criticizing New Labour for “distorting” and “devaluing” research evidence.

And so, there we have it. Drugs policy is determined by political expediency - not scientific evidence. For Gordon Brown and co, struggling in the opinion polls and vilified by the press, reclassifying cannabis allowed them to look tough on an issue that they believed would play well with the Daily Mail readers of Middle England.

Meow Meow

Another striking example of the government’s refusal to let the facts get in the way of policy came amid the uproar surrounding mephadrone. The inexplicably popular tabloid newspaper The Sun broke a story that the legal high, designed to mimic the effects of cocaine, was the cause of two deaths.  Caught in a shitstorm largely of their own making, and unwilling to wait for any hard evidence, Brown and Johnson introduced an emergency ban on mephadrone.

Their actions sent the ACMD into meltdown with resignations from members who cited the government’s insistence on treating serious scientific enquiry as an irrelevance, and the issue of drugs as a political football. Some time later, after tabloid judgment had been passed and legislation changed, the coroner’s verdict concluded that mephadrone played no role in the fatalities.

In each case the spectre of drugs is used by a government in order to strike a tough stance. The government find a convenient scapegoat – for crime, poverty or unemployment - rather than admit that their choices and policies lie at the heart of the problem.

Through history religious puritanism, money and even (on occasion!) scientific evidence have all played their part in determining which drugs are freely available and which are deemed illegal. It is also true that the government want to exert a degree of control over the people who elect them. Governments have long tried to tell us what we can ingest, imbibe and inhale, where we can go, who we can go there with, and what we can do to each other when we get there.

If the government was serious about taking distribution away from organized crime and regulating the THC levels of cannabis then the answer wouldn’t be to hard to find.  If they legalized the drug and ran it as a nationalised industry (and, of course, let people grow their own) they would achieve all their objectives and make a few quid as well. Now there’s joined up thinking in times of a recession! Just think of it as the green shoots of recovery.

Instead the drug laws seem increasingly removed from scientific evidence, yet at the same time it is easy to overstate the influence of individual politicians’ morality when decisions are made. Overwhelmingly, retaining prohibition is a political tool. It allows the government to create a moral panic, to perform a political sleight of hand and distract people from its own incompetence.  Politicians have given a new twist to the words of Shakespeare at the top of this article; “best safety” for the government is for people to live in fear of some great danger. Prohibition serves this end well.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Olympics ASBO

As I mentioned in a previous post, Simon Moore was arrested for protesting against the Olympic development at Leyton Marsh and then served with an Interim Anti Social Behaviour Order preventing him from approaching any Olymic venue, activity or official. Below is a statement Simon has issued in response to this ludicrous crackdown on legitimate protest:

My name is Simon Moore. I was recently served with an Interim Anti Social Behaviour Order on my way out of HMP Thamesmead following imprisonment after a peaceful demo at Leyton Marsh. I feel compelled and obligated to make a public statement about it.

On April 14th I was served with an Interim Anti Social Behaviour Order (IASBO) on leaving HMP Thamesmead following four days of incarceration. I was imprisoned along with two friends: Dan & Anita. We had engaged in peaceful civil disobedience at Leyton Marshes, where the Olympic Delivery Authority have organised the construction of a basketball training facility on open, communal land without the consent of the local people. The action which began the chain of events (resulting in imprisonment) involved sitting in front of a lorry carrying cement at the entrance to the construction site on Leyton Marshes and refusing to move when asked to do so by a police officer. I have no remorse about my actions. I was doing what I know to be right. 

The IASBO which is in effect until a court hearing on May 3rd at Westminster Magistrates Court (when a hearing for a longer term ASBO will take place) prohibits engaging in certain activities. It warns that should I do any of the prohibited activities I may be liable 'on conviction or indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or a fine, or to both'. It is signed by a Justice of the Peace from Westminster Magistrates Court and has been sought by CO11: the Metropolitan Police's Public Order Unit.

