Special Report | Want to cleanse your city of its poor? Host the Olympics
New in Ceasefire, Olympics Watch, Special Reports - Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2012 12:00 - 73 Comments
By Ashok Kumar
As London prepares to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, startlingly little critique has surfaced in the mainstream press. With the exception of the trivial issue of ticket prices, most of the city remains transfixed, internalising the dominant narrative. This process precedes each Olympic games, one that is written and distributed by and for the real Olympic profiteers; a nexus of powerful interests that sees both short and long term gains in each host city.
This highly profitable, publicly subsidised, sporting event always attracts the major, and wannabe major, cities of the world, using any and all methods to entice an unaccountable Olympic committee, each flexing their political muscle to ensure theirs is the next chosen location. The Olympics take billions of pounds, yen, dollars of their host countries’ tax revenue to build magnificent stadiums and housing facilities, militarise the city, trample civil liberties and construct elaborate installations with shelf lives of a few weeks.
London 2012, originally expected to cost £2.4bn, is now projected at £24bn, with contracts going to some of the world’s most egregious employers and global human rights violators. Some on the left have been critical of the massive transfer from public to private at a time of austerity. The London overspend has been portrayed by officials as a one-off, but a glance at the history of the Olympics shows that underestimating the cost is a consistent part of the Olympic experience.
The 1976 Montreal Olympics took over 30 years to pay off the debt it accumulated as a result of its overspend; the 2004 Athens Olympics grew almost a hundred-fold over budget from €123m (£100m) to €11.5bn (£9.5bn) in costs significantly contributing to Greece’s deficit, and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics ended up spending six times the original projection of $1bn. In fact, barring the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – where bottom-up pressure meant zero public dollars were expended on the games, thus securing a $233 million surplus for the city – the Olympic games always exceed their projected expense, saddling cities with years of debt – often paid back through cuts in services, regressive taxes and increased fares.
But the real gains for the rich can be witnessed in the long-term implications, once the crowds have gone home. Contrary to popular belief, the devastation inflicted on the poorest and historically marginalised communities is not simply an adverse side-effect, but goes to the very essence of why cities battle to host the Games.
In recent days attention has been given to London’s policy of ‘cleaning the streets’ of sex workers and other undesirable elements in the lead up to the games. This should come as no surprise to students of history, and if the past two decades are any indication, this is only the beginning of a comprehensive strategy to restructure the character, makeup and politics of the city. Everywhere the Games injects itself, the story remains the same; beginning with the easy targets – sex workers and the homeless – the decision-makers soon move towards driving out ethnic minority and working class residents from their city.
A common tactic is to deny any connection between the policies themselves and the Olympics. As with the sex workers of London, who have been victimised by ten times the levels of raids in the five Olympic boroughs compared to the rest of London, the authorities have repeated the claim that the beefed-up efforts are ‘not related to the Olympics’ but to growing ‘community concern’.
The Olympics have always been utilised as a means to pursue what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ from visible policies of forced evictions to veiled ones such as gentrification. This violent process is intimately connected to reconfiguring the landscape for capital accumulation and, indeed, is a prime motivation for the very purpose of the Olympics itself.
The Games are not simply hosted to ‘clean up’ the city, but to fundamentally reconfigure it, to ‘cleanse’ it of its poor and undesirable; to not only make way for a city by and for the rich, but to expand the terrain of profitable activity.
Sanitising the City
In order to understand where London is headed it’s important to understand the history of Olympic games and the ways in which they have restructured the economic landscapes of their respective host cities.
In 2007, the UN-funded Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) released a report detailing the effects of the Olympics between 1988 and 2008. It concluded that the Olympic games, having evicted more then two million people in the past twenty years, are one of the top causes of displacement and real-estate inflation in the world.
The research details that the levels of forced displacement have increased in each successive city. The 1988 Seoul games witnessed the eviction of 720,000 people, where it was used by the military dictatorship to turn Seoul from a city maintained by and for its people into a corporate city owned by the privileged. The 2008 Beijing Olympics oversaw the eviction of 1.25 million residents to make way for the games.
Predictably, the report shows that the evictions disproportionally affect the homeless, the poor and ethnic minorities. Beyond forced displacement, the Olympics succeed in longer-term economic displacement of working class areas of host cities. The COHRE report shows that the Olympics significantly accelerate the process of inflating real-estate prices. For instance, in Sydney, host to the 2000 games, rents increased by an astounding 40%, between 1993, the year it was selected, and 1998. Whereas in the same period, neighboring city Melbourne saw only a 10% rise.
