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.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.