The prohibitions contained with the IASBO relate primarily to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, although they also include the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, the State Opening of Parliament on 9th May 2012, the Royal River Pageant and the Trooping of the Colour on 16th June 2012. For the exact wording of the prohibitions, please see below.

The prohibitions are worded in such a way which suggests the possibility that its authors believe that the recipient may be intending to disrupt the events mentioned above. This suspicion is most clearly evident in prohibition 4 which reads: ''Taking part in any activity that disrupts the intended or anticipated official activities of the Olympic games or Diamond Jubilee Celebrations''.

I am taking this opportunity to respond publicly to this IASBO.

I have never intended to disrupt any of the ceremonies mentioned above nor would I. This IASBO was given to me following peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience at the Leyton Marshes construction site which happens to be a proposed Olympic training venue. The fact that the destruction of a communal green open space in the heart of a densely populated, deprived urban environment happened to be in the name of the Olympics was not what led me to engage in peaceful civil disobedience there. My activities at Leyton Marshes are not intended to be 'anti-Olympics'. They are intended to highlight what I see is a gross failure on the part of public bodies to represent the needs of the local people in the areas that are being used to host the games. The decision to build on Leyton Marshes is showing that the current nature of the organisation and delivery of the Olympics in London 2012 is undemocratic and unaccountable on many levels. The needs of the local people in Hackney and Waltham Forest have gone completely overlooked and their rights have been infringed on. They have not been consulted on a matter which is important to many of them nor have they had any say. They currently have no access to an open space which is vital to people's health and well being. And rightly many are concerned that they may lose this right for good. I came to Leyton with other like minded people with a common aim to support local people who had decided to do anything peacefully in their power to protect a treasured space. Our activities were soon criminalised by the application of laws which placed the needs of anonymous public bodies and corporations above those of the local people.

The Olympics need not be carried out in this way. There is an alternative which would leave a positive legacy for Londoners. Currently this is not being fulfilled. The situation at Leyton Marshes is proof of this.

With respect to the IASBO, it established prohibitions that I regard as unjust and unnecessary. It also infers that I am going to engage in activities which I have no intention of engaging in. Regardless of this fact, in order to prevent these anticipated activities It criminalises activities which are ordinary and usually considered lawful. For example the 1st prohibition: ''Entering or remaining within 100 yards of any existing or proposed Olympic competition or practice venue or route or participant's residence within England and Wales''. I am currently participating in a 24 hr/day ongoing demonstration outside Lea Valley Ice Centre on Lea Bridge Rd (in front of Leyton Marsh) with tents and banners etc. Lea Bridge Rd is one of the major Olympic routes (one which the Olympic torch is intended to travel down). I protest there with friends to raise the attention of the local population to the situation at Leyton Marshes (not to disrupt the Olympic Games). Sometimes I may walk around the construction site on the Marshes to see what is happening to it. Under the terms of the IASBO, both of these activities are illegal. Prohibition no.3 declares: ''Not to trespass on, or without the permission of the owner to interfere with, any building or land''. I have camped (and will likely do so again soon) on the grass verge next to Lea Bridge Rd next to signs that explain that the Waltham Forest Council (the landowner) do not grant permission for anyone to camp there and demand that we (occupiers) leave. Normararilly this is a civil matter which would have to go to the High Court for an eviction order/injunction to be granted before we could be removed. Because of the IASBO, I can be arrested simply for standing on the verge. Even if I or anyone else was intending to disrupt the Olympic ceremonies or events (which I am not), I would still regard these prohibitions as unjust. Can it be called just to criminalise lawful activities on the grounds that someone may commit a crime later?

By continuing my participation with the campaign at Leyton Marshes I have been placed with a choice between doing what I know to be right or obeying a law that deems my activities criminal and thereby ending my participation. I choose to do what I know to be right. If this means breaking the law then that is what I will do openly and transparently. If I am arrested and or imprisoned as a result, I know that I have not broken my own sense of what I see as just which is truer to me than any law no matter who has created it. Being in prison doesn't change that.

