This diary was written by a NOlympics LA member in late 2019.
I’m squished inside our makeshift organizing headquarters in Tokyo, the largest city on the planet, with a ragtag bunch of organizers like myself who’ve never been here. This is day six of an eight day anti-Olympic summit that fifteen of us have traveled to from Los Angeles, where we’re fighting the LA 2028 bid and gentrification more broadly.
We’re exhausted, riding the high of last night’s protest, most of us having slept little in the past week. The humidity is pushing 90%. It’s July and so disgusting outside it truly boggles the mind how anyone expects Olympic athletes to compete in these conditions, let alone rich smooth-palmed tourists to line the rafters.
It’s exactly one year out from the opening ceremonies for Tokyo 2020, and we’re here with grassroots anti-capitalist organizers from around the world to support the work being done on the ground by groups in Japan for the past six years. It’s the first wide-scale exchange of the sort, with at least eight countries represented. We all came to participate in a series of direct actions, symposiums, press events, knowledge exchanges and hangouts, building out this idea decades in the making.
But like any trip to a new place, we’ve hit an unforeseen hiccup. Our LA delegation is organizing the housing/gentrification event. We’re trying to figure out how to get a bunch of people from different countries and backgrounds more comfortable with the idea of breakout groups, a familiar format for anyone who’s been to an organizing meeting in America and a huge part of tenant organizing in LA. This practice mainly comes from Latin American traditions and practices around popular education, and we’re all instinctively comfortable teaching each other and learning through this format. Most of the events so far have been centered around a presentation format, with one person in front of the room delivering information in a one-way stream. Through this format we’ve managed to receive an incredible amount of information in a relatively short time, but we’re feeling urgency around creating spaces for dialogue and exchange. Our hosts continue to express concerns about moving away from the presentation format — while they conduct most of their internal meetings as small group discussions, they’re concerned that this approach won’t work as an educational process. We continue to push for the breakout groups, delivering revised agenda after revised agenda over email — and then, more successfully, sitting down in person and explaining why we think this is the best approach for this event.
Our broader goals are ambitious: stop the Olympics altogether via efforts in every host and bid city, abolish the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and push back against the sportswashing of our cities on a global level. But first we have to figure out how to communicate in a way that goes beyond our scripted selves and how we interact in, say, emails or on Skype. And that’s not easy. We have interpreters working to bridge the three main languages being spoken — Korean, English, and Japanese — but we don’t have a model for how to get over larger cultural hurdles. It’s something we have to wrestle with in real time.
When we originally cooked up the idea to send a bunch of anti-Olympics organizers from LA to support allies in Tokyo a year ago, we didn’t anticipate one of the questions we’d get would be, “Why did you send a bunch of people to Tokyo? Couldn’t that money have gone to [insert cause]?,” which is a cousin to other questions we seem to hear a lot, like, “Aren’t the LA Olympics a done deal? Shouldn’t we try to negotiate some concessions out of LA 2028?” The short answer to all of the above is: no.
The long answer begins with the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founding member of the International Olympic Committee and eugenicist playboy rich kid, friend of land speculators and war criminals (all of which are common traits of local Olympic boosters as well). In other words: post-industrial capitalism in human form. For context, Henry Kissinger is on the IOC today as an honorary member, to give an indication of the league of murderous villains we’re organizing against here.
Baron Coubertin’s Olympic plan was always one based in theft and supremacy. The Olympics’ financiers come from a long line of plunderers, financial criminals, European royalty, and other oligarchs who built fortunes on dispossession. The modern Olympics began as a sideshow to the World’s Fair, a similarly destructive operation that, although hasn’t been held on American soil since the New Orleans edition in 1984, still quietly exists to line the pockets of developers (see: the 2015 Milan World Expo). The modern Olympics would resuscitate the ancient Greek Games and update them for a new world being force-fed global capital.
