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.