You cannot support both the Olympics and the movement for Black Lives. That was the central argument put forth at the “Pick a Side Town Hall,” hosted on October 21 by NOlympics LA.
The LA Police Department (LAPD) and LA Sheriff’s Department (LASD) already constitute “one of the country’s deadliest police systems” with Black people disproportionately numbered among the victims. They are known for engaging in racial profiling, building fraudulent gang databases, using unethical predictive policing tactics, producing the country’s largest incarcerated population, and harassing and violating the rights and wellbeing of unhoused folks. The 2028 Olympics promise to expand both departments’ personnel, arsenal of military-grade weaponry, surveillance capacities, and authority. At a moment when the Black Lives Matter-led movement has successfully organized to pressure the City of LA to consider unprecedented police budget cuts, the 2028 Olympics threaten to prevent or undo any gains made towards reimagining public safety.
As Dr. Melina Abdullah from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles stated at the Town Hall, “the idea of bringing in more policing to maintain safety — we know that that means safety for some at the expense of all the rest of us. Safety for white affluent communities, for folks who want to roll into our city. And it means less resources, and also more repression, for Black folks, for brown folks, for unhoused folks, for poor folks.”
LAPD has plans to add 3,000 officers ahead of 2028, while LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has spoken of his department’s “projected future growth” for the Olympics. Like the sheriff, leaders of the LA Police Protective League have used the Olympics to argue that LA cannot afford to cut police budgets now. As NOlympics LA’s new “Pick a Side LA” website asserts, however, “the Olympics do not create an actual need for more police. They are used to justify the expansion of police.”
Abdullah explained: “When you talk about putting 3,000 more officers on the streets, you’re really talking about occupying Black communities.” Indeed, this was the experience of predominantly Black communities ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics, when favelas were subjected to years-long occupations by Military Police units, and ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, when Black and brown low-income boroughs were subjected to intensified restrictions and profiling. This kind of occupation, Abdullah continued, “isn’t about keeping people safe, but it’s about repressing the potential for organizing, it’s about repressing the potential for resistance, it’s about repressing our radical imaginations.” In contrast, she added, “what keeps us safe is actually the expansion of resources, the diverting of dollars away from police. We should be cutting LAPD, not spending more on LAPD.”
When you talk about putting 3,000 more officers on the streets, you’re really talking about occupying Black communities.– Melina Abdullah
Hamid Khan, from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, also underscored the spatial nature of police expansion, expressing concern about “predictive policing and various types of methodologies that are deeming whole neighborhoods as sites of criminality.” Connecting policing to ongoing projects to displace and gentrify low-income communities of color, he stated: “Bringing in an extra 3,000 cops is not just going to be for the two-week period [of the Olympics]. It’s going to be a continuation forever to protect these new properties that are being set up, new neighborhoods that are being developed. And then the people that are being removed will have to be contained and controlled and quarantined at different locations as well.”
Historical and political contexts
For an example of how the Olympics drives militarization and police violence, one need look no further than the LA 1984 Olympics. At the Town Hall, Khan described the “massive infusion” of helicopters, armored vehicles, and battering rams, among other weaponry that the LAPD acquired for the Games. He noted the arrests in the thousands of Black and brown residents of South Central Los Angeles as well as extensive sweeps of unhoused folks across the city. Khan traced a throughline of police militarization that preceded the Olympics but went into overdrive for the Games, with consequences extending through the decades to come. The “Olympics were setting the stage for 1992,” he said, adding: “A lot of elements and tactical operations of the national security police state that we see today can be clearly linked to 1984.”
In 2018 LA Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff acknowledged in a private email that concerns about how the police will treat unhoused Angelenos ahead of and during the Olympics are “valid,” even though he thinks the LAPD is “different” today than it was in 1984. For Abdullah, “it’s a different [police] force but not in a positive way.” Tracing the origins of the police in the United States back to chattel slavery, she explained how policing has continuously evolved its form while retaining the project to maintain white supremacy at its core. Today, she argued, “the system of policing, LAPD, is an evolved form of what it was in ’84. It gobbles up more dollars, it is in many ways much more advanced in terms of its technology, it legitimizes itself, and it really tries to kind of build support through both institutions, and uses those institutions to make community members think that somehow we need it, to block us from our imaginings.”
Both Town Hall speakers explicitly named the role of white supremacy in policing and the Olympics. Khan described the Olympics as an “every-four-year reminder and celebration of white supremacy,” due to its continued emphasis on and celebration of its roots in Greek and Western civilization. “So every four years the world gets caught up, as a reminder [of] who owns the world, who controls the world,” he said. Abdullah noted that the kind of liberal white supremacy represented by LA mayor Eric Garcetti may not be as easy to identify as Trump’s brand of blatant white supremacy, but it still perpetuates violence. “The answer to violent, blatant white supremacy is and to liberal white supremacy,” she proposed, “is all of us organizing ourselves together and working towards a really much more fundamentally transformative view of the world, engaging our radical imaginations, and fundamentally reimagining public safety and grounding it in the building of community and the resourcing of community, instead of funding a violent, oppressive, murderous policing system.
“So every four years the world gets caught up, as a reminder [of] who owns the world, who controls the world.”– Hamid Kahn
Abolition not reform
Transformation and radical imagination are key concepts for the abolitionist principles that drive Black Lives Matter, Stop LAPD Spying, and NOlympics LA’s approaches to politics. When asked about why he advocated for abolition and not reform, Khan reasoned that “what reform does is continue to legitimize an existing system.”
Abolition politics requires us to be clear about what exactly we aim to abolish. As Abdullah emphasized, “Abolitionism doesn’t mean we can’t be fans, that we can’t love the idea of sport. For Black people in particular, sports are hugely important. Sports are hugely important because it’s one of the spaces that white supremacy and chattel slavery were unable to strip Black people of our excellence. And so they’re going, why are you talking bad about the Olympics? I think that when we talk about abolitionism, it’s important to remember that we’re not talking about abolishing sport.”
Khan made a similar point: “I want to make a distinction about sport and the celebration of the body, the celebration of our spirit, the celebration of just exercising our physical spirit. I think that’s separate from what the Olympics represent. The Olympics represent the commodification of the body, the monetization of the body.”
So what is abolition and what does it mean for the Olympics? Abdullah summed it up:
“Abolition really looks at who these systems are being used for, ending the oppressive nature of those systems, and reimagining something different. […] I think that’s really what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘No Olympics.’ It doesn’t mean that we want to abolish sport. It means that we want to liberate sport. It means that we don’t want sport to be used as a pretext for the oppression and repression of Black people, of Indigenous people, of other people of color, of poor people. We don’t want it to be used as a tool of gentrification and overpolicing. And so it means toppling a system that does that, and fundamentally reimagining what sport can mean.”
That’s why you cannot support both the Olympics and the movement for Black Lives. You need to pick a side.
Join Black Lives Matter on Wednesday at 3pm in front of the Hall of (in)Justice (211 W. Temple St) to demand LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey must go. Learn more at BLMLA.org, @blmlosangeles (Instagram), or @blmla (Twitter).
Join Black Lives Matter and Stop LAPD Spying in demanding justice at the LA Police Commission weekly meetings, Tuesdays at 9:30am on Zoom.