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Who is Considered Disposable? COVID-19 and the Olympics

The politics of disposability will continue to play out in the Olympics wherever they go

On Wednesday April 28th, Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, tweeted, “FREE AMERICA NOW.” This came after the requests of many elites to “open up the economy” and the infamous “Liberate America” protests that involved thousands of people across the United States breaking quarantine to protest stay at home orders. Although a small minority, these groups have garnered almost all of the attention from corporate media outlets and support from big business while the larger forces of worker strikes, sick outs, and rent strikes across the country have been largely ignored. Ironically, the pandemic has not hurt the wealth of America’s richest people who, according to a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies, saw their net worth surge by $368.8 billion between March 18 and May 14.

The death toll for coronavirus in the United States has surpassed 100,000, making both its death toll and confirmed cases total higher than any other country in the world. The data also demonstrates that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This is due, in part, because Black people are more likely to be working in essential services, such as in hospitals (Black workers are 40% more likely to work in hospitals compared to white workers according to the Current Populations Survey reported in The Guardian), postal service, public transportation, etc. than white people. Black people are more likely to be employed by jobs that do not offer paid sick leave or offer telecommuting. Indigenous people are being left out of US coronavirus data and are labelled as “other.” Due to oversights in the death certificate process, many immunocompromised people are believed to be left out of COVID-19 death data. BIPOC, immunocompromised, disabled, unhoused and elderly people are the most at risk to contract coronavirus. Yet, American elites continue to advocate for the “opening” of the economy.” A major aspect of this juxtaposition is the politics of disposability.

The politics of disposability is best defined in Shaun Ossei-Owusu’s Boston Review article, “Coronavirus and the Politics of Disposability.” Ossei-Owusu uses the analysis of scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux in his book, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism,” to define the politics of disposability. ““It is a politics in which the unproductive (the poor, weak and racially marginalized) are considered useless and therefore expendable,” Giroux writes — and “in which entire populations are considered disposable, unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves.””

The lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color are deemed “disposable” under our system of racial capitalism. Disabled and immunocompromised people are defined as “unable to keep up” with the demands of capitalist modes of production. Therefore, they are treated as more “disposable” than able bodied people. Unhoused people are deemed “unproductive” in comparison to housed people. As a result, the opening up of the economy, despite the risks that it poses to the most vulnerable populations, is defined as “necessary” because these populations are seen as “disposable.” Their lives are viewed as “less important” than the bottom line of economic elites, or a middle class person’s “right” to go to the theater to see a movie. It is essential for us to apply the analysis of the politics of disposability to all aspects of our society. Though they often project themselves as being apolitical, the Olympics are a crucial venue where these politics of disposability play out.

The Olympics bring displacement, police militarization, labor abuses, and much more. One specific example is the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the years leading up to the Games, the police enforced laws that made it a crime to be homeless. The residents of Skid Row were forced out so that they would not be seen by tourists coming for the Games. In 1982, a law was passed that prohibited the use of parked cars for habitation. In February 1984, LA city council passed a law that forbade sleeping on benches. In addition, the police introduced more “tough on crime” measures, which specifically targeted poor and working class Black, Brown, and Native youth in South Central and East LA. The result was a military occupation of South Central and East LA and mass incarceration. This was all done to “beautify” Los Angeles for the Olympic Games. It was done to “boost” the international image of Los Angeles. Poor and working class communities of color and unhoused people were specifically targeted to be brutally policed and displaced because the city viewed them as an “eyesore” for wealthy tourists. Their lives were (and still are) considered to be disposable for those in power.

Not only are the comforts of very privileged tourists seen as more valuable than the well being of entire communities, the achievements of the athletes are as well. The achievements of a handful of Black athletes, such as the four gold medals won by sprinter Carl Lewis at the 1984 games, are praised while the displacement of entire Black communities in Los Angeles that made the Games happen is erased. Ultimately, the lives of the athletes are more valued because their achievements make corporate sponsors a lot of money and boost the spectacle of the Olympics for the IOC. The tourists are more valued because they are labeled as “productive” under capitalism and, therefore, “worthy.” The politics of disposability will continue to play out in the Olympics wherever they go.

During COVID-19, we are witnessing the pathology of the ruling class. They know that they are nothing without their workers. They know that the sooner they get people back to work, the sooner they can keep workers from organizing against them, even if that means death. However, we are also witnessing the expansion and development of incredible systems of mutual aid and dual power. We must organize. We must amplify the voices of the people most adversely impacted by our white supremacist, capitalist, cisheteropatriarchal, ableist system. We must now fight harder than ever to dismantle systems of oppression. Canceling the Olympics needs to be a part of that fight.

If you want to be a part of this fight, feel free to check out partners and allies such as: Black Lives Matter LA, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Mutual Aid LA, LA Tenants Union, and Reclaiming Our Homes.