I echo the sentiments of many past and present in saying that if the law says that something you are doing is wrong which you regard as right, then break the law. Likewise if the law requires you to do something you regard as wrong, then break the law. 

The prohibitions are as follows:
"1. Entering or remaining within 100 yards of any existing or proposed Olympic competition or practice venue or route or participant's residence within England and Wales.

2. Entering or remaining within 100 yards of any road being used on that day for the passage of the Olympic torch, or on which any Olympic competition or practice venue is taking place - e.g the marathon - within England and Wales;

3. Not to trespass on, or without the permission of the owner to interfere with, any building or land;

4. Taking part in any activity that disrupts the intended or anticipated official activities of the Olympic games or Diamond Jubilee celebrations;

5. Obstructing the movement or passage of any Olympic participant between their residence, practice venue or place of work and venues being used for Olympic competition or cultural purposes and vice versa.

For the purposes of this Order:

'Olympic' or 'Olympics' shall be construed as referring to both the Olympic and Paralympic Games being held in England and Wales in 2012;

'Diamond Jubilee celebrations' shall be construed as referring to the following dates only

- State Opening of Parliament on 9th May 2012,

- The Royal River Pageant and other Jubilee associated events on 2nd - 5th June 2012 inclusive and

- Trooping of the Colour on 16th June 2012.

'Participant' shall be construed as including competitors, accredited officials, spectators at or in the vicinity of venues at which Olympic events are taking place or are anticipated to take place and the workforce engaged in work associated with the Olympics, paid or unpaid.''

Monday, April 23, 2012

The OFFICIAL Anti-Olympics Blog™

I would like to take this opportunity to announce that, as of this moment, Inside Left is the OFFICIAL Anti-Olympics blog™ of London 2012. I cannot begin to express the overwhelming pride I feel at having finally sealed the deal. And for a not insurmountable sum of money, I might add. Those people at the International Olympic Committee and LOCOG might be trying to inspire a generation but they sure do drive a hard bargain.

It does mean that there will be a fair few changes around these parts. I do of course have a responsibility – nay, a duty of care – towards the Olympic brand ideal. For the foreseeable future (ie the length of my contract) rest assured I’ll try hard to ignore Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, dampen down my rage at the profiteering of the corporations and even suppress my pure, unadulterated loathing of Sebastian Coe. Indeed, Lord Coe – a long-time target for my anti-Olympics ire – is alleged to have said, “The very fact that we have appointed a lefty who thinks he’s funny to write the OFFICIAL Anti-Olympics Blog™ merely goes to show what an inclusive, business friendly environment we have created for London 2012.”

It will be quite the challenge to live up to standards set by my more illustrious Olympic partners – after all they have been sponsoring the games for so long. But still I’ve tried hard to get into the swing of things. This morning I was particularly rude to a call centre worker who phoned to ask if I was would like to change my internet service provider. Afterwards I took all of my re-cycling and put it straight into the rubbish bin. I know this really isn’t in the same league as the Coca-Cola’s and Rio Tinto’s of this world but you have to start somewhere and I know the IOC really appreciates the effort.

Understandably my position as the OFFICIAL Anti-Olympics Blog™ will impact on others. Anyone else in the blogosphere taking a similar position to my own is kindly requested to desist from any more anti-Olympics commentary. Your compliance with this is most appreciated. Similarly you, my dear reader, are reminded that the viewing of any blog, other than my own, is frowned upon in the run-up to the games and strictly prohibited during the two-week duration of the Olympics themselves. Any one found to be in breach of this agreement will immediately be ejected from the internet.
As you can see above the blog will now be emblazoned with my new title of OFFICIAL Anti-Olympics blog™. Furthermore, anything I sell can now bear the Olympic logo. Anyone who would like to purchase a special, commemorative copy of Socialist Worker with a picture of the Olympic mascot scrawled across the front page in felt tip – only £15! - can contact me by phone. In honour of the games I’ll answer after five rings. Remember, we’re all in this together so try not to worry, just sit back and think of the legacy I’ll leave behind for you all.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bahrain Grand Prix

