By Estelle du Boulay, Newham Monitoring Project
The latest allegations against police for racist behaviour come as no surprise to Newham Monitoring Project. Nor the fact that three of the policemen involved were from Newham. As an independent, community-based, anti-racist organisation, we frequently receive reports of similar behaviour by police. What’s rare is that they make the headlines or receive any kind of effective redress. In fact, the only thing different about Mauro Demetrio, who we have supported, is that he was quick-thinking and courageous enough to record it on a mobile , and the good fortune was that it was preserved.
While the police may feign shock, and point the finger at individual officers, we maintain that the problem is endemic and will only change when addressed at the highest level. With this in mind, we are bracing ourselves for the Olympics and are gravely concerned about how local communities will survive the anticipated militarisation of Newham.
With the eyes of the world on the borough this summer, those in power will be looking for a significant political gain around the management of Olympic security and policing. Ensuring “nothing goes wrong on the ground” will be high on the “Total Policing” agenda and it is easy to see how the long-term interests of communities could become severely marginalised as a result. The growing frequency of stories about an increased terror threat or a potential repeat of last summer’s disturbances follow a familiar pattern: stoking up public fear about “deviant” stereotypes – whether they are young people, migrant communities in general, or Muslims in particular – before implementing controversial and excessive powers that curtail fundamental freedoms.
Our fear is that Newham’s communities will become “guinea pigs” for this unprecedented security operation. In addition to a ground force of 12,000 police officers on peak days and 21,000 security personnel, there will be increased levels of surveillance and the potential trialling of new equipment. Leaked reports in 2009 suggested emulating Israeli and Chinese models of surveillance including widespread bugging. Local people have told us they feel powerless to know how to respond to this and are deeply suspicious that the intention is to retain these schemes after the Games.
The significance of choosing one of London’s most diverse and poorest boroughs to host the games should not be overlooked. Behind the spin of bringing economic regeneration to an impoverished and predominantly black and minority area is the knowledge that those that live here are often the least well-equipped to effectively resist exploitation, through their exclusion and marginalisation from political power and decision making. During the G20 summit in 2009, Newham police warned residents to carry ID to ensure they could navigate roadblocks and gain entry to their homes. This caused waves of bad feeling with the frustration that this would never happen in a “more affluent” borough such as Kensington and Chelsea.
There has already been a great deal of disappointment locally at how promises of inclusion have been broken around housing, employment and attendance at the Games. During the Olympics, youth services will be severely stretched to meet the extended opening hours with insufficient resources, while also managing the impact on their young people of restricted zones and antisocial behaviour dispersal arrangements. At least one youth group is taking young people on a residential trip out of the borough for the whole of the period, suggesting their presence is not welcome.
The impact of street and public-order policing on young people during the Olympics has been raised continually with us as an issue of concern by local people. For under 16s alone, the use of powers to stop without reasonable suspicion under Section 60 – which are incidentally those that are most prone to accusations of racial profiling – saw a staggering increase in Newham of 2,540% from 2007-2010. It is hard to calculate the rate of racial disproportionality before the release of updated census figures later this year, but black and Asian people seem to be stopped at least twice as often as white ones, after taking into consideration what is known about the local demographic. In 2008-9 Newham also had second highest number of first-time entrants to the Youth Justice System (under 19s) in London. Against this backdrop we are also likely to see the introduction of a new search power under the Protection of Freedoms bill.
What all this means for those on the ground remains to be seen. In a sea of fluorescent jackets and uniforms, supported by an underpinning narrative of fear, there is great potential for widespread human rights abuses to go under the radar. Our organisation is preparing for problems such as locating detained people and endless phone calls navigating chains of command to access basic but urgently required information.
With systems of accountability as weak as they usually seem, we are doing all we can to reach out to and strengthen the response of local black and minority communities in advance of the Olympics, by disseminating rights information, providing support and recruiting volunteers to monitor the police on the ground. If the case of Mauro Demetrio is not the exception some would have us believe, this is an absolutely essential response to the challenges that lay ahead.