The first twenty-three Olympics took place in white cities in Europe and America. A reckless real estate tycoon named Billy Garland invited the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1932 at the pit of the Depression, importing tens of thousands of palm trees and, like Lyle Lanley, selling LA as the single-family-home tropical oasis, an anti-urban concept we’re still trying to undo almost a century later. The next summer Olympics were in Nazi Germany, where Hitler introduced the torch relay, the procession of nations, and showed how unapologetic fascism and nationalism could harness the mega event for a much broader political project. As time went on and global capital further consolidated power, the Games ballooned into larger and larger mega events with the capacity to destroy not just cities but entire nation states.
Resistance to the Olympics is almost as old as the Games themselves, and the Left features prominently in this history. The Olympics have been exploiting bodies and communities for over a hundred years, and opposition to the Olympics, taking various forms, has been a near constant. Leftist alternatives to the Olympics proliferated in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1910s the Worker Sports Movement was launched by the Socialist Workers’ Sport International in Lausanne, also headquarters of the IOC itself. The first Workers Sports Olympiad was held in 1925 in Frankfurt; the second was in Vienna in 1931. This alternative vision treated sport as actual amateurism, instead of the profit, cut-throat competition, and nationalism that define the Olympics. Communists in Chicago and Barcelona launched their own alternatives as well. But like the Olympics themselves, progress of the alternative vision was interrupted by the World Wars, and momentum was difficult to maintain for the alternative games. Nevertheless, all types of international sports take place on various levels without the Olympic footprint, so really it’s never been about finding alternatives. They exist. Like anything, it’s the political will that’s lacking.
Host cities and potential hosts cities have seen all variety of opposition movements representing a range of tendencies and tactics, sometimes multiple groups in a single area. A case that comes up often in our movement is the work of activists who ousted the Denver 1976 games. Similar to LA, Denver had been “awarded” the 1976 Olympics in 1970. By 1972 an opposition movement had built enough political support, stemming mainly from environmental and taxation concerns, and their opposition movement pushed a winning vote to overturn the undemocratic bid. The Tlatelolco Massacre was the bloody result of leftist student opposition to the Mexico City ‘68 games. Hundreds of protesters were killed by police in order to manufacture the image of the clean city for the Games. The ‘68 games are mostly remembered by Americans for a different image of political dissent — the fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos — though that narrative has also been skewed and bent over time.
There was opposition to Seoul’s human rights horror show in ‘88, opposition to Reagan’s 1984 “Capitalist Games” for those fighting for autonomy in the Global South, a Dutch opposition movement in the ‘80s, and so many other stories you’ll never hear on NBC or your local NPR affiliate. There were opposition groups battling the evictions in the lead up to and aftermath of London 2012 and the rapid gentrification and Native land-grabs that came with Vancouver 2010. Human rights organizers campaigned against Beijing for 2008, and now that’s coming back around again for the Beijing 2022 Olympics, with Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib recently calling for their boycott. There was resistance by favela communities in Rio fighting to preserve their existence, one of the more violent, blatant, and well-documented examples in recent memory. In Tokyo, we meet organizers from Nagano who opposed the 1998 Olympics on the basis that they would accelerate speculative real estate development and environmental destruction, a story that none of us had seen documented in the media or elsewhere.
These are cities that, for the most part, ended up hosting the Olympics. That doesn’t count all of the cities that never bid in the first place, or the growing number of cities that have rejected them in one form or another in the past decade. Organizers in Stockholm, Hamburg, Denver (again!), Calgary, Rome, Stockholm, Turin, Boston and elsewhere have pushed back at an alarming rate, forcing the IOC to defensively adapt its bidding process and “rules” to meet the growing tide of rejection.
