As founder and spokesperson for the Our Olympics campaign, I set out to create a platform to highlight the serious issues surrounding the funding, planning, corporate sponsorship and civil liberties impacts of the London 2012 Olympics Games. Today’s article gives you my experience spending a weekend at the Paralympics Games…the police escort, the surprise and the thoughts I was left with.
From Armchair Critic to Campaigner
I thought long and hard about attending the Paralympics. My wife had bought us tickets long before I decided I was going to campaign about issues surrounding the Games. It was difficult to prevent the campaign being defined as ‘anti Olympics’, as I never have been. I am however, anti lots of other things like; evicting local social housing tenants to make a profit from higher rents, like allowing murderous corporations like BP and Dow Chemicals to bask in the glory of the Games, like £12bn of public money going largely on creating a space which will become a private residential area owned by Qatar Holdings. These things need standing against. The final straw for me was the Atos sponsorship of the Paralympics Games. You could not pick a less suitable, more ironic sponsor if you set out deliberately to do so. Atos make a substantial amount of their profit through providing ‘work capability assessments’ to test the suitability of benefit claimants. Their computer says no approach to these assessments have seen hundreds of thousands of physically & mentally unwell and disabled claimants undergoing stressful, laughable assessments , having their lifeline benefits withdrawn only to win them back after lengthy and stressful appeals. In 2011, over onethousand people in the UK died during the appeals process with Atos. That’s over 30 people a week, dying of the conditions they were deemed ‘fit to work’ with by Atos. Most recently, Cecilia Burns died of the cancer Atos claimed was an insufficient reason for her not to work full time. She had seen her meagre benefits cut and had to fight Atos all the way to gain her lifeline back. She died only a few short months after regaining the benefit. Now, in the last months of her life, Cecilia Burns should have been free to reconcile herself with her death, be with her loved ones and fulfil any final ambitions. She should not have been undergoing the stress, pain and worry of financial survival.
To fail to be moved to action by such an egregious situation is a matter of conscience for each citizen of the UK, and I had no issue making a stand in the face of mass unpopularity after being motivated by this horrendous situation.
Sue Marsh Made Me Do It
One article changed my mind. Sue Marsh, a passionate and courageous campaigner who has done more than almost anyone to bring the issue of Atos and the Department of Work and Pensions' barbaric approach to cutting the welfare bill, wrote for the Guardian. Her piece was entitled ‘Paralympians deserve our support despite Atos sponsorship of theGames’. It reminded me that the Paralympians were the very community being impacted by the Atos and DWP decisions. It was future Paralympians who were losing the opportunities. This was actually a quite extraordinary platform for Paralympians to become heroes and for a broader number of people outside the disabled community to have a reason to care. Sometimes people need to have a relationship with someone from a community outside their own, to care (to the point of taking action) about the fate of that community. The Paralympics could create in the hearts and minds of the audience, that connection to a previously invisible community. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be there and support the Paralympians.
After my arrest at the Critical Mass bike ride, despite receiving no criminal charge, I was bailed until 18th September 2012 with conditions that made attending the Games impossible. It was at that point I realised how much I cared about it. After challenging the bail conditions successfully in court, I was free to attend once more.
The Long Arm of the Law
We’d joked long and hard in the lead up to our planned weekend at the Paralympics about me spontaneously combusting on arrival, or setting off the ‘Dissident’ sirens as I walked through security.
My wife and I reached Greenwich Park for the Equestrian Dressage events around 8am. As we went through the airport style security, I didn’t explode and no alarms went off, so I breathed a sigh of relief and piled my things back into my pockets. As we walked past a line of police officers, one appeared to point at me and mutter. I turned to my wife and whispered ‘Am I paranoid or did you clock that?’ and to my concern she had noticed too.
As we made our way down a long winding road through the Park to the stadium, two constables appeared at my right side and after a short greeting informed me I bore a ‘resemblance to a person of interest’ and asked to see my identification. I complied. They asked me if being stopped was a surprise to me and I told them it was and wasn’t. They informed us that neither I nor my wife should continue into the venue and an Inspector from Bronze Command was on their way to talk to us. They also told us that it was probable that we were unlikely to make it into the venue.
I consented to waiting to speak with security before entering the main venue but stated that I was not charged with a crime, was not intent on committing one, and am a person of good character having never been convicted of any criminal offense. The friendly constables placed me and my wife in a spot to await the Inspector. Whilst we were talking and making calls to GBC Legal and my solicitor Greg Foxsmith (who has been supporting me and other pro bono through out this harrowing experience) to get some advice and information on our rights, I looked up and noticed we’d been positioned directly under a CCTV camera.
After some time, Inspector Carver and two officers, Pete Dearden and Kelly Bond Vaughn came to speak with us. We were asked many questions including:
Were we ‘horsey’ people, did we have any connections with Equestrian sports?
Had I been charged with a public order offense at a sporting event?
Did I buy the tickets?
Why was I in a police briefing?
And my wife was asked to give her details, which she refused
While we spoke to the police and waited feedback from Olympic Security on their position on things, we chatted informally with the officers. Bond-Vaughn was telling me about watching a medal ceremony the night before and, after years as a hardened police officer, finding herself in tears while on duty. She asked me if I was against the Olympics, and I explained my views on sponsorship and other matters. I also told her how I thought Atos was an appalling choice of sponsor for the Paralympic Games. We spoke about people we knew and the different takes on the night of Critical Mass.
