There was a furore in Fleet Street and Westminster alike last week when Len McCluskey, leader of the UKs biggest union (Unite), called for civil disobedience during the London 2012 Olympic Games. In the same week, the Our Olympics Campaign group set up to coordinate efforts to Reclaim London 2012. There have since been justifications and repudiations as to why it is neither right nor appropriate to take such action. Today’s article answers to critics of civil disobedience and sets out why it is both right and appropriate to protest in and around the Olympics this year.
The case for civil disobedience over the Olympic cans be put fairly succinctly. The country (and the world) was plunged into ‘austerity’ by a decision to push private debt onto the public books in 2007/8. Since then, our government has engaged in ideological policy to dismantle the welfare state including education, the police and the health service under the guise of this austerity. The very corporations most benefitting from or responsible for this situation are sponsors or contractors of the Games. Therefore, where better to protest all of the above, than at their party – which we paid for by the way. Frankly, the only argument put forward against taking such action is a call not to spoil the party, and be unpatriotic. I argue that this is our party, we paid for it, and we can cry foul if we want to. Loudly, so the whole world hears.
Now let’s take a look at the full facts of the argument for taking action this summer.
A good place to start is taking a look at the sponsor list for London 2012. To even the untrained eye, this reads like a who’s who of corporate cruelty and misdeed.
Fresh from a recent history of causing gross environmental damage and death to man and beast alike, which saw its former Chief Tony Hayward resign in disgrace after mishandling entirely the communications around the catastrophic spill in 2010. I covered the BP story in 2010, writing about their misdemeanours and complete disregard of health and safety procedures, together with the costs of such behaviour. It was announced this week that BP pay only $7.8bn of their $20bn compensation fund to those impacted.
Dow are well known for corporate misadventure over the years, but in particular they are the owners of Union Carbide. Union Carbide were responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, which left 500,000 people captured in a noxious gas cloud after the company’s dilapidated plant leaked. I wrote a full article on BP and Union Carbide detailing the horrendous industrial accident which left tens of thousands of men, women and children dead and a toxic legacy for the town of Bhopal in India. Dow refuses to pay real compensation to the hundreds of thousands of victims. Devastating injuries, blindness, death, increased still births, children born with birth defects and general ill health continue in the contaminated town.
Now, to have a fast food chain and contributor to the obesity epidemic like McDonalds sponsoring an elite sports event such as the Olympics should sound alarm bells for anyone. If the aim of the Olympics is to promote health, fitness and encourage children into sport – how is chugging McFlurrys and Big Macs consistent with this messaging? This company should be nowhere near the Olympics and by being allowed in, McDonalds lay claim to an image which they have no entitlement to.
Lloyds Banking Group
Lloyds Banking Group is one of the banks which received a hefty bail out from the tax payer purse during the financial crisis. It is possible to claim that Lloyds would not have required this bail out had they not taken over the beleaguered HBOS brand which sank under the weight of its exposure to toxic debt in 2007/8. However, the core Lloyds business posted losses this year due to compensation payments it was required to make after losing a high court battle. Lloyds was found guilty of misselling Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) to its many customers over a number of years. Customers needed to be compensated after spending high and unnecessary sums on PPI when they were either unaware they had even signed up for it, or were not fully informed of what they were signing up to. Hardly a paragon of virtue and ambassador for British Corporate ethics.
ATOS, a private health conglomerate are sponsoring the Paralympic games and their chief now sits on the Paralympics board. ATOS have been the bane of the existence of many people finding themselves unable to work due to mental or physical ill health. Recent ATOS horror stories include signing a woman fit for work who committed suicide under the pressure within weeks. This person was not alone. Several stories have reach the media of vulnerable people who have been found to have self harmed or attempted suicide as a result of the stress caused by undertaking ATOS medical screening, work assessments and/or suffering withdrawals of benefit; among them Paul Wilcoxson (33), Leanne Chambers (30), Paul Reekie (48), Christelle Pardo (32…and son), Elaine Christian (57), and David Groves (56). Real people, breaking under the pressure of a company brought in to beat people back into the workforce by hook or by crook, regardless of their ability to cope with the mental or physical pressure. It seems absurd and offensive to many, that a corporation infamous for its disregard for the rights and wellbeing of the disabled, should be basking in the reflected glory by sponsoring an event for the disabled.
The security giant G4S won the contract to manage security around the London 2012 games. G4S have been doing alot of work with government recently. My recent article covered the story of Lincolnshire Police Authority approving a £200m deal over 10 years for G4S to run a police station in their patch. This means a private, unaccountable firm in charge of the control room and despatch, the custody suites aswell as the ‘back office’ functions such as HR, Finance and IT. Within days it was announced two other police forces (Surrey and the West Midlands) are out to tender in the same process. G4S already manage custody vehicles, prisons, and probation services – now they are beginning to take over police stations. This is the privatisation of one of the most critical public services we have, handed over to commercial interests.
There have also been huge concerns raised about the sheer cost of the Games, as it has evolved from a great sporting event to some kind of international beauty parade, with an opening and closing ceremony to match to state pomp of say, North Korea. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been blown on fireworks, light shows and hula hoops. Yet, we were told during the Welfare Reform Bill debate that it was impossible to spend much smaller sums keeping disabled people in their homes. The estimated bill for hosting the Olympics in 2005 was around £2bn. By 2007, this rose to almost £3bn. Then, it spiralled to £9.3bn. So, whilst the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, might be gleefully informing us of a £500m potential underspend, this is on the back of a £7bn overspend. Think I’ll keep the champagne corked for that one.