There are two main reasons that LA has hosted the Olympics so often. One, Los Angeles is a news desert. And two, LA power is consolidated in such a uniquely undemocratic way, even by major American big city standards. We have 15 council members — who wield legislative, executive, and even some judicial powers — representing four million city residents. They voted unanimously “yes” 99.37% of the time over the last five years. We have five county supervisors who each represent over two million constituents (the average congressional rep has 700,000 constituents); most Angelenos don’t know who their supervisor is. Voter turnout is embarrassing. This style of undemocracy unites Los Angeles and Japan’s ruling classes who have been willing to invite the IOC into their communities time and time again (Los Angeles has bid for eleven consecutive Olympics over the last half a century). Tokyo and Sapporo were slated to host in 1940, but that edition was canceled due to war. Japan became the first non-white majority country to host the Olympics when Tokyo held them in 1964, where displacement was a major theme. Sapporo hosted in 1972. Nagano hosted in 1998, famous for the fact that its officials shredded the Olympic receipts so we’ll never know how truly corrupt and over budget they went. Los Angeles hosted the summer games for a second time in 1984, an event that led to the near collapse of the second largest city in the country. An already militarized police force helmed by Daryl Gates was juiced up and leading Olympic sweeps of the homeless, black and brown people, alongside a major land grab at USC. The cultural memory is that these Olympics had “no traffic” and “made money” but only for the already wealthy boosters. Not a single dime went to the city, while racial and economic inequality were accelerated, later culminating in 1992’s uprising.
NOlympics LA was born out of the housing and homelessness committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in early 2017. It quickly grew to become a coalition of local social justice groups, including, even, some broader California groups — Californian taxpayers, like Angelenos, also are on the hook when the Games inevitably go over budget. This coalition focuses on the effects on the poorest and most vulnerable — people who rent, people who are unhoused, people of color, and immigrants. Right as we had formed, the county of LA announced a 23% increase in homelessness in one year alone, and the country was bracing for the effects of electing an open fascist to take over Obama’s deportation machine. At the time, LAPD was the deadliest police force in America — we argue this is in part because of our Olympic legacy. They still are. It was clear someone needed to start mounting a defense, and the organizers working around these issues were already over capacity to deal with the vast, ongoing crises of a city sucked to a husk by public-private partnerships. So we started organizing locally via an anti-capitalist, anti-gentrification framework, always with a line to other groups in other cities but without a formal apparatus or organizing body to coordinate on a grander scale.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that developing a transnational body would probably be necessary. We recognized one problem with Olympic opposition movements is that they haven’t been well connected. When anti-Olympic groups are successful (or not), they often disband or move on to other projects. (The Olympic bidding format has mutated and evolved outside of Olympics events; see also such nightmares as the Amazon HQ2 project). Cultural and geographical separation between cities compounded by well-heeled worldwide PR campaigns that whitewash negative Olympic outcomes have helped stymie the growth of a concerted, coordinated transnational opposition. This ability of governments and corporations to stun the memory of disaster relies on a sort of inverted shock doctrine, where the disaster is entirely scripted and intentional, concentrating a decade or two worth of gentrification in a single punch. All by design.
One of the things I hoped to learn more about is why these two areas cities were susceptible to hosting the Olympics more than anywhere else. Both LA and Tokyo are obscenely wealthy, highly advanced police states operating under the guise of democracy. What is it about these two places that made some of their residents so compliant, and eager, even, to repeat past atrocities? Is it, in fact, compliance or a complete lack of awareness of our own history that dooms us to continuously reboot the past?
As a group, NOlympics LA was making this trip to support anti-2020 efforts as well as to gauge if we had the right ideological ingredients to build a true transnational coalition and, if so, what that would look like. Here’s what happened.
When I arrive in Tokyo, I meet several of our organizers who came earlier and had just completed a tour of Olympic event sites around the prefecture.
Three of us immediately rush to Shibuya to catch part of Hangorin no Kai’s weekly meeting. Hangorin no Kai is comprised mostly of unhoused or formerly unhoused residents. They work with Okotowa Link, the other core anti-Olympic group fighting 2020, comprised mostly of media and academics. One of Hangorin no Kai’s leaders, Misako Ichimura, sits with us in this very small concrete park next to a construction site for a new Olympic-driven development that has displaced several dozen houseless people. This is where our trip will begin and end, centered on those who have already been directly affected by these mega-events and those most vulnerable as policing and sweeps, in the name of creating the “clean global city,” reaches a head. She shows us around the developments nearby and we see a familiar site: a hostile planter, being used to discourage houseless people from sleeping here. Never mind that plants need sunlight to grow. This is pure class hostility and a tactic we’ve seen deployed throughout Los Angeles, from Koreatown to Venice.
