Saturday, July 21, 2012

Going for Gold in the Race to the Bottom

When I was young, I was a fool; I thought the Olympics were a good thing. These days, reading the news that comes out of the United Kingdom puts me in the same frame of mind as watching a chemical train derailment in slow motion--there may be something oddly beautiful in the way so many tons of steel can dance when given the opportunity, but the end result isn't going to be pleasant for anyone around. Only a few days are left until the Summer Olympics get underway, and already the Games have provided an unparalleled view of what a twenty-first century police state really looks like.

You may have heard about some of the more glaring abridgements of Londoners' everyday freedoms: entire lanes reserved for use of the "Olympic family," which in practice means the bigshots of the International Olympic Commission and their corporate guests; businesses, like pubs looking to draw in a crowd to watch the events on their bigscreen, are restricted from advertising with terms even as innocuous as "2012 Games," thanks to starkly overzealous government legislation, and Olympic spectators can't even bring in potato chips in their original packaging--that is, unless they were made by McDonald's, Coca-Cola or Cadbury, the official Olympic sponsors who would evidently shrivel up and die if their advertising dominance was questioned. Nevertheless, the Olympics isn't just corporate brand policing festival or the world's largest showroom for modern security methodologies. It's also pioneering the enforcement of precrime--that is, official sanctions preventing people from doing things that the Powers That Be suspect they might possibly do. No word yet on whether they're getting their information from hairless precognitives, though.

It's cold comfort to Darren Cullen, though. Billed as a "professional graffiti artist" in the Guardian, Cullen has worked for major companies including Adidas, one of those Olympic sponsors, with the creation of advertising murals and so on. Nevertheless, earlier this week Cullen and three others alleged to be graffiti artists were arrested on charges of suspicion of conspiracy to commit criminal damage - incidentally, that sounds like the sort of charge name I'd come up with to imply an out-of-control police state - and while none were charged, they were subjected to onerous bail conditions on their release. Namely, they cannot go near any Olympic venue, they cannot own unset paint, etching equipment, spray paint or other artists' tools, and outside of a tightly defined set of circumstances, they are forbidden from accessing "any railway system, including tubes and trams, or [being] in any train, tram, or tube station or in or on any other railway property not open to the public."

And these conditions last until November, well after the Olympics become nothing but a huge balance sheet liability and a massive throbbing hangover for the British taxpaying public.

Well, you see, freedom is all well and good, but in certain circumstances...

This is the first time I've heard of restrictions like this being handed down, so I don't know how common it is, but no matter what it's a terrible precedent to set or uphold. As someone who relies on a public railway system to get around, the prospect of such a senselessly limiting restriction being passed down is chilling. Bans from public transit make sense only in limited and relevant circumstances, such as a person who habitually hits the silent alarm strip for no reason or keeps starting fistfights on the platform. Not when the "crime," if there even is one in this circumstance, has nothing to do with the railway.

This shouldn't stand. Think of it this way - if people could be arrested on suspicion of some crime that had nothing to do with activities behind the wheel, immediately released, but barred by law from using their automobile, would that be reflective of a government that's responsive to the rights and liberties due to the people it serves? Or would it represent more a government out of control, thrashing about madly, casting suspicion and blame hither and yon in a feverish daze?

When I look at this, it isn't about justice or crime prevention at all. As far as I'm concerned, it's about control. It's a reminder that the agents of the state can ruin you, should they but feel the need to do so. It's yet another data point reinforcing my view of the United Kingdom as a land that's on a downhill slope toward a police state. I wouldn't be surprised to see the UK descend into velvet-gloved authoritarianism in my lifetime, because I keep seeing news like this. Harsh news for one of the crucibles of democracy.

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