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Sports Won’t Save An Ailing Los Angeles

The mayor of Los Angeles has a novel solution for the city’s deepening crises: Turn poor people into star quarterbacks.

The mayor of Los Angeles has a novel solution for the city’s deepening crises: Turn poor people into star quarterbacks.

Although he has hinted at similar ambitions before — telling the International Olympic Committee that they can only wreak havoc on our city if they fund youth sports, for example — Eric Garcetti didn’t unveil the plan in all its glory until July 11.

While L.A. endured a brutal heat wave (particularly dangerous for homeless people, a population that increased 23% in the last year), Mayor Garcetti attended a press conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, babbling apolitical platitudes contrived to make LA’s bid for the Olympics sound like something other than a plea for disaster.

When a German journalist asked Garcetti about gentrification and displacement as a result of the Olympics, the mayor was clearly caught off guard. He fumbled his way through the story of Caylin Moore, a young man from Compton who grew up in a poor family with an abusive and eventually incarcerated father. Garcetti indulged in more details (you can watch his response here), but suffice to say it was surely a difficult upbringing.

Unlike most who are born into such adverse conditions, Moore found a way out. In fact, he has now received a Rhodes Scholarship and plays as a safety on TCU’s football team. (Our esteemed mayor inaccurately called him a quarterback. To be fair, definitions have never been his strong suit…he doesn’t even know what a Sanctuary City is.)

Video from NOlympics LA

In an Olympic Gold-worthy feat of semantic gymnastics, Garcetti attributed Moore’s success to the 1984 Olympics, implying that the youth sports programs that received funding from the LA84 Foundation were his saving grace. He claimed that “the difference between whether [Moore] graduated or not, maybe wound up in prison or not, was that sports found him.”

Attempting to rebut criticisms of the Olympics, Garcetti elaborated: “So if we want to address issues of gentrification, if we want to address issues of social cohesion, if we want to address homelessness[…]it’s the legacy that we want to have of universal access to sports, that’s how we combat poverty [emphasis mine]. That’s how we address, you know, the gentrification, that’s how we address those issues that today all cities face.”

It was clearly a blunder, although you can’t really fault Garcetti for having no better response prepared — because, truthfully, there isn’t one. It is increasingly difficult to frame the Olympics as anything other than a cynical, thinly-veiled excuse to transform cities into heavily branded media spectacles and fatten the wallets of a few developers and property owners — along with the war criminals and other assorted ghouls that make up the IOC.

The truth is that the Olympics, with their concomitant upswell in displacement, gentrification, police militarization, and labor exploitation, do not combat poverty but, rather, combat poor people. The Games are detrimental to residents of host cities, and — as usual — the people who are already in precarious situations are the ones made most vulnerable by the myriad catastrophes that the Olympics bring.

And catastrophes always accompany the Olympics. While most people are familiar with stories of ‘Olympics gone wrong’, these are often dismissed as the result of poor preparation or inadequate infrastructure. But the notion that there even exists a ‘good Olympics’ is what really warrants interrogation. The first question we should be asking is, good for who, exactly? And the answer is not people from the same class as Caylin Moore.

The LA 84 Games, often cited as an example of Olympics done right, were in fact one of the precipitating events for LAPD militarization. Daryl Gates’ ‘Olympic Gang Sweeps’ and the extensive military-style ‘antiterrorism training’ (which included LAPD trainings in Germany and Israel) helped cultivate the conditions that led to the 1992 LA riots. Even the New York Times painted a chilling picture at the time, reporting, “If there is a distinctive sound so far to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, it is the chop-chop noise of helicopter rotor blades whirling in the warm southern California air.”

It’s truly frightening to imagine the extent to which surveillance and state-sanctioned violence toward poor, homeless, undocumented, and nonwhite populations would increase by 2024 or 2028. Making the city amenable to corporate sponsors and visiting plutocrats will entail even more severe criminalization of poverty than already exists. And it isn’t only the LAPD we have to worry about — the Games would receive a National Special Security Event (NSSE) designation, resulting in federal oversight of local law enforcement for the entire summer.

Image from NOlympics LA

Another example of what is widely regarded as a ‘successful Olympics’ is the Sydney Games in 2000, which Helen Jefferson Lenskyj wrote about in an excellent book that dismantles conventional narratives about the Games. Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch called Sydney “the best Olympic Games ever.” He evidently didn’t care to take into account the proliferation of no-cause evictions (often followed by demolition and redevelopment), rent hikes of up to 40% in formerly low-income communities, and a rapid influx of families into emergency shelters. Tenants’ rights activists diverted their energy toward forming SHAC (Sydney Housing Action Collective), which advocated for and helped to defend those who had to resort to squatting in vacant buildings. There’s a good reason why every chapter of the LA Tenants Union has joined the NOlympics LA coalition.

If Mayor Garcetti were sincere about wanting to mitigate poverty and eradicate homelessness, he would be devoting time and resources to those issues rather than to the Olympics, which always hurt the poor and unpropertied, even when they are considered ‘successful.’ If his lukewarm progressive posturing has any substance to it, why isn’t he working instead on universal rent control or a vacancy tax, for example? Neither of those are particularly radical demands, but they at least accomplish something that would substantively help people. Meaningful, transformative politics must address the material causes of injustice and inequality, not defer to a story about the rarest of individuals who became a football star.

Video from NOlympics LA

This is not to diminish Caylin Moore’s achievements; he is clearly a remarkable athlete and scholar. But his story is powerful precisely because it is such an exception. What about the multitudes of people who have no viable avenue for getting plucked from poverty? Do we disregard them because they haven’t bootstrapped their way to the top of our sham meritocracy?

Unfortunately, one of the most cherished liberal/soft-progressive shibboleths is the tendency to think in terms of individuals rather than collective interests and radical reconfigurations of power. This is demonstrated by the celebration of benevolent CEOs who practice ‘conscious capitalism,’ for example, or philanthropic individuals who give to the poor, despite the profoundly undemocratic nature of charity. We saw it after Obama’s 2008 election, when liberal pundits jubilantly declared the arrival at last of a ‘post-racial society.’

This is easily instrumentalized to assure people that there is no need for systemic change, collective struggle, or even analysis of material conditions. Our milquetoast mayor relies on this belief when he advocates for the Olympics with flimsy, faux-progressive rhetoric. It makes for an easily digestible and satisfying story — but it absolutely is not the kind of politics that helps those who need it most.

And for most who are living in precarious situations in LA and beyond, their immense daily struggles don’t ever resolve into the kind of tidy narrative Garcetti likes to share at press conferences, where poverty is just part of a trajectory toward better times or an adverse condition waiting for a market correction. For most, there is no pithy lesson to be gleaned about the value and eventual payoff of hard work, self-reliance, and good personal choices; the only lesson is that the wealthy and powerful exist at the expense of the poor, and the Olympics are emblematic of that above all else.

Our city — and any city — should be evaluated on what its leadership does to empower those who have been marginalized, not on the magnitude of a spectacle it can put on for the obscenely wealthy.

It’s not too late to push the Games out of LA for good, but that can only happen if those in power feel the pressure to do so. Let’s demand more from Garcetti and his team of mealy-mouthed Olympic boosters.