On day two we attend a symposium at Waseda University. We meet comrades from Indonesia (already gearing up for a fight against a 2032 Jakarta bid which hasn’t been officially announced yet), Korea, London, Rio, and, of course, Tokyo, Nagano, Kyoto, and other Japanese cities. Jules Boykoff, anti-capitalist academic, former soccer player, and documenter of anti-Olympics movements, is the keynote. His work has been translated and consumed by a Japanese Left eager to understand the historical context and material concerns of Tokyo 2020. Boykoff gives an overview of Olympic history and resistance to contextualize the next week.
Japanese academics join as well, filling in some of the specifically Japanese context, from Imperialism, to nuclear disaster, to gender and ableism dynamics that the Olympics will heighten and exacerbate. The thing that sticks out to me the most from this day is learning that Japanese public school officials have been pumping a required 30-35 course hours minimum of Pro-Olympics propaganda a year in Japan’s public school system in order to achieve maximum compliance. Educators are already expressing frustration because the start of the 2020 school year will be pushed back to accommodate the Olympics. The Olympics are built on seemingly innocuous civic disruptions like these which accumulate and have deeper implications than anyone on Team Olympics will ever give them credit for.
On Monday half of the LA crew takes a tour bus to Fukushima, a three hour journey each way, where several baseball and softball Tokyo 2020 events are slated to take place, in addition to being the site of the beginning of the Torch Relay in March 2020.
Fukushima, of course, is the center of the nuclear disaster of 2011, spurred by an earthquake and tsunami. Tokyo 2020 has been conceived as an opportunity to launder the image of the disaster-stricken area and present it as safe, “recovered,” terminating an unfinished recovery process. Since the disaster, many evacuees have not been able to return. Only fifty homes have been constructed to house returnees. A shiny new civic center has been erected out of which local politics operate. A council of selected residents has been supportive of the Olympics except for one woman on the council who stood up to the Olympic Committee for minimizing the issue and claiming recovery is complete. It’s clear the Japanese Olympic Committee is using Tokyo 2020 to greenwash a national tragedy.
Entering Fukushima, the tour begins on the side of a road. Just off the highway we see an open field where piles of toxic soil have sat in bags for months. Plants and branches grow out and pierce the bags. Bulldozers sit idly by. As we continue driving throughout the day we see more and more fields with mountains of black plastic bags. Meanwhile the untamed parts of the forest and nature are not cleaned, continuing to contaminate endlessly.
We enter a center where people’s belongings have been collected and displayed along note cards with the location where they were found. People’s most prized possessions, including pictures, altars, toys, trophies, and some sort of Olympic volunteer medal, are laid out, testifying to the urgency and impact of the emergency and representing the hundreds of thousands of people affected.
Our members tour a museum that functions to launder the image of Fukushima from contaminated to clean. A propaganda film shows the stages of the crisis with three screens. These boosters present a highly scientific and abstracted video of the disaster that neglects the effect it has had on people’s lives —most notably the mass displacement of an entire region — promoting instead a glossy image of a clean-up effort that isn’t actually taking place.
As I write this in late 2019, a story is breaking that radiation hotspots were found near the Fukushima Olympic site, confirming what we see at the museum with our radiation meters. We’re told that exposure to these radiation levels can be extremely harmful. It’s clear this place is not “recovered.” This is a rush job.
The other half of the LA delegation attends an evening picnic in Yoyogi Park where we break bread via candlelight with our comrades from Korea and Japan. This session features introductions lasting over an hour, as we go around the circle sharing who we are and why the hell we’re here. One Japanese unhoused man steals the show by reciting all the US states and capitals. This is easily one of the most moving moments of the trip and reifies why we’re here. It’s also one of the most sacred and undocumented for various sensitivities. There are many different perspectives on why the Olympics are worth organizing against. What they all have in common is that no one asked any of us if we want the games, whether we’re renters, homeless, women, queer, POC, immigrants or anyone else already blocked out of the conversation.
