For your average left-winger (like me), grandiose patriotic events are usually characterised by post-imperial malaise, myth-peddling and latent racism – until Friday night. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony revealed a country forged in the actions of ordinary people; actions which to defined a new British spirit of compassion, diversity, irreverence, and audacity. As Anthony Painter so beautifully put it, “The orthodox view of the people as merely extras in a story of regal supremacy and a march to global domination now seems as peculiar as a gurn on the face of Mr Bean.” In three hours, Boyle seemed to reclaim history for we, the people, from the royals and politicians who would otherwise own it.
But as I watched the Olympic flag being paraded around the stadium, something was happening outside. The police were arresting over 100 members of the cycling group, Critical Mass; a group which has been cycling on London’s streets for the last 18 years with no aim but to celebrate the joy of bikes. In the words of one cyclist who was arrested, “I can honestly say I had absolutely zero intention of disrupting the Olympics. I don’t think anyone did. It was about enjoying cycling – not hating the Olympics.”
In 2008, the House of Lords ruled that Critical Mass was acting completely lawfully and that the Metropolitan Police were not allowed to obstruct the bike rides. And yet, at around midnight on Friday the police ushered cyclists into a cul-de-sac in East London, kettled them, and began forcing some off their bikes. Over 100 cyclists were then arrested under Section 12 of the Public Order Act. They were bundled on coaches, where they remained for over 7 hours without access to food, water or toilets. One of the arrestees was a 13-year-old boy.
Arrestees were later released with stringent bail conditions, including a ban from cycling in an entire London borough, Newham. Very little is written about how bail conditions are often used to essentially supress protest, but as Alastair, a cyclist present at the ride, summarised, “This is about taking a big chunk of potential activists out of the picture for the duration of the Olympics and using police bail to do it.”
If the cyclists were simply doing what they have always done on Friday night, then so were the police. As the cyclists were being detained, the Olympics opening ceremony was lauding Suffragettes and trade unionists that were also oppressed and demonised for threatening the pageantry and power of the day. It was ever thus: “generations of people must fight the same battles over and over again,” as Tony Benn once said – even if those people are simply cyclists deciding that a militarised sporting event will not change them.
Some of those who took part in the Critical Mass bike ride point out the juxtaposition of the ceremony’s themes with the oppression of civil liberties going on outside. But I don’t see the two as being in conflict. When Danny Boyle chose Shakespeare’s words “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,” he was recognising Britain as a troubled and frenetic country. He was acknowledging that Britain has often been a country of struggle, and of noise. Boyle reminded us that Britain’s greatest moments have been those where people stand up to the powerful. By refusing to abandon their tradition at the behest of the authorities, Critical Mass, in its own small way, was continuing the legacy of those the ceremony was celebrating.
The athletes will return home in a few weeks, and we must think about the sort of country that will be left behind. The sanctity of the Olympics has provided the police with powers that are likely to remain long after the corporate bunting has been taken down. I choose not to see Danny Boyle’s ceremony as bread and circuses; I choose to see it as a call to arms. We must defend our freedom of expression, as those who came before us did. We must defend it because it is the only weapon we have to ensure that we, the people, can write our own history.