Let’s set our stall out straight away, shall we? I am not a fan of Formula 1. I am not a fan of Bernie Ecclestone. I am not a fan of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Today the three combine in a sickening display of neo-liberal profiteering and political spectacle masquerading as sport. While Bahraini protestors take to the streets calling for democratic reform the BBC have been running trailers for the Bahrain Grand Prix, with F1 presenter and all round non-entity Jake Humphrey proclaiming that the most important thing about the race today is each teams choice of tyre. There is no way in this world that the Bahrain Grand Prix should have been allowed to go ahead.

Since February last year Bahrain has seen a growing movement calling for political change. Over the past few weeks, in the run up to the grand prix, the resistance has stayed on the streets in the face of continued government repression. Two nights ago a demonstrator, Salah Abbas Habib, was found dead after riot police attacked a protest in the village of Shakhura. In Britain there have been protests outside – and on top of! – the Bahraini embassy in London. Bahrain’s record on democratic practices and human rights is so poor that even David Cameron has been pushed into mealy-mouthed calls for reform. Yet F1 chief Ecclestone has refused to call off the race, while the ex-Met assistant commissioner John Yates took time out from denying he was a puppet of Rupert Murdoch to say that he felt safer in Bahrain than he did in London.

Appearing on BBC News 24 yesterday, some anonymous numpty argued that viewing financial gain as the prime motivation behind the decision to push ahead with the grand prix was “overly simplistic”. Well, pardon me for not developing a more nuanced argument than merely pointing out the bleeding obvious. According to the Formula Money report F1 is a global sports brand netting profits of more than $130million in 2010. According to Forbes, Ecclestone himself is worth in the region of $2.5billion. With figures like that who needs cynicism?

But in one respect our news numpty was right. While Ecclestone and his coterie may be dodging protests all the way back to their tax havens, the King is hoping to bank some political capital. Should the race go ahead – which seems a certainty – he will claim it as a victory over the country’s ‘disruptive influences’ and a signal of tacit support from the international community. Of course this is nothing new. Robert Fisk in an excellent article for the Independent makes the point that sporting events have long been used by those wielding political power to legitimise and normalise their rule – referencing the Olympics in Nazi Germany and the role of rugby and cricket in Apartheid South Africa. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Olympics in the second half of the twentieth century will know that the medals table was ostensibly a matter of Cold War propaganda; measuring sporting success trailed in a distant second. Increasingly of late it seems that sport has become a barometer for social stability – particularly in the Middle East. The deaths of Egyptian football fans in Port Said illustrated the tensions of an unfinished revolution, and the return of football matches to Libya were seen to symbolise the start of a post-Gaddafi nation.

Much like a grotesque hall of mirrors in a F1 circus the race is held up, reflecting back a horribly distorted image of reality. As is commonplace, those with a vested interest will decry the mixing of politics and sport while we are left with a feeling of here we go back around again, much akin to watching the grand prix itself. After the race has finished Formula 1 will leave behind a country divided, a people oppressed, and Bernie Ecclestone will be that much richer - but certainly none the wiser.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Big Up Your Bad (Will) Self

I had been working on a piece about the myth of the much vaunted Olympic legacy when I rediscovered this brilliant Newsnight clip from last year.

Will Self totally ridicules the idea that the Olympics are about anything other than big business making a mint while all the rest of us can look forward to is a new shopping centre and a "retail training academy".

As Self says, "I think I could create more than ten thousand jobs if you give me nine billion quid". Oh, and he has a pop at Seb Coe as well. Nice.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Policing Pro-Palestinian Protest

I wouldn't normally blog about work related stuff, but since this video has achieved mini-viral status I thought I'd let people know the story behind it.

