John Whitehead's Commentary
London 2012 Olympics: The Staging Ground for the Coming Police State?
“As London prepares to throw the world a $14 billion party, it seems fair to ask the question: What does it get out of the bargain?” asks the Christian Science Monitor in a recent story on the 2012 Summer Olympics. “Salt Lake got to show that its Mormon community was open to the world,” observes journalist Mark Sappenfield. “Turin got to show that it was not the Detroit of Europe. China got to give the world a glimpse of the superpower-to-be. And Vancouver got to show the world that Canadians are not, in fact, Americans.”
And what is London showing the world? Sappenfield suggests that London is showing off its new ultramodern and efficient infrastructure, but if the security for the 2012 Olympics is anything to go by, it would seem that London is really showing the world how easy it is to make the move to a police state without much opposition from the populace.
It’s what the Romans used to refer to as “bread and circuses”—the idea that the key to controlling the masses is by satiating their carnal appetites and entertaining them with mindless distraction. Thus, while the world loses itself in the pomp and circumstance of a thoroughly British Olympics, complete with Sir Paul McCartney rocking the opening ceremony, celebrity sightings galore and a fair share of athletic feats and inspirational victories to keep us glued to our TV sets, a more sinister drama will be unfolding.
Welcome to the 2012 Summer Olympics, the staging ground for the coming police state.
Under cover of the glitz and glamour of these time-honored Games, a chilling military operation is underway, masterminded by a merger of the corporate, military and security industrial complexes and staffed by more than 40,000 civilian police, British military and security personnel, as well as FBI, CIA, and TSA agents, and private security contractors. Appropriately enough, this year’s Olympic mascot, Wenlock—a strange, futuristic blob with an all-seeing eye to “record everything” in the games—is being sold in Olympic stores dressed in a policeman’s uniform. “As a metaphor for the London Olympics, it could hardly be more stark,” writes Stephen Graham for the Guardian. “For £10.25 you, too, can own the ultimate symbol of the Games: a member of by far the biggest and most expensive security operation in recent British history packaged as tourist commodity.”
In addition to the usual tourist sights such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and Big Ben, visitors to London may find themselves goggling at the military aircraft carrier floating in the Thames, the Typhoon fighter jets taking to the skies, ready to shoot down unauthorized aircraft, aerial drones hovering overhead to track residents and tourists, snipers perched in helicopters, an 18-km high, 11-mile long, 5,000-volt electric stun fence surrounding Olympic Park, and 55 dog teams patrolling the perimeter. Several locations throughout London will also feature surface-to-air missiles, including some residential areas in East London that will have them perched on top of apartment buildings. All these and more are supposedly part of the new security apparatus required to maintain security in an age of terror.
Roughly 13,000 private security guards provided by G4S, the world’s second largest private employer, will be patrolling the streets of London, under a $439 million contract with the British government. Due to some last minute trouble recruiting and training guards, 3,500 additional British military troops will be called in, making a total of 17,000 troops scheduled to police the Olympics.
More than 500 American federal agents, trained in the methods of security theater, will be on hand to assist Britain’s security forces. In fact, the CIA, State Department, and FBI have all been working closely with British authorities for well over a year in preparation for the Olympic games. TSA agents—infamous for stealing large sums of money from passengers’ luggage, patting down children and the elderly and handicapped, and, among other things, breaking diabetic passengers’ insulin pumps—will also be on loan to the British to assist with airport passenger screening during the Games, which will include fast-track fingerprinting for Olympic athletes.
There’s even a security patrol tasked with making sure that local businesses observe the government ban on symbols and words relating to the Olympics lest they cause economic harm to the “official” corporate sponsors, including Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and BP. These purple-capped government officials are authorized to enter businesses to look for violations, and can impose fines up to 20,000 pounds ($31,000). Included on the banned list are such words as games, 2012, gold, silver, bronze, summer, sponsors, and London. As Slate reports, “So far a London café has been forced to remove five offending bagels from its windows, as has a butcher who had the temerity to do the same with sausage links. Spectators have been warned that to risk wearing a garment adorned with the Pepsi logo may result in being banished from game venues and that nobody but McDonald’s can sell French fries at any Olympic concession stand. An old lady got tagged for sewing the five rings onto a mini doll sweater.”
Unwilling to risk anything taking the shine off London’s Olympic games, government officials have also clamped down on protesters and journalists, two groups whose existence largely depends on their ability to exercise their free speech rights, as well as anyone voicing an opinion about the games publicly. The British police have even gone so far as to ban certain graffiti artists from “creating any graffiti (even sanctioned work) affiliated with the Olympics, traveling within a mile of any Olympic venue, associate with any individual also on bail or using any train, subway or other rail service for leisure purposes.”
And then there’s the surveillance. With one government-operated outdoor surveillance camera for every 14 citizens in the UK, Great Britain is already widely recognized as a surveillance society. However, in preparation for the Olympics, London has also been “wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance,” reports journalist Stephen Graham. Even neighborhoods beyond Olympic park have been embedded with biometric scanners and surveillance cameras with automatic facial and behavior recognition technologies.
Keep in mind, these surveillance tools will remain in place long after the Olympic torch moves on. As Graham points out:
Many such systems, deliberately installed to exploit unparalleled security budgets and relatively little scrutiny or protest, have been designed to linger long after the athletes and VIPs have left. Already, the Dorset police are proudly boasting that their new number-plate recognition cameras, built for sailing events, are allowing them to catch criminals more effectively.
In Athens, the $300m "super-panopticon" CCTV and information system built for the Games following intense US pressure remained after the event, along with the disused sports facilities. In fact, the system has been used by Greek police trying in vain to control the mass uprisings responding to the crash and savage austerity measures in the country.
Unfortunately for the people of London and beyond, the UK’s willingness to host the 2012 Summer Olympics has turned this exercise in solidarity, teamwork and nationalism into a $17 billion exercise in militarism, corporatism, surveillance and oppression. As Graham concludes:
Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.