It’s a bright, sunny July afternoon and the descendants of victims of a 19th-century genocide march while performing their traditional “sreedom joug” dance to the beat of a protesting drummer. Glowing banners dance to a cacophony of horns, whistles and furious chants.
The Olympics are in town, and not everyone is happy. From Occupy London to the Green Party, over 35 organisations and 400 people marched across East London on Saturday against a range of issues linked to the games – from the militarisation of London to the corporatisation of the games and the building of future Olympic sites on the graves of genocide victims.
The diversity of the crowd’s demands mirror the crowd itself: Refugee networks, environmentalists, charity workers and anti-war campaigners were among those fighting to be heard. Emily Coats, 24, a campaigner with environmentalist group UK Tar Sands Network, opposes the corporate sponsorship of the games by what she claims are unethical companies such as BP. “BP really has no right to be called a sustainability partner yet the Olympics gives it a great opportunity to try and convince the public that it’s a really green, sustainable, good company.”
The government’s austerity programme figures in protesters’ objections, too. Mary Stuart, 54, an English tutor, said: “People are killing themselves every week because their benefits are being cut. I’m furious about it, and that’s why I’m here.”
Civil liberties are also a concern, with more than 18,000 troops deployed for the games. Andreas Speck, 48, a campaigner for War Resistance International, takes issue with the restrictions on civil liberties during the Olympics. “I am here today to protest against the Olympics and the restrictions on our civil liberties which we have seen.” While Haci Ozdemir, 36, a campaigner with the Refugee Workers Cultural Association, marches against what he claims is corporate profiteering at the expense of local Londoners. “The local people will not benefit from them [the Olympics] when huge businesses are making money.”
Later in the afternoon, the protesters are herded together by police. They stop the protest on Vincent Road in Bow, to ensure that protesters do not spread too far apart when marching at different speeds. The marchers are peaceful, and cooperate with the them. Yet the marchers maintain solidarity when one of their comrades is stopped and searched by the police. Four officers, surrounded by around 40 protesters, form a cordon around the man while he is searched next to a wall. The marchers towards the rear of the crowd stop and wait for the man to be released.
“Let him go!” roars the crowd repeatedly. After a few minutes, a police officer announces to the crowd, “This man will be returned very shortly.” A protester shouts “the march will wait for him!” And wait it does. The man, who calls himself “Danny”, says of the search: “It was fine. I didn’t really mind too much to tell the truth.”
Counter Olympics Network spokesman David Renton thinks the peaceful nature of the protest explains why it received “vast” coverage from international media but scant attention from the British press. “This demonstration has been entirely peaceful. Because there hasn’t been a fight it stands against the way our media culture reacts to demonstrators: if there is a fight, there is a story, if there is no fight then no story.” The international media presence is humbling – journalists from different organisations clashes while trying to interview the same people. The world hears the marchers.
But not all protesters marched solely against London 2012. NoSochi2014 is an organisation of Circassians opposed to the 2014 Winter Olympic stadium being built in Sochi, the city in their ancestral homeland which they occupied before the 19th-century Russian genocide against them. NoSochi2012 claim the site will be built on the grave sites of their murdered ancestors.
Lisa Jakarsi, an activist with NoSochi2014, says the group is at the protest to raise awareness about the 2014 games. “We’re here to raise awareness about our plight. Basically they are building the [2014 Winter] Olympic stadiums on the graves of the Circassian genocide.”
Campaigning Labour MP John McDonnell for Hayes and Harlington marches alongside the activists. “I am in favour of the Olympics. I support sport. I enjoy sport. I enjoy the Olympics. What I am against is the corporate exploitation of the Olympics.” McDonnell says he wanted the march to raise awareness. “I want people to start understanding the issue and debating the issue – about what the Olympics are all about.”