We’re seated a few hundred feet away from an encampment where some members of HNK live. Misako, like many of the people here at the picnic, has lived outdoors for a long time, in her case for sixteen years. These are moments of intimate sharing that can’t happen on Skype or in a shared doc. Without the structure of an agenda or a window defined by time zones, we have space to discuss things that aren’t immediately related to organizing, like what music we like to listen to, what food we like to eat, what our families are like. And of course, those things are related to organizing, because that’s what defines the communities and lives we think are worth fighting for and defending from the Olympic machine.
On Tuesday, we hit the center of Japanese media, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, to support an anti-Olympic press conference. In one day we get more press attention than we do in months in our home cities. Our comrades fighting the Paris 2024 Olympic have just arrived in town. Paris has two coalitions fighting their bid. We talk and film with the French allies all afternoon before an evening of sharing media strategies between groups.
During the media session, we exchange stories of how rotten our news media landscapes are, and we analyze how capital has consolidated and exsanguinated news to the sad husk of a commodity it represents in our home nations. We collectively realize the impossibility of getting the mainstream media to present the counternarrative, since local and national media is always an Olympic partner throughout the bidding process. I’m tasked with leading a discussion at the end and suggest breaking out into groups, when an American academic comes up and whispers in my ear that this is not going to work.
Wednesday is our busiest day and the outward-facing fulcrum of our trip. This is July 24, exactly one year from the 2020 opening ceremonies. It’s violently hot outside. At several points I imagine this is what it feels like to die. I’m constantly sweating on my phone screen while trying to coordinate an action in LA and a social media blitz around the world to fan out over the next twenty four hours. Residents from Vila Autódromo in Rio have sent in a video solidarity message and we scramble to translate it into English and get subtitles up.
The LA group breaks up into four teams to cover a lot of ground. There’s a protest outside the Sensō-ji Temple, a high traffic tourist area in Asakusa that is rapidly gentrifying, displacing working class residents for luxury high-rises and hotels. This action feels reminiscent of many LA actions we’ve participated in.
We gather to make signs and banners together on the sidewalk before marching to a central location, where individual representatives from each group make statements about our opposition to the Olympics, gentrification, and development more broadly. The main difference here is that every statement is immediately translated into at least two other languages. Tourists from Japan, England, Italy and more stop to ask us questions, leading to yet another similarity to our experience in LA — people have extremely limited or zero awareness of what’s happening with the Olympics and are receptive to explanations of why we’re trying to stop them.
A few of us gain access to an official IOC event where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trips and almost eats shit on his way in.
Outside this ceremony, a brand activation zone — “1 Year to Go!” — is staged, where children are given swag if they dress up in private security riot gear by ALSOK, sponsor of the Olympics and a company born in the direct wake of the 1964 Games.
Naturally, we also protest here.
I have a run-in with an IOC member.
The summit culminates in a large evening protest and rally in Shinjuku, one of the densest, hyper-capitalized districts on the planet. Several hundred anti-Olympians take the streets and cause hordes of passersby to stop and recognize what’s happening. This is, as one journalist who’s been following this for at least a decade put it, the “largest display of anti-Olympic sentiment I’ve ever seen.” This was an action that helped shatter some of the anonymity you’re expected to exist within if you’re someone who lives in Tokyo.
Back at our headquarters we spend Thursday and Friday in various planning and educational meetings. In the background, our team is trying to tweak our plans to get the most out of the gentrification-focused event we’re leading. It’s still very, very hot.
Before the event starts, we’re met with a room with personal artifacts of families who were displaced from public housing and critiques of development from Nagano. These are things that didn’t make it onto the internet public record, a reminder that not everything is searchable or indexed online.
The discussion room is full of people we want to hear from the most — people who have been displaced and unhoused residents. One of the members of the LA delegation is being displaced to make room for a development being built near the USC Coliseum for LA 2028. Eight rent-controlled buildings are being demolished to address the “hotel shortage” crisis. This is a rare opportunity to hear from people from around the world who have faced displacement. The combination of lack of access and the shame and trauma around eviction and homelessness means that it’s not easy for many of these folks to share their stories publicly. Many of them are not tapped to speak as experts in seminar-style events with wide audiences.