After the Israeli air attacks on Gaza in December 2008 / January 2009 the people at my workplace all agreed that we should use our window on Fawcett Road to show our outrage - and our solidarity with the Palestinian people. In the grand scheme of things it's not exactly the greatest act of resistance, but no matter how small a gesture, it felt that we were at least doing something.

The window remained unchanged from the picture above until May 2010 when Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Palestine, gunning down nine activists in the process. At that point we added the words "ISRAEL = TERROR STATE" at the bottom of the window display. It wasn't long before we had a visit from the local Community Wardens - old bill wannabes - demanding to know when we planned on removing the protest as they feared it might be contentious. We explained, patiently and at great length, that this was a legitimate political comment, proven by recent Israeli actions. We assured them that it was in no way a comment on a particular faith and pointed out that a number of us had spent years actively fighting racism and fascism in the city. Not surprisingly we refused to remove either the flags or the words from the window.

By September we were visited by another police officer - the one in the video - who opened his "little chat" with the fantastic "I have to acknowledge that my knowledge of this is... quite limited"! Indeed. Perhaps this explains why he didn't feel like sticking around to debate the issue. His comment that they had received two complaints, "One from a Jewish woman, and one from a member of the public" was as absurd as it was, I believe, untrue. Can you be a Jewish woman and not a member of the public?

The whole sorry saga came to a head last year when two uniformed officers came to our door, threatening us with arrest unless we took down the 'offensive' material. They claimed that we were in contravention of section 4a of the 1986 Public Order Act - intentionally causing alarm, distress and harassment (racially aggravated). We shut the door in their face, saying that we would think about it. As the two officers stood outside talking about how they would "break the door down" (because, they said, "the offence is on the inside"), we contacted the local Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and got some legal advice. Eventually the case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service who said that there was no case! According to the sergeant in charge of the 'investigation' they had received a complaint from a local (unnamed) councillor who objected to our window! The funniest part was that the sergeant seemed thoroughly pissed off that he was being played by a politician.

Nobody has ever knocked our door to complain about the window, though plenty of people have stopped to have their picture taken next to it. On one occasion a young man asked me to come outside and talk to his family about what had motivated us to demonstrate in such a way. He was origianlly from the West Bank, though had come to the UK to study in London. For the first time he had managed to get his family across to this country and they had, on a whim, driven to Portsmouth, just to see the sea. As we talked I looked at his mother, tears rolling down her face. In her seventies she had travelled thousands of miles from home and here, in the middle of wherever, was a flag proudly proclaiming solidarity with the Palestinians. It was an immensely moving experience.

It says a lot that, despite support from successive American administrations, the wider international community and the right wing media, Zionists feel so threatened by a single protest in a single window in sleepy Portsmouth. To this day we still get the occasional visit from the police trying to throw their weight around. But the protest remains. FREE PALESTINE!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Your Marks, Set, Protest! - 100 Days to the Olympics

OMG! It’s only 100 days until the Olympics gets under way and everyone is, like, so totally excited! Move over PT Barnam, there’s a new greatest show on earth! And who wouldn’t want to go to a shindig organised by Colin Moynihan, Boris Johnson and Seb Coe? Wow, do those guys know how to par-tay! The athletes are gearing up while multinationals are hurriedly slapping five rings on every bit of tat they can think of. The politicians are so excited that they can’t stop picking up freebie tickets to the beach volleyball – or perhaps they’re excited because they have tickets to the beach volleyball, who knows? All we do know for sure is that everyone is excited about the Olympics.

Except of course they aren’t. Beyond the din of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) and their corporate chums there are voices of opposition, dispelling the myth of universal popularity. YouGov polls have consistently shown that the majority of the people in the country just aren’t all that fussed by London 2012, indeed people are as sceptical now as they were four years ago.

