Young people and ethnic minorities will be most affected by Olympic dispersal zones

The “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to policing.

As the Olympics get underway, Stratford is unrecognisable from the place it was a year ago. The previously run down east London area, mainly consisting of a shopping centre and a dual carriageway, is full of tourists, colourful Olympics logos – and a huge number of police.

With the support of the Labour-run council, police have stepped up their activities in Newham, the borough that includes Stratford and the Olympic Park. As any visitor to the area can see, there has been a drastic increase in the number of territorial support officers in vans and foot patrols. Less visible is the imposition of a wide-ranging dispersal zone. This means that within the area, officers can move on anyone considered to be engaging in antisocial behaviour, such as loitering, begging, soliciting, or causing a nuisance.

Dispersal orders, introduced in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, give police the power to disperse groups of two or more in designated areas where their behaviour has resulted (or is likely to result) in a member of the public being harassed, alarmed, or distressed. They are controversial because of the level of discretion they accord to police and the infringement of individual rights involved.

While the Metropolitan Police has denied that the dispersal zone in Newham has been imposed merely because of the Olympics, citing instead residents concerns about crime, the timing appears to be more than fortuitous.

In 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did a study on the use and impact of dispersal orders, finding that when they were targeted at groups of youths, they can “antagonise and alienate young people who frequently feel unfairly stigmatised for being in public places.” It also found that dispersal orders tend to cause displacement, merely moving problems to a different area rather than solving them.

Of course, in the case of Newham, that may be exactly what the police want to do. China was much derided for its “social cleansing” of Beijing in 2008 but that appears to be exactly what we are seeing here. Dispersal zones give a huge amount of discretion to individual police officers, and the threshold for moving people along is very low.

And, of course, there should be little doubt that those primarily affected will be those who are already disproportionately targeted by police: young people and ethnic minorities. Anti-social behaviour orders (asbos) may be on the way out, but stop and search is alive and well and expected to form a large part of the policing of the Olympic area. Studies and official figures alike have consistently shown that ethnic minorities are excessively affected by stop and search. Last year’s riots showed that huge sections of Britain’s youth are disaffected and alienated from the police: do we really want to compound that by essentially forcing them out of their own areas?

In Stratford last night, Newham Monitoring Project, the longstanding anti-racist organisation, launched its Olympic project. It will dispatch legal observers into the community to educate young people about their rights, and to try and get a sense of how the policing operation is playing out in practice. If officers employ a dispersal order, they do not have to keep records, so it is otherwise difficult to get a sense of who is being targeted and on what grounds.

The signs outside Stratford station proclaim “Welcome to Newham! Welcome to London!” However, while London opens its doors to the world, that welcome is not, apparently, extended to our own marginalised and disaffected groups. Boris Johnson spoke this morning about a “benign virus” infecting even the most cynical with enthusiasm for the Olympics. Yet it is difficult to feel enthused when providing the perfect Olympics involves forcing people out of their own local areas because they don’t fit the image that London wants to project. Dispersal zones may provide an “out of sight, out of mind” effect for the duration of the Olympics, but the impact on already rock-bottom perceptions of the police among segments of society will last far longer.


People pose for a photographs as they make their way into the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.