In the break, we went to get some food and saw Inspector Carver and her colleague Bond-Vaughn again. Bond Vaughn said to my wife that while they were watching us on CCTV they’d seen she was clearly a horsey person as she knew to clap silently by doing the jazz hands. It was really funny, but also slightly eerie thinking ‘oh my god, they really were watching us…and we couldn’t even see any cameras’.
Following the Dressage (which was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. There were riders with no legs making horses dance in time to music. Now, if that doesn’t fill you with awe, nothing will) we met with the Inspector outside the stadium and they let us know the bail conditions had been verified and that they had recommended to LOCOG that I be allowed to remain and attend the Athletics at the Olympic Park that evening and the Wheelchair Basketball the next day. They sent an Ops Message out to the security teams at each site we were attending and printed out a new version of my bail record so if any other officers challenged me, I could show them it and prove my story. Finally, they shook our hands, gave us a pack of Met Police Dog Top Trumps cards and wished us a great Paralympics.
One comment I have to make here is that the contrast in approach between the police approach inside the Games, and the police approach outside it on the night of the Critical Mass arrests could not be greater. There was no aggression, no intimidation, and clear communication delivered in a human way, which helped make what could have been a terrifying situation into a not wholly unpleasant one. The police could have applied the Precautionary Principle and booted me out of the place never to darken their doors again, but they managed the situation. I could best desribe it as perfect policing in an imperfect context. In a better country, I wouldn't think it was right for a person to be unable to move about freely simply because of their political and social opinions. But thats not the country I live in at the moment, and until it is, I would prefer this kind of policing of it.
The Day I Fell in Love with the Paralympics
There was a vibe in the Paralympics that I had not bet on, perhaps I’d been over cynical about the people who were attending the Games and for that I apologise. Several times on my way around the park, I overheard people talking about the disgrace of Atos sponsoring the Paralympics, able bodied and otherwise. When Seb Coe presented a medal, it took all my strength to stay in my seat and silently refuse to celebrate the man. The woman seated next to us took to her feet, made the V sign with her fingers about shouted ‘F*** you Seb Coe!’ People wouldn’t cheer when the Managing Director of some sponsor was announced as a medal presenter; there would be a deliberate and noticeable silence in contrast to the booming cheers for Paralympians and people that mattered. Perhaps the greatest moment, almost unprecedented in any Olympic/Paralympic arena, was to see 80,000 people boo down the Chancellor of the British Government, George Osborne. They were saying – we are here for the sport, don’t think we’ve forgotten what you’re up to. Osborne was not alone; Jeremy ‘HackGate’ Hunt and David Cameron faced similar reactions.
Meanwhile, outside the stadium, Atos were coming under a never before witnessed level of scrutiny. All the main news channels were carrying interviews with disabled activists such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) who along with UK Uncut ran the hugely successful Atos Games through London in sync with the Paralympics. This was compounded when the Paralympics GB athletes hid the Atos lanyards they were asked to wear duringthe opening ceremony to protest the sponsorship.
There was an extraordinary sense of excitement entering not only the Olympics Park, but Greenwich Park with the Gamesmakers building up the mood all along the route from the train stations. ‘Give us a smile!’ they cheered, or one suddenly appearing and giving you a high five. I could see how it had melted the hearts of the most cynical people. It suddenly dawned on me that this feeling that people were experiencing, the talking to people they’d never met, smiling when they made eye contact with people, sharing tables to eat their food and naturally starting conversations. This bonding experience might be the biggest legacy for us and a big backfire for the government. People were getting related, people were experiencing what it’s like to be in a real community, even just for a day…free from Austerity Britain and Cameron’s Big Society nightmare. They had a chance to remember what it’s like to be happy, to care about someone else winning, and how much better life is when your experience being part of a team. In some ways, the people in the Olympic Park were getting a sense of what I know I and many people who campaign or protest or Occupy feel all the time.
Finally and most significantly, was the experience of seeing Paralympic athletes performing the most incredible physical feats. In the first half hour of a session I admit to spending my time going ‘how the hell is she doing that with no legs?’…or ‘These guys have cerebral palsy and they’re running 400m laps in under a minute! Whoa! But after a short while, the disabilities disappeared and all I could see were elite athletes. During the post event interviews, the list of thank yous from each Paralympian was always enormous, and they made it clear how many people and organisations made it possible for them to achieve what they had.
Making the Difference
The truth is, it is going to take us all to mount the fight of our lives to ensure we even have a next generation of Paralympians. If you are a fan of the Paralympics, you now have vested interest above and beyond any moral code, to make a stand against the thoughtless ideological attacks on the welfare system. This is not simply about Atos, they are the monkey, and the Government is the organ grinder. It is also a chilling reminder of the state of our democracy, that it was Labour who first hired Atos and unleashed them on our disabled communities.
There will be no economic legacy from these Games. For goodness sakes, let’s create our own legacy and realise it doesn’t take a pretty landscape, piped in music and delightful Games Makers for us to remember we have more in common than not. We can become Paralympians in our own lives, relentless in our efforts to maintain the dignity, hard won rights and opportunities of not only of ourselves or our own community, but all our communities.