And the figures get worse for LOCOG as soon as you start mentioning money. The latest poll results from the BBC – done to mark the 100 days to go mark – say that 64% of people think too much public money has been spent on the games, and the further you live from London the more likely you are to think that the benefits of the Olympics amount to absolutely diddly-squat. None of which is particularly surprising since the event is costing billions of pounds at a time when we’re constantly told that there is no money. Organisers are aware of this, hence the constant references to the last time London hosted the games in 1948 – commonly dubbed the ‘austerity Olympics’. The last refuge for every political scoundrel is an attempt to evoke memories of the Second World War and the spirit of the Blitz. 

However, what I think the figures underestimate is the level of opposition to the games in London itself. A month ago Metropolitan police assistant commissioner, and national Olympic security coordinator, Chris Allison claimed, “There doesn’t appear to be anyone who wants to protest against the Games”. A soundbite of such complacency was always going to come back and bite him on the arse. People in the capital are pissed off at the cost, the disruption, the lies and the bullying. Yesterday an anti-Olympics activist was given an asbo, preventing him from going anywhere near any 2012 venue, and last week Occupy London were evicted from their protest trying to stop the development of Leyton Marsh.

More than this, the opposition is becoming organised. From the outside it has seemed, at times, a painfully slow process but as the games get closer so the opposition becomes more vocal. RMT activists have organised a meeting on Resistance: The Best Olympic Spirit with 1968 legend John Carlos. Meredith Alexander resigned from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 over the involvement of Dow Chemicals, and is now busy highlighting the woeful environmental records of the Olympic sponsors. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Counter Olympics Network – an umbrella group including many campaign groups – have begun to unite opposition to the games. They have called a day of action countering the games on Saturday 28th July. A brief report of their first organising meeting can be found on Dave Renton’s excellent blog.

Who knows if the opposition will reach the levels witnessed in Sydney 2000 or Vancouver 2010, but finally there really is a feeling of excitement as the Olympics approach. On the day that it was announced that the London games motto is “Inspire a Generation”, we now have 100 days to campaign, protest and demonstrate for a sustainable, democratic 2012, and against an event that prioritises the profits of big business and the vanity of government. LOCOG are getting their O’s confused. The real inspiration for a generation will not come from the Olympics, but from the resistance of Occupy.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

As demonstrations at sporting events go, Trenton Oldfield’s front crawl into the Boat Race was hardly the most profound. It certainly did not contain the heroic martyrdom of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the 1913 Derby. Nor did it have the wonderfully wry wit of Angus Loughran who took a chair out to batsman Chris Tavare during a particularly dull patch of cricket. Seemingly Oldfield targeted the Boat Race as a protest against elitism. It wasn’t the best target, or the best demonstration I have ever seen, but for all my mild criticisms – I’m really not a fan of voluntarism in a wetsuit - I didn’t half enjoy it!

And it certainly pissed people off, prompting the most wonderfully haughty letter in the Telegraph, which said, “The disgraceful sabotage of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was an assault on the values and traditions of our society”! Sky News went to town on Trenton suggesting that a man who was privately educated and has a MSc from the London School of Economics doesn’t have much of a right to challenge elitism. Masters degrees might not be ten-a-penny amongst the working class, but nor do they mark you out as a member of the nobility nowadays. Besides which it’s not the greatest act of hypocrisy one can imagine. It’s not as though it’s Harold Shipman lecturing on GP’s ethics, or Rupert Murdoch presenting a discussion of journalistic standards. Or for that matter making Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy.

Just about every news report carried mention of the Twitter outrage of Oxford rower William Zeng. Amid his denunciations of Oldfield as “a mockery of a man” came the claim that rowing is an example of a fair and honourable pursuit. In so doing Zeng was appealing to the tradition that sees sports as a level playing field, a meritocratic space where the inequalities of everyday life are suspended. But of course that’s simply not true, and in the case of the Boat Race it’s an outright nonsense. To be eligible to compete you have to be a student at either Oxford or Cambridge, universities that still have a woeful record of taking students from state schools, and who talk of taking on more working class students in terms of “outreach”.