The promise of the investment was a regenerated south east London, great sporting legacies for the local community and more green space for the community to enjoy. In short, we were paying not just for the Olympics, but an investment in our future.
However, with the majority of the Olympic sports venues being handed over to private ventures after the Games – this promise seems pretty hollow to the most disadvantaged groups in London, who are struggling to fund eating and bus trips to school, let alone entrance tickets for football matches and concerts.
The biggest promise, at national level was the Schools Games. This programme, funded to the tune of £162m a year, promoted sport in schools, and encouraged schools to train up their students to compete in a children’s Olympics. The Schools Games would take place in the Olympic Park, and continue as a tradition long after the 2012 Games.
Enter Michael Gove. Despite the percentage of children engaging in 2 or more hours per week of sport rising from 20% to 85% between 2003 and 2010 – the Education Secretary cut the programme in his first months in post. Amid public furore, he partially reinstated funding by just half, asking schools (already struggling to balance a blighted budget) to find the other half themselves. Even this funding line will end this year.
When the show is over, important marshes will be left destroyed, public spaces privatised with entry costs out of the reach of the local community, and the importance of decent sports education and facilities in our schools abandoned. I don’t know about you, but £9.3bn strikes me as a little steep for that.
“We believe this government, and governments before it, are systematically disassembling critical social safety nets which it took us centuries to develop.
We believe that taxes should be spent delivering public services for the majority, not being redirected into private sector providers for minority profits.
We believe that we can Reclaim London 2012, by making it the greatest act of civil disobedience of our time.
We believe non violent civil disobedience is the megaphone for the unheard majority. Let’s make sure they hear us at London 2012.”
The call to action over the course of the Games, is about saying to the world that there is large scale discontent in Britain about the way its people are being treated.
The Welfare Reform Bill and the tone of the pro-debate sought to make villains of the vulnerable; disabled people looked at as scroungers out for every tax payer penny they could get their greedy mitts on, rather than human beings in need of support to work, or not.
The Health & Social Care Bill (NHS Bill) sees a de facto privatisation of the NHS as it drives ever greater numbers of services into private hands, meaning taxes which should fund services are redirected to provide profit to private interests.
The Government’s workfare programme (which several of the sponsors participate in) amounts to tax payer funded forced labour.
We are still waiting, with absolutely no sign of hope, for a single person responsible for the financial crisis of 2007/8 to be taken to court for their actions, and not one piece of legislation has been passed to regulate the derivatives market which collapsed the world economy overnight.
No, instead, the private debt which would have crashed these banks, was transferred into public debt, and the tax-paying public is being asked to pay, through austerity, for the crisis.
Worse, they are seeing their services not only cut, but privatised so that they get less for more.
David Mitchell, wrote an article for the Guardian newspapers Comment is Free section this week entitled ‘There’s a lot wrong with Britain, but that’s no reason to spoil a good party’. He said that we should simply enjoy the party of the Olympics and forget about our woes for a bit, take a break from protesting and just let it all hang out.
It reminded me of Martin Luther King Jrs famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail. This letter is considered one of the greatest arguments for non violent civil disobedience ever composed, so I invite you to read it in full. However, in it, MLK rails at the ‘white moderates’. In the letter, he attests that the white moderates are in fact a greater barrier to the civil rights movement than the hardest faced bigots in town. Why? They have no stomach for non violent civil disobedience. Because they, with their refusal to rock the boat, their reluctance for mess and conflict, always look to the vulnerable groups to be patient, wait, and some day one day get handed their rights. David Mitchell and those who argue the case for ‘dont spoil the party’ are the white moderates of our day. It is all too easy to say: ‘Not now, later. It will all be okay in time.’ MLK says time, in itself, is not an agent of change. Time is merely the passing of moments. It is what we choose to do with those moments that makes the change. People making choices, not time. To think otherwise is simply pointless wishing, and an abdication of responsibility for being the change maker. While David might be content sneering at Bankers on his weekly panel programmes, this won’t bring the change. Every single human being impacted by these appalling decisions of recent years has the absolute right to make a stand for themselves, as no one else is standing for them.
We are walking in the footsteps of giants. But this is our time, we are it. This is our struggle. Our endeavour is to reclaim our public spaces, classrooms, hospitals and police stations.
During the 20th century, anti-apartheid campaigners used civil disobedience at and around major sporting events, including the Olympics, to highlight the injustice of apartheid. They were not popular. They were called trouble makers, dirty hippies, wasters, crusties, radicals and told to get a wash, a job and stop ruining everyone’s fun.
Today, we have an ever developing campaign of economic apartheid, on a global scale with local impact. And it is our turn to disobey. We won’t be popular either. But who really cares?
I love sport, I love the commitment of each and every athlete who has trained for years to hone themselves into shape for this competition. I also love a good party. But I will be supporting the civil disobedience during the Olympics. Why? Because of all of the above. Because we have come to a point where the government are calling people ‘job snobs’ for expecting a day’s wage for a day’s work.
We can wave our banners, we can march, we can make noise, and who says we can’t enjoy ourselves at the same time? I believe in retaining a sense of humour and a big dose of joy, always. Yes we’re intent, yes we’re outraged by these policies, yes we are determined to make London 2012 the greatest act of non violent civil disobedience of our time. And yes, we will be laughing with each other as we work together to make it happen – and celebrating like we won the 100m when we achieve it.