Tenants are the protagonists of their own stories and experts of their own experience. In one small group, a professor talks about his research alongside an unhoused tenant who shares his struggle to defend his “right of residence.” The term “right of residence” itself is one that had been used offhandedly in email exchanges, but in the moment, we were able to ask follow up questions and clarify that this refers to a specific legal status tied to a permanent address and associated with government benefits. We learn from this particular tenant that where he lived, migrant workers organized to defend their “right of residence” and were joined by unhoused tenants, echoing battles here in LA for rights for the poor to exist in public.
Conversation is flowing despite the fact that for many of the participants this is novel territory. We remain patient trying to facilitate trilingual translation in small groups compared to more formal events, where everyone has a headset with simultaneous interpretation. During a break, one of the interpreters from Tokyo stops and asks if any of us know about the fight against the galleries in Boyle Heights. Members of Union de Vecinos, the Eastside local of LA Tenants Union, one of the groups leading the charge of fierce opposition to gentrification facing the storied Los Angeles barrio, are in the room. It’s their general attitude that gentrification is not inevitable, and their work in Boyle Heights in particular shows us a way out. We take pleasure in hearing these stories of success travel across continents, knowing our struggles and victories are being amplified and echoed around the world.
Many of the other groups are focused on environmental justice and climate change as the central tenet of their opposition— European and Asian cities in particular have a much stronger culture, legacy, and analysis on those fronts — and these groups have a clear global message. Organizing around displacement presents an interesting challenge. Many of us initially see our struggles as distinct to our cities and communities, as local phenomena requiring us to fixate on a specific landlord or politician or developer. But the more we talk, the more patterns emerge which transcend local custom or policy.
It’s not uncommon for participants to preempt whatever they’re about to say with a warning about how unusual it is, apologizing to the interpreters about how difficult it will be to translate, and then to have everyone else in the group immediately start nodding in recognition. One Korean organizer shares a saying from back home about how “developers are higher than god,” gesturing with his hands to mimic a skyscraper, and then starts to elaborate about how this means that where he lives, developers have unlimited power and are untouchable by the law. But we all know exactly what he means from the start because it’s the same in our cities too.
Our final day, we congregate at Sophia University to read the collective statement we spent the last few months writing and revising, poring over each word. The congregation moves to Mitake Park, where we share a large seafood stew with dozens of unhoused allies, a fitting bookend for this first foray into building out this transnational network in real life. Members of the various groups join for an impromptu performance of the “No Olympics Anthem,” while in the background an unhoused woman records a response to the residents of Vila Autodromo. We thrive on these little moments. They’re everything.
Since our return, we’ve been fighting all manner of cruel policies that LA’s law and order liberals are trying to serve the poor. DHS has started collaborating with LAPD and LA2028 to build out a “security” plan for the next decade, while the City of LA looks to incorporate the non-profit Industrial Complex into the Olympic program. Airbnb just announced a global partnership with the Olympics, further giving credence to our platform and efforts. Our Homes Not Hotels campaign has gained steam, as we focus on the hotel development gobbling up land around Olympic sites, displacing tenants throughout LA.
In Japan, the past few months have seen 2020 narratives devolve into a pathetically transparent power struggle between the IOC and localities, as events are being moved to Sapporo, without anything resembling a democratic process —which is no surprise to us but is clearly one to the ruling class in Tokyo who are now losing out on millions (and possibly billions) in revenue. Japanese lawmakers also recently approved a bill saying it’s legal to fly the Imperial Flag for the Olympics. And we’re getting word that massive surveillance on civilians in the name of 2020 is already under way by private security contractors.
In late 2019, we invited allies from Japan to Los Angeles to expand on July’s momentum. The discussion of what building out this transnational coalition looks like is ongoing. Our points of unity are almost complete. Being there, getting to know more of the people involved and affected, seeing the places being destroyed for profit and touching them gives the work a deeper weight. The IOC never wanted all of us to get together, for any of this to happen. But it is. The vibes remain high as we move into 2020 and plan our return to Tokyo, where neither us nor the Olympic profiteers are fully ready for what’s waiting around the corner: an opportunity to upend the games forever.