If the two boat crews really want to preach the virtue of reward after years of hard work then perhaps they would like to come out in support of those millions of workers who thought they were getting a half-decent pension but who are now getting shafted by the government. Perhaps they just don’t want to stick their oar in… While the papers debated the right to disrupt sporting events what was really being defended was the right of the Oxbridge elite to show off their pomp and circumstance in front of the world.

The most worrying thing about the whole affair is that the government will use this as an excuse to pump even more public money into security for the Olympics. It’s already the case that the cost of providing security at the games has almost doubled to a mind boggling £553 million, not to mention that following pressure from the Americans the government have plans to deploy ground to air missiles to protect the Olympics. While these might deter Al-Qaeda I can’t imagine they’ll be much use against situationist swimmers. But as Sir Colin Moynihan suggested, just one idiot might be enough to disrupt the 2012 London Olympics, though this is hardly fair since there’s every possibility that by then Boris won’t be mayor anyway.  Still the Boat Race is run, nobody died, one of the two indistinguishable teams claimed victory and life goes on. Oar’s well that ends well.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Obscenity of Sport Relief

I meant to post this last weekend, but was a bit under the weather. As the picture neatly explains, I had a bad case of capitalism. But I couldn’t let slip the opportunity to have a pop at the obscenity that is Sport Relief.

As of today Sport Relief 2012 has raised over £52 million for good causes. I can’t help but admire all of the people who spend hours jogging, training to run their mile, cajoling friends and family into sponsoring them in the hope that they might raise twenty quid to give to charity. All those pseudo-intellectuals who claim people are naturally selfish can go and eat their hats. In fact we’ll have a whip round to buy a hat for them, just to add a layer of irony. Yet none of this hides the fact that Sport Relief disgusts me.

First and foremost this is shite television. Not only have we had to endure those endless trailers ‘starring’ Ferne Cotton, we’ve had David Beckham reading from an autocue, and, at one point, we were treated to the sight of Manchester United and England footballers, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, playing a game of table tennis. And unless I’m very much mistaken, Jermain Defoe made an omelette. Go figure.

More pertinently, is it really the case that in the twenty-first century we can’t think of a better, fairer, more equitable way to fix society’s ills than making poor people cough up what little money they have left at the end of the month? And make us run for the privilege? To add insult the BBC wheel out a series of millionaire sporting superstars to ladle on the emotional blackmail, telling us that a donation of £5 really isn’t that much to ask. And it wouldn’t be if you were paid so much that you could afford three houses. Rooney is currently ‘worth’ £25 million, while poor old Ferdinand might have to spend next season raking in £175,000 per week playing in China. All of the self-congratulatory backslapping that accompanies the celebs is as repellent as it is illogical. Oh, and writing as someone who’s known a tax inspector or two, don’t for a moment think that every footballer turning up on these things is giving their time free of charge…

Of course this all came at the end of a week that saw George Osborne’s budget for the rich. After months of being told that we’re all in this together, the top rate of tax will be cut from 50% down to 45%, and corporation tax will fall to 22%. As we digested this news, Sport Relief brought us images of the harrowing experiences of people in Sierra Leonne, and a genuinely moving interview with a grieving mother who was looking for support as she tried to help her children come to terms with the loss of their father. In a strange echo of the budget, David Beckham told us “there’s lots more we can do”, where the 'we' quite obviously meant 'you'. The rich still reap the benefits; the poor still pay the price.

If only the bankers were treated in the same way. Instead of saying “Oops!” and running cap in hand to the government they should be forced to run a series of bring and buy sales to dig themselves out of a hole, with RBS baking muffins and Lloyds TSB holding a raffle. HSBC could show some community spirit and come to the aid of their less well off banking chums. Perhaps they could hold a sponsored silence and we’d give them 50p for every day they went without airing one of their sickeningly pretentious commercials. And Natwest could have a line of overly enthusiastic, clipboard-wielding hipsters on every major high street, telling us that just two pounds a month could help keep Fred Goodwin in his Mercedes for a year. Maybe this’ll happen one day, but don’t bank on it.