I was at WOMAD last Friday when the £27 million Olympics Opening Ceremony took place, but a screen had been set up especially for the occasion, and I managed to catch everything from the 800 nurses celebrating the NHS, through the tour of Britain’s modern musical history, to the start of the athletes’ processions.
The disorientation I felt initially has not gone away — a celebration of the NHS taking place while the current government, largely unopposed by the British people, has begun the process of destroying it, pushing through dreadful legislation despite the opposition of a majority of healthcare professionals, with the sole purpose of forcing the NHS to be prised open for private companies to profit as much as possible from it, while, over time, cutting the universal provision of services, especially to those who have little or no money.
There was also a disorientating musical celebration, which specifically included music that was either banned or caused consternation at the time of its release — the Sex Pistols performing "Pretty Vacant," "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and "Firestarter" by the Prodigy. It was a good recap of the music that has defined Britain’s cultural landscape — also including the Clash and the Specials, to name but two of the many overtly political acts included — but at the same time it also failed to explain why such ferocious music had arisen in the first place; how, indeed, much of this music had come about because Britain is such a hard country to live in, in which the establishment has persistently done whatever it can to make life particularly difficult for young people unfortunate enough to be born without a silver spoon in their mouths.
As a child of Thatcher’s Britain, I know that this was obviously true for the 1980s, but it is just as true now, and it is my contention that, with our existing economic difficulties, compounded by an idiotic government that has no policies except savage austerity cuts that are only making a bad situation worse, the focus of any cultural exercise should relentlessly be on how to revive the economy and give hope to the young and the unemployed rather than looking backwards, through rose-tinted, or even nostalgic left-wing lenses at British history, and, in the end, contributing to, rather than challenging the spending an insane amount of unaudited taxpayers’ money on an orgy of corporate bullying, competition, nationalism and military might that is the least appropriate thing that could possibly be happening in Britain right now.
I’ve since seen the rest of the Opening Ceremony, with William Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills rising out of the ground, erasing England’s Green and Pleasant Land, and the Suffragettes and all the other components of the spectacle, but the impression remain the same — a diversion from the painful truth; that the expense of the Olympics is unacceptable, as is its aggressive promotion, and its excuse to quash all dissent. Danny Boyle and his colleagues did as good a job as possible, if we lived in a vacuum, but as it stands they would have been better off walking away and allowing something more obviously imperial to have taken place instead. This is not the time for a "feel good" spectacle; given the scale of the assault on the very fabric of the nation by the Tories and their Lib Dem stooges, it is the time for rebellion.
Before I left London — for a refreshing multicultural bubble in Wiltshire with no aggressive corporate sponsorship — I had noted that the monthly Critical Mass event, the leaderless gathering of cyclists in London that has been taking place on the last Friday every month since 1994, happened to coincide with the Olympics Opening Ceremony, and I wondered if there would be trouble.
Had I been in London, I would have taken part, but as I was in Wiltshire, and avoiding the news for a few days, it was not until I returned to London that I read that the Critical Mass cyclists, who have always shunned attempts to let themselves be organised by the authorities — and who secured a court ruling in their favour in November 2008, when the Law Lords ruled that the police did not have the right to demand prior notice of the date, time and route of Critical Mass events and the names and addresses of the organisers — had disobeyed an instruction to stay south of the river, and 182 of those taking part in the ride had been arrested, either on Stratford High Street, or in a side street where some of them had been kettled by the police for several hours before they too were arrested.
Jonathan White, in his 50s, a former investigations officer in the Customs department, told the BBC that "he and other cyclists were kettled 'for three hours’ close to the stadium at about 21:00 BST before being arrested," adding that "he was taken first to Charing Cross police station and then moved to Kilburn police station where he was bailed just after 06:00 BST on Saturday." He also explained that "his bail conditions, which apply until 19 September, prevent him from going within 100 yards of any Games venue or entering Newham with a cycle."
A 32-year old electrician, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian he had been "picked up by police, even though he was not part of the event." He said that "he was simply riding his bike past the Critical Mass group when he was arrested near the Bow flyover and held overnight in Croydon in a windowless room with a bare concrete floor." As he explained, "I’d left my home at about 20.20 in east London. I literally got on my bike, rode around Stratford and just started riding up the road on my way to my friend’s house … I was then arrested."
Others also mentioned being taken to Croydon and held overnight in what was also described as a windowless police garage. One, a computer programmer for a London university, who also did not want to be named, said he was held in the police garage :for more than four hours before he was processed." He explained that the police said that Critical Mass "was a kind of protest against the Olympics. They’ve really made it into some kind of anti-capitalist, horrible thing. Personally, I was on a bike ride with my girlfriend and friend and there were other cyclists around us. I wasn’t a part of anything. I couldn’t care less about the Olympics."
