An Olympic stage for protests

Survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster protest against Dow Chemical and their sponsorship of the London Olympics in Bhopal (Photo: STRDEL/AFP/GettyImages)

For many, the Olympics is two weeks to put aside worries about a deepening double-dip recession, bankers’ bad behaviour and the growing spectre of climate change, but for some protesters it is a chance to place these problems in a global spotlight.

Protesters see the games as a symbol of the widening inequality in London, claiming the poor have been shut out of both the Olympics and their legacy. Sponsors are targets either because they represent big business or, in the case of Dow Chemicals, because of links to a previous disaster.

The protests have already started: on Monday, cabbies – frustrated at being shut out of the elite Olympic games lanes - blockaded Tower Bridge, and today, in Bhopal, India, residents staged their own “Special Olympics” against what they see as the lack of compensation for a deadly gas leak from a plant owned by Union Carbide, which was later bought by Dow.

Cabbies demonstrated again on Friday afternoon, blocking Hyde Park Corner for almost an hour, which the organisers United Cabbies say will be designed to cause “maximum embarrassment” to Transport for London. To prevent disruption which could have stopped spectators reaching the opening ceremony, the police banned the drivers from demonstrating on the Olympic Route Network from 4pm – so they moved it earlier.

And on Saturday, the Counter Olympics Network, an umbrella group, plans to march through East London, in a demonstration which will pass the tower block where missiles have been erected on the roof – the subject of another campaign.

“The Olympics claims to be something which it isn’t – an idealistic movement dedicated to sport, and the government presents it as bringing all kinds of benefits which are nearly all untrue,” said Julian Cheyne, one of the organisers of Saturday’s protest.

Mr Cheyne, who expects up to 2,000 people to demonstrate, said the economic benefits like increased tourism and job creation were overblown, and that the Olympics has actually slowed the regeneration of East London by taking over a key slice of land for so long.

Another broad coalition, Our Olympics, which includes demonstrators from Occupy London, have named Saturday as a day of action. The group is organising acts of mass civil disobedience, describing the games as “an £11bn taxpayer-funded ad campaign for some of the worst corporations in our world”.

Lord Coe, chairman of the London organising committee, has already discovered that protesters are not adverse to the odd surprise tactic. Sitting in a cafe in Shoreditch, east London, in May he was approached by Sanjay Verma, born in Bhopal in 1984, the year of Union Carbide’s gas leak disaster in the Indian city, which claimed thousands of lives and affected tens of thousands more.

He asked Lord Coe why Dow Chemical, an IOC sponsor and sponsor of a £7m fabric material that wraps around the Olympic stadium in east London, was allowed to be associated with the Games.

Dow bought the Union Carbide parent company in 2001 and protest groups such as the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal claim Dow has liabiliities relating to the disaster. Dow denies this, and is supported by Lord Coe.

For the UK police and the military, the potential for civil disobedience poses additional security concerns beyond the terrorism threat which has led the UK government to erect a security apparatus costing more than £1bn.

The risks were highlighted earlier this year during the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race when Trenton Oldfield, an Australian activist with a grudge against elite institutions, jumped into the river Thames, causing the event to be suspended.

The police have served restraining orders on individuals it knows are intent on causing disruption during the Olympics. Mr Oldfield has received such an order.

But Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, the national Olympic security coordinator, said it would be difficult to stop protesters intent on disrupting Olympic events in open spaces, such as the torch relay and road races.

“Clearly there will be challenges, but we are calling on protesters not to disrupt the events. The Olympics are only going to come to the UK once. You as a protester don’t have a right to stop those Olympics,” Mr Allison says.