I watched the Olympic opening ceremony sitting on the roof of a narrowboat near King’s Cross. Boat dwellers have had it hard under the Olympic regime, and many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the Olympic Park, moved on because they supposedly presented a water-borne security risk. Danny Boyle’s nostalgiafest was projected onto a screen stretched between two trees on the canal bank. I didn’t pay close attention – the trees got in the way, the BBC iPlayer kept cutting out – but cycling, which the British have been expected do well in, seemed to feature heavily. Bradley Wiggins rang a bell; Chris Hoy paraded round waving the Union Flag; hundreds of winged cyclists flapped their way, ET-like, into the evening sky.
As seven young athletes (providing a windfall for the bookies) lit the fiery Olympic ‘cauldron’, outside the stadium police were organising a couple of kettles. Riders in Critical Mass, a monthly, leaderless bicycle parade that has taken place in London on the last Friday of every month for the past 18 years, had gone too close to the Olympic Park, reclaiming the Olympic Zil lanes on their way through Stratford. A car carrying David Beckham (though I thought he’d got to the ceremony by boat) was apparently held up by the cyclists before police beat a way through. In the end 160 or so cyclists – an Olympic peloton’s worth – were arrested. Their bikes were loaded onto a bus and confiscated. The whole thing seems to have been handled in a way that the police have taken to calling ‘robust’: a man riding a tricycle was pepper-sprayed and wrestled to the ground; twenty cyclists were kept on a bus for three hours without food, toilets or legal representation, before spending the rest of the night in the cells.
Before the ride, organisers clarified that Critical Mass ‘isn’t really a demonstration’ and that ‘riders won’t necessarily want to target Olympic routes as such.’ Instead the ride is ‘all about the peaceful assertion of cyclists’ rights to our share of the roads, and our right to move where we want to safely’. The courts agree: in 2008, the House of Lords found that Critical Mass riders didn’t need to notify police in advance as the rides were ‘commonly or customarily held’.
This morning, I went to Bow to attend the Austerity Games, a protest-cum-sports-day organised by the ‘Counter Olympics Network’, to see if I could find anyone who’d been arrested last night. Activists traded leaflets with each other and addressed representatives of the world’s media (there didn’t seem to be many UK journalists there). I heard one man explaining to a Chinese reporter how he’d been barred from entering Canary Wharf because he was wearing his ‘punk trousers’.
Most people were angry about the commercialisation of the Olympics, and the nationalistic fervour they attract, rather than the games themselves. A cyclist explained in German that the £24 billion or so spent on the Olympics could have been spent on the NHS, which is facing £20 billion in cuts. I overheard two SWP members discussing the opening ceremony: ‘It thought it was really good actually, but don’t tell anyone.’
A group of Circassian exiles in national dress performed folk dances and made an impassioned speech condemning the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea. ‘We are an exiled people’, they said, ‘we are a diaspora; those of our people who remain are tortured, raped or killed.’ ‘Sochi Olympics! Blood Olympics!’ they chanted. ‘Don’t legitimise the genocide.’
We marched down Bow Road towards Mile End Park for the anti-games. We passed the ‘Bow Quarter’, once the Bryant & May match factory but now a residential development where Olympic missiles have been installed. Soldiers stared down at us from a water tower. A blue plaque on the wall commemorated Annie Besant, who organised the London matchgirls’ strike of 1888.
I couldn’t find any of the cyclists who’d been arrested the night before: many of them had yet to be released. A few people I spoke to had ridden with Critical Mass early in the evening, but most had left before the arrests. A legal observer who had witnessed the kettling said it was pretty ruthless. A Polish bicycle courier told me he’d charged the kettle on his bike and broken free.
Most of the cyclists were released over the next few hours, while Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish zipped round Surrey failing to win medals in the Olympic road cycling race. Their bail conditions specify that they’re not to go within 100 yards of any Olympic venue, not to enter any Olympic-only carriageway, and not to enter the London borough of Newham with a cycle. The ‘people’s games’ have begun.