Beatings, arrests, cautions; the policing of the Official Torch Relay

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Daniel Leer – before meeting the Torch police team

Guest post by Jim Jepps

If we cast our minds back four years, the torch relays around the Beijing Olympics were anything but uncontroversial. In this country there were 37 arrests of Free Tibet protesters, in scenes that many thought heavy-handed and disturbing, the news around the torch relays was defined by protest – even the beloved Konnie Huq was menaced by a democracy protester attempting to touch the torch.

This time around the torch is no longer the focus of protest and, in general, the appearance of the torch in a town is met with celebration, free cola and inflatable torches. However, if you thought the authorities had let their guard down you’d be wrong. Most security “incidents” look a lot less like the Free Tibet people and much more like the arrest in Canada two years ago of the man who tried to light his cigarette with the flame.

The first incident involved two kids in Coventry who actually managed to lay hold of the torch. In fairness to the police they didn’t actually beat these children to a pulp when pulling them away but the fact this most mundane moments reached national news demonstrates exactly how sensitive the torch relay had become

Last week one young lad in Haverhill, Suffolk thought it might be fun to ride his bike in the lane behind the torch bearer. Despite the fact he disrupted nothing, was not approaching the torch bearer or indeed causing any nuisance beyond being a little bit cocky, security grabbed the child, wrenched him off his bike and wrestled him to the ground.

His offense it seems was veering into the “security bubble”. Chillingly the police issued the Mafia-like statement: “Although there was no disruption to the relay, we’d like to remind people not to enter the security bubble, this is for their own safety as well as the torchbearer’s. “

In Leeds one woman, local restaurateur Gilda Porcell, attempted to touch the flame in order to bring luck to Italy in the Euro 2012 championships and received fairly heavy handed treatment for her trouble, although she was not arrested. It’s disturbing that the use of force appears to be the first reaction to the public’s enthusiasm, even when there’s no indication of any threat to life or property.

In Hemel Hempstead it’s not entirely clear what this man was up to when he approached the torch. Manhandled and arrested, he will be clear that his contribution to the celebrations was not appreciated.

While there has been little political protest around the torch, it is not entirely absent. In Headingley one man attempted to extinguish the flame with a bucket of water. If he had to target the torch it might well have been better to choose a time when it was not being carried by a 79-year-old athlete.

His protest was, apparently, about the level of policing around the torch at a time of cuts so he won’t have been surprised when he was thrown to the ground, pinned to the floor, then dragged to a police van.

In Harrogate, 70-year-old Lindis Percy, a Quaker and leading member of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases (CAAB), was chatting to staff at the torch event near her home.

She recalls “I was suddenly snatched, roughly and aggressively away. Seven burly West Yorkshire policemen surrounded me and would not let me leave, although I was not under arrest. I was told that I should not be there.”

Minutes later she was arrested, “to prevent a breach of the peace”, taken two miles to Harrogate police station then released without going in front of a custody sergeant. (Private Eye 1817, pp. 9)

Another 70-year-old, this time in Angus Scotland, Dave Coull, wrote to the Angus Courier of the ties between the relay and Nazi Germany, stating: “The modern Olympics is a competition of political and corporate power” and concluding “I have learned the torch is due to pass through Montrose, Brechin, and Forfar on Tuesday June 12. No doubt there will be many people out cheering. I will be there to protest this fascist display.”

A few days later two CID officers appeared at his door to question him. He stated: “At this point I started laughing, and kept on laughing throughout the proceedings. I asked them if protest is now illegal. They said “No it isn’t, but there will be lot of folk out to cheer the Olympic torch and we wouldn’t want you to get hurt by them, or vice viersa.”

Coull kept his promise to protest and distributed 100 self-produced leaflets while his wife held up a sign.

Showing that the torch policing is not infallible, and possibly that the authorities might be getting things out of proportion, he was stopped by the police later in the day. When he asked why, they said it was because he had said he was going to protest the torch. When Coull explained he’d already done it, he was allowed to go on his way.

The most successful political protester so far is Daniel Leer in Henley (top), who chose to streak naked in front of crowds with a toy torch and a smile. Running in front of the torch with just the words “Free Tibet” written on his back to keep him warm, the crowds laughed and cheered as he passed.

The 27-year-old was extremely roughly arrested and has been charged with indecent exposure (a sex offense that would prevent him working with children for example), a heavy handed response in stark contrast to the way streakers at sporting events are normally treated.

We’re unlikely to see much political protest around the torch, partly because it’s very popular and most campaigners tend to avoid needlessly annoying the people they hope to persuade – but we are likely to continue to see a heavy handed security response to kids having fun, Italian football fans and OAPs who had not got the message that only one opinion is allowed at the torch relays – now drink your free coke and be quiet.

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6 responses »

  1. I had the great honour of carrying the Olympic torch last month. I also worked on the Tibetan Torture Survivor Programme for a year, rehabilitating innocent victims of Torture by the Chinese. I support all Free Tibet demonstrators and believe that if more people understood the terrible atrocities carried out by the Chinese in Tibet, there would be more understanding to what the Free Tibet demonstrators are trying to do.

  2. There were arrests and cautions. But were there actually any beatings?
    I think it’s possible to be progressive and support the concept of the Olympic Games. With the caveat that it should be done differently.
    I protested against the Chinese Olympics 4 years ago and waved a Tibetan flag along the route. But should dictatorships have the games at all?
    This time I haven’t protested and watched the torch along with others because many communities feel that it promotes their city, town or even their small village.
    It is over corporate and the level of security is somewhat absurd but without it the level of public spending would be much, much lower. It may encourage pride in communites that receive the torch.
    The Olympics as a whole, are not perfect, it has many faults but on balance there are probably more positives than negatives.

  3. Hi James, if you re-read Jim’s piece, especially the last para you’ll see he’s not advocating protests against the torch (merely noting some heavy handed policing). I like you have my own list of Olympic positives: above all, I want David Rudisha to use the Games to become the first man under 1.50 for the 800 metres and if he does so I will be beaming for a week. But the negatives are pretty long too: several hundred of the poorest people in East London and perhaps in the low thousands have been forced out of their homes, we’ve seen a militarisation of (bits of) London which is unprecedented in peace-time. Corporations have been able to use the Olympics in ways which feel, frankly, sinister. On balance, you say, more positives – really?

  4. If the Harrogate woman was just chatting then her arrest seems bizarre and wrong.
    The evictions are wrong and there should be a proper investigation into that to find out how it happened, whether they were legal, and were they rehoused, what was the quality of the homes they were rehoused in, what the local authority did about it, etc.
    An ethical Olympics could be possible though. I’m not saying this one will be particularly. But not having it might ‘just’ be worse in terms of possible economic benefits.
    Some things like the para-Olympics have many positive aspects.

  5. Yes, I’d just like to reinforce I’m not advocating taking part in the “touch the torch” games partly because the police response could well be ugly and partly because people seem to be enjoying the relays – it’s also the reason why I think the streaker was the most effective protester because the people there really enjoyed his stunt!

    What concerns me is that they have charged him with a sexual offense which would actually bar him from working with children and vulnerable people – I think that’s a massive over reaction and not the way we deal with streakers at sporting events.

    There *is* an inconvenience factor with having the torch come to town (see this for instance http://barkingside21.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/olympic-flame-barkingside-or-have-you.html?utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=twitterfeed ) but I’m much more relaxed about that than the heavy handed approach to OAPs for example.

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