Another arrested man, who identified himself as Henry, told the Guardian that, while he was waiting to be processed, "he was beside a 13-year-old who had his hands handcuffed behind his back, along with others who had been picked up by police." He explained, "I can honestly say I had absolutely zero intention of disrupting the Olympics — I really don’t think anyone did. It was about enjoying cycling, not hating the Olympics."
A video of the arrested cyclists, handcuffed and waiting on buses to be driven to Croydon, can be seen here, and on the Guardian's Bike blog, Tom Richards provided further information, explaining:
The Met attempted to limit the ride under provisions in section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986, which states that the police can impose conditions on a public procession if they hold the reasonable belief that "it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community". As Critical Mass, which uses the roads entirely legally, has been taking place monthly since 1994 without ever previously incurring the imposition of a section 12 order its potential to "result in serious public disorder" seems doubtful. It is open to all and welcomes cyclists, skateboarders, roller-bladers, wheelchair users and other self-propelled people.
In a statement, the Met said that the order was put in place "to prevent serious disruption to the community and the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games". Considering the vast policing effort and military concentration in the Stratford area, it is difficult to understand how a couple of hundred cyclists could possibly have disrupted the opening ceremony even if they had intended to.
Any way you look at it, mass arrests for the heinous crime of "cycling in a group north of the River Thames" on the opening night of an Olympics, which is supposed to be promoting access to sport and active travel, sends a clear message about how committed Games organisers LOCOG [the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] are to any legacy other than a financial one.
A diverse group of people attempting to celebrate their right to use the road safely and in an environmentally friendly manner should be promoted by the Olympics, rather than persecuted for fear of their creating a four or five minute delay on the precious ZiL lanes [named after the lanes used by members of the Politburo in the Soviet Union]. As Critical Mass is a long-running sporting tradition in London and many other cities across the world, LOCOG should have made sure they accommodated it — the Olympics are disrupting normal life in the city enough already without infringing the rights of the participants in one of few sporting events which no one is able to make a profit from.
Some would argue that any kind of disruption during a major national or international event is unacceptable, but I have always felt that this is exactly the sort of mentality that allows totalitarian regimes to come into existence. Like Brian Haw outside Parliament, reminding politicians of their complicity in the mass murder of Iraqi civilians, those who wish to criticise the Olympics should be allowed to do so, in a democracy, in close proximity to the object of their concern — right outside the Olympic Park, in this case.
However, to return to the disturbing themes I discussed at the start of this article — essentially, the dangers of presenting a comforting view of the past, even one that ticks a lot of left-wing boxes, while the country is currently undergoing an unprecedentedly cruel and counter-productive age of austerity for malevolent ideological reasons — the biggest problem with the Olympics now they are underway (to add to the corporate tax evasion, the exploitation of workers and the other fundamental problems I discussed here and here), is that people will forget that the clowns in charge of the UK — David Cameron, George Osborne and their Cabinet colleagues — are performing so poorly that they should be facing a new general election rather than, as our athletes begin winning medals, basking undeservedly in the reflected glory of Bradley Wiggins — and the 15 other British medal winners, at the time of writing.
As Aditya Chakrabortty explained in the Guardian, while the Danny Boyle Show led even his own paper to describe it as "a night of wonder," it actually contained hints of "a country adjusting to relative economic decline" — entirely appropriate following the news that Britain’s GDP shrank by 0.7% this spring, and the analysis of John Ross, a visiting professor at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, who has calculated that, in the last five years, "the UK has been the third-worst economy in the world, just behind Iceland and Ireland," with an economy that he calls "the incredible shrinking economy."
Chakrabortty added that, in Going South, the new book his colleague Larry Elliott has co-written about Britain’s relative economic decline:
[Elliott] uses the Olympics as a gauge of just how the UK has come down in the world. When Britain first staged the Olympics in 1908, it was the world’s superpower; by 1948, it was merely the least bombed-out economy in war-torn Europe. This time, however, the UK is among the most badly capsized economies in northern Europe, desperately hoping to drum up some business through what Boris Johnson tastefully describes as a "schmoozeathon."
That would be the same Boris Johnson, who, yesterday, got caught on a zip-wire and found himself suspended above Victoria Park like a physical manifestation of the other clowns — his colleagues in Downing Street and the Cabinet — who continue to preside over the ongoing economic decline of the UK, a disaster area that no amount of Olympic medals can mend.
Critical Mass should have launched the opening salvo in a carnival of resistance — to excess, hubris, incompetence, jingoism, militarism and the corporate takeover of countries that claim to be democracies. Will it be the case, or will authoritarianism win out, the intolerant succeeding while the shepherded people pretend that the spirit of Blake is alive and well, and that a rock’n'roll hall of fame can change the world?
Note: For more information, photos, links to videos and other articles, see this London Indymedia article.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, "The Complete Guantánamo Files," a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new "Close Guantánamo campaign," and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.