By Alastair Jamieson and Jim Seida, NBC News
LONDON — Hours after the opening ceremony fireworks echoed around east London, up to 400 demonstrators marched through a neighborhood near the Olympic Park to protest what they called the “Corporate Olympics.”
The event, organized by Counter-Olympic Network and supported by 35 groups ranging from Occupy London to ecological and local anti-austerity campaigners, targeted issues including free tickets for sponsors, missile sites on residential blocks and the ethics of Olympic corporations such as BP and Dow Chemical.
“A significant number of people in this country — about 20 percent, according to a poll — are not happy with the Olympics because of the involvement of large corporations about which are significant concerns,” said Julian Cheyne of the Counter-Olympic Network. “We are representing their views and making sure that opinion is expressed.
“It is shameful that BP is a sustainability partner of the Olympics after the damage it did to the Gulf coast with their spill, and Dow Chemicals are not meeting their moral and ethical obligations to help the victims of the Bhopal disaster.”
The Saturday lunchtime event passed without incident, in contrast to Friday night’s Critical Mass protest –- against the temporary closure of cycle lanes to make way for VIP Games traffic — that saw 130 arrests.
It coincided with a visit by the Queen to the athletes’ village and the swimming arena, and came only 12 hours after the spectacular opening ceremony watched by billions across the world. The protest was significantly smaller than organizers’ original estimates of up to 5,000, and at one stage was almost outnumbered by news reporters and camera crews.
Protesters, flanked by large numbers of police motorbikes, began in Mile End and went past the Bow Quarter apartment building whose roof tower is one of six sites around London where the military have installed Rapier missile launchers as part of London’s $877 million security operation protecting the Games.
“This is the heaviest militarization of London since the Second World War,” Cheyne said.
One protest banner read: “International games OK. No to Corporate backed destruction of people’s homes, green space, livelihoods, human rights.”
As protesters shouted slogans outside Bow Quarter, soldiers guarding the missile launcher stared back from their temporary lookout position at the top of the tower.
As it went along Bow Road, the march was blocked by a small group of local residents who brandished an Olympic flag and chanted back: “Up the Olympics!”
Diane Grieves, who lives on the street, said: “I’m delighted about the Olympics — it’s really helped the area and brought everyone together. If there weren’t corporate sponsors then the Olympics would be even more expensive for taxpayers.”
Protester George Barda shouted “No to the corporate Olympics” while wearing a T-shirt highlighting the victims of the 1984 disaster at Bhopal chemical plant of the Union Carbide Company, which merged with Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical in 2001.
He was also wearing a pair of shoes and a backpack from Olympic sponsors Adidas.
“I’m just wearing these shoes out because I have nothing else left,” he explained to NBCNews.com. “I know I’m part of the problem for buying the products but the bigger issue here, which is much more important, is that the Olympics has been taken over by unethical corporate sponsors despite the fact that they only contribute five per cent of the cost of the Games.”
Among the others taking part was Dana Wojokh, from New Jersey, who was highlighting the plight of Circassians – a Caucasian and Middle-Eastern mountain tribe that was the victim of genocide by imperial Russia at the end of the 19th century centered on Sochi , where Russia intends to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“This is our chance to tell the world what happened to Circassians — oppression that is still happening, for example in Syria,” she said.
A spokesman for the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games told BBC News: “The Olympic Games is the biggest event in the world, and big events have always been a magnet for protests of all shapes and sizes; we have planned for this.
“We implore any protesters to consider the impact of any action on the athletes, most of whom have spent half their lives preparing for London 2012.
“We are a sport-loving nation, and ruining sporting events is not the way anyone wants London 2012 to be remembered.”