Being chosen as the host city of the Olympics comes at a high price. Many have complained about the nearly $37 billion price tag for hosting the games in these tough economic times. Others resent inviting headaches such as heavier traffic, revised public transportation schedules, and, the most uncomfortable cost of all, putting a bullseye on the town for terrorists. But until recently, none of the public’s headaches included being told by the government that missile launchers will be installed upon their rooftops.
When the Olympics commence in two months, Britain will deploy 13,500 troops around London—over 40% more than it has serving in Afghanistan. The Royal Navy’s largest warship will be stationed in the Thames River equipped with eight Lynx Helicopters and Marine Snipers. In addition to these extreme defense measures, the Ministry of Defense has designated six spots around the city to be equipped with surface-to-air missile launchers. Officials claim the appearance of these Rapier and high-velocity missiles is both reassuring and deterrent. Others beg to differ.
Four of the surface-to-air missile sites are in somewhat remote spots on the outskirts of town. Military set-ups at reservoirs, farms, open fields, and on the perimeter of the forest haven’t attracted a great deal of attention. That’s not to say the local residents aren’t without concerns about the installation of Rapier missiles, which have an approximate range of five miles. Town message boards are buzzing with resentment and distrust. Serene communities will now be armed to shoot airplanes out of the sky.
The other two sites are much closer to Olympic Stadium, and thus in a much more urban environment in East London. The military will be perched upon the roofs of these apartment complexes with high-velocity missiles with a three-mile range. One of the buildings, the 17-story Fred Wigg Tower, is located about two-and-a-half miles from Olympic Stadium in the working-class community of Waltham Forest. The other, the Bow Quarter, is a 733-unit, gated housing complex full of young artists and professionals located less than a mile from the stadium.
The residents of Bow Quarter were informed of the missiles via Ministry of Defense pamphlets handed out by building management in mid-April. The thin brochure informed them that the water tower in their complex was uniquely qualified to be the weapons site due to its proximity to the Olympic Village, and because it offeres a “flat, uncluttered, and safe area” to operate. “Fully trained, professional soldiers” are to operate the equipment and police and military will patrol the building around the clock. There is nothing to fear.
Within two weeks, video of unattended missiles left on a walkway in the complex surfaced. A week or so after that, a resident of the rural suburb Blackheath posted a video of the military allowing him to play with the equipment “after a few pints.” In both instances, the military assured the press that there were no live weapons in play, but questions about judgment of the highly trained professionals have arisen.
I visited the former matchstick factory Bow Quarter this weekend to ask some residents their feelings on their upstairs neighbors with high-powered weapons. “Oh, it’s a load of public relations rubbish,” said Sarah, a young hospital administrator. “The government can tell you it’s a deterrent to terrorist activity but, really, nobody is going to fire missiles over the city.” Sarah also said she believed the military presence “makes us a target, if anything.” Her friend, who asked to remain unnamed, said, “If they’re worried about a highly significant attack on the Olympics, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they’d also target the last line of defense?” while pointing to the tower.
Others, like business manager David, question how shooting an airplane out of the sky over a heavily populated area will be a safer alternative. “It will have to come down somewhere.” He referenced the damage caused by the famous disaster in Lockerbie, Scotland 20 years ago, where a Pan Am flight was bombed mid-air and debris caused deaths and significant damage on the ground.
When I asked some other people entering and exiting the building, they were reluctant to speak on the matter. They said they don’t need any repercussions from the landlord and/or the government.
In recent weeks, journalist and activist Brian Whelan, a resident of the Bow Quarter, was informed his lease would expire shortly. Whelan has been very vocal with the media about the details of the MoD in his East London community (including the MoD pamphlet and video of the unattended missiles). He believes because of this, his lease was terminated. The landlord offers a different opinion but provides no real reason at this point why the Whelan will no longer be welcome in the building come the time the games begin. The eviction has not deterred Whelan from continuing to post information about protests and speaking with the media about his ordeal.
At a pub several blocks from the complex, some East Londoners offered a different perspective. Several working-class men, who have seemingly put in a lifetime in the local watering hole, dismissed the controversy as nonsense. “There’s nothing terrorists would like more than to bomb the stadium. The more protection, the better,” said an older man in a city public works uniform who refused to break his gaze from the horse racing on the television. When asked if they were worried about what happens if the missiles are actually deployed, the men chuckled and dismissively waved me off. (He was kind enough to finally break his focus from the television to call me a “wanker” as I left.)
Some protests have come and gone and more are planned in early June but it certainly appears as if the government will continue with the rooftop missiles. For sixteen straight days, weapons in six locations around London will be ready if given the go-ahead by Prime Minister David Cameron. All the people living beneath them can hope for is he never has to make that call.