The Olympics steamrolled Tokyo activists. Now LA residents are bracing for a fight


Show caption Protesters demonstrate outside the Japan National Stadium before the closing ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Photograph: Igor Belyayev/Tass Los Angeles The Olympics steamrolled Tokyo activists. Now LA residents are bracing for a fight Plans for 2028 will exacerbate housing crisis – and low-income residents have no voice in the matter, tenant activists say Liliana Michelena Sun 15 Aug 2021 09.00 BST Share on Facebook

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A few hours after the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron at the fairly downbeat Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, a group of about 50 people crammed the backyard of a Los Angeles bookstore to celebrate their own “Nopening Ceremony”.

Under a banner that read “Olympics kill the poor”, local activists and scholars at the Echo Park venue took turns telling stories of Olympic-related displacement and gentrification they had witnessed in host cities past and present. The tales were meant to prompt the local residents in the audience to heed the warning: in a city like Los Angeles, already marked by a large unhoused population and a critical housing crisis, the 2028 Olympics may only exacerbate these problems.

Just as Tokyo 2020 marked the end of the Olympiad, the meeting was the end of a cycle for anti-Olympics groups in Los Angeles, and the beginning of a new one. By their own timeline, they have only a couple more years to close the door on LA 2028. And while the specific strategies are still to be determined, they have not changed their general vision.

“No to the Olympics is no,” said Leonardo Vilchis, co-founder of the tenants group Unión de Vecinos (the Neighbors’ Union). “We are not going to negotiate our defeat. Instead, we will act aggressively to stop things from happening.”

As Los Angeles grapples with a critical housing crisis, activists warn that the Olympics will make things worse. Photograph: Rob Latour/Rex/Shutterstock

Much of their strategy will be informed by the recent experience of Tokyo, where the International Olympic Committee (IOC) steamrolled opposition from local residents against the event. Under the contract to which the IOC, the city of Tokyo and the Japanese Olympic Committee agreed, people in Japan had no say on whether the event should go forward, nor any power to stop it in a case of changed circumstances, such as the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Up to 83% of respondents in a May 2021 survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said they didn’t want the Games to take place in Tokyo this year, a sentiment mostly driven by the pandemic.

Los Angeles is poised to host the Games under the same rigid terms imposed in the host city contract, which was signed in 2017 without public engagement and turns over the major calls to the IOC.

Vilchis sees similarities in the undemocratic nature of this imposition and is mostly concerned about the gentrification hosting the Games on those terms could sow. “It is people looking at the real estate, the government sweetening the deal and promoting these things supposedly for the benefit of a community that has no say in how this will impact them,” he said. Locally, his organization has been fighting such messaging in his neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where they have opposed coffee shops and art galleries purporting to “revitalize” the neighborhood.

“They basically came to increase property value and push out businesses for our lower-middle-income neighbors,” he added. “In cities like ours, there is already a tendency to displace poor people, to sacrifice them for projects that are supposed to benefit them, and all of this is accelerated by the Olympics.”

Jonny Coleman, member of the NOlympics LA coalition, argues Angelenos are in a much more vulnerable place than the citizens of Tokyo.

“The inequality here is way more extreme, and it’s a problem the city has been trying to handle – pointing rifles at people in tents in Venice Beach, changing the policy to criminalize homelessness, you can feel the pressure to do it,” he said.

Harrison Wollman, press secretary for the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, said: “Los Angeles already has all the world-class stadiums, venues and infrastructure it needs to have a successful Olympics and Paralympics, so these upcoming Games won’t rely on any new developments.”

The Los Angeles Chargers practice at SoFi Stadium, which is expected to host the 2028 opening and closing ceremonies. Photograph: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

The prospect of the Olympics has already opened doors for development projects. SoFi Stadium, the multibillion-dollar development in Inglewood expected to host the 2028 Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, has been driving rents up and low-income tenants out. Since 2016, the predominantly Black and Latino area has been the target of landlords and real estate developers seeking to profit from the presence of SoFi and the forthcoming new LA Clippers arena.

Across from the University of Southern California, Expo Park and the Banc of California stadium, a rent-controlled apartment complex is being demolished to make way for “the Fig”, a mixed-use development that will contain a hotel, student housing and residential housing. Citing a “need” for more hotels for the Olympics, the Los Angeles city council has approved taxpayer subsidies for the project.

“People want to see sports, but when you come into town and cause a tornado of destruction, people are going to rethink how it’s all coming through,” said Abdul Hood, a delivery driver and a regular at LA Tenants Union meetings. “We’re just in the way. They don’t care about us and they let us know that by the way they treat us,” he said.

“They need to stop planning around us and include us in the development plans,” he added. If not, he trusts the education of tenants and the articulation of similarly minded organizations across the city will “put a dent” in LA ’28. “We have a few years to battle with them.”

By Coleman’s account, they have until 2023. Partnered with other community action groups such as LA Can, Street Watch and Unión de Vecinos, NOlympics LA is spearheading the citywide resistance, retelling the story of 1984 and the irregular process that landed the city the 2028 Games when it had been bidding for 2024.

“The next couple of years are crucial to continue expanding our base,” he said. “The groundwork is being laid, the policy has to be set at a certain point, and then it becomes extremely difficult to push it out.”

Coleman concedes that “there are still a few Olympic diehards” in LA politics, but he sees an opening with local elections looming and the impending departure of the mayor, a primary proponent of the LA 2028 bid.

“I think they’ve seen what’s going on in Tokyo and maybe do not want to die on this hill and don’t want it to come back on them.”