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics resulted in the demolishing of 2,000 public housing units – evicting 6,000 residents, in addition to the 30,000 residents who were displaced as a direct result of gentrification brought on by the Olympic ‘development’. Indeed, as if to say that the poor and black of Atlanta had not suffered enough, the city issued over 9,000 arrest citations for the city’s homeless population as part of a concerted ‘clean up’ effort, a kind of ‘two-week face lift’.
At the time, the New York Times reported that the Atlanta urban renewal projects saw ‘virtually every aspect of Atlanta’s civic life transformed’. In the Summerhill neighborhood adjacent to the Olympic stadium, for example, 200 slum houses had been levelled, while “clean, colorful subdivisions have risen in their place”. As one business owner candidly explained, speaking of the poor and homeless “even if it means busing these poor guys to Augusta for three weeks and feeding them, we ought to do it. It sounds very brutal for me to say it, but they can’t stay here for the Olympics.”
A similar trend is found in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in which the COHRE study found that, in addition to the 2,500 evictions, housing prices rose 139% for sale and 145% for rentals in the period from 1986, the year it was selected to 1993. The same period saw a 76% decrease in public housing availability. In addition, the areas surrounding the Olympic Village site witnessed the displacement of over 90% of its Roma population.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw the forced displacement of 1.5 million residents, impacting the poorest rural migrants living in the city’s outskirts, with watchdog groups claiming that the relocation saw declines in living conditions by as much as 20%. The 2010 Vancouver Games targeted the homeless, indigenous, and women with eviction notices, criminalising begging and sleeping outdoors, and introducing a law banning placards, banners or posters that do not ‘celebrate’ the Olympics or ‘create or enhance a festive environment and atmosphere’.
Policies of ‘cleansing’ have already begun in the favelas that encircle the city of Rio de Janeiro. Already 6,000 poor residents have been forcibly evicted at gun-point, as part of the government policy of ‘pacification’ involving over 3,000 military personal invading to ‘take control’ of the slum areas. This has resulted in street battles and the death of more than 30 residents. The Associated Press has shown that in 2010 alone, 170,000 people were facing housing loss due to the double threat of the 2016 Olympics and 2014 World Cup.
The Right To the City
Harvey (2008) sees the right to the city as more than the liberty of individuals to access the resources of the city. It is the collective right to exercise power to shape, transform and remake the process of urbanisation. To Harvey “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
Some tepid liberals have spoken in hushed tones about the billions bilked from the public purse, and Citizens UK, the country’s largest community organisation, has astonishingly traded the plunder of areas where many of its members reside for a few crumbs to entrench its trademark ‘living wage Olympics’. Few in the mainstream have taken issue with the crises of housing prices and evictions.
Harvey (2008) argues that the development of capitalism is intimately connected to the emergence of cities, which require a concentration and endless search of profitable terrains for capital-surplus product with a cycle of compounded extraction, reinvestment, and expansion, hence “the history of capital accumulation paralleled by the growth path of urbanization under capitalism.”
The border of the London Olympic Park crosses some of the most working class areas in the country, and it is by no coincidence that every Olympic city chooses to situate its site in its poorest neighbourhoods. The targeted areas, such as London’s East End, LA’s South Central or Chicago’s South Side are not only the poorest but also have the highest concentrations of non-white people in each city.
In London’s case the borough of Newham, home of the Olympic Village, is the most ethnically diverse district in the country. In London’s East End, the process of forced evictions began immediately after the bid was announced with the demolishing of Clays Lane Housing Co-op and the eviction of 450 residents. Red Pepper Magazine quotes one of the residents at the time, Julian Cheyne, who spoke of how ‘Compulsory purchase is a brutal process and from day one the Clays Lane community was lied to while promises were made and broken without a second thought.’
Short-term evictions and long-term gentrification go hand-in-hand. In some parts of the city, closer to the Olympic site, poor residents are being forced from their homes while beautification ‘development’ and ‘regeneration’ projects in areas as far out as Dalston Junction or Hackney’s Broadway Market have demolished a squatted social centre and theatre, whilst Council-appointed agents sell-off public land to be converted into luxury flats by developer cartels.
As with previous host cities, the displacement of residents is not limited to direct government policy. In some East London boroughs landlords have begun evicting tenants in places where rents are fetching fifteen times their standard rates, flats are now being advertised as “Olympic lets” and imposing hefty “penalty” clauses for tenants who refuse to leave.
Recently campaigners camped out in the Leyton Marshes refused attempts by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) to convert the public space into an Olympic training facility. Indeed, in the past some campaigns against the Games have succeeded in their resistance. A notable example is the broad-based coalition of housing and labor activists of No Games Chicago, largely credited for foiling the city’s attempt to host the 2016 Olympics, even after pleas from Barack and Michelle Obama.
Anti-Olympics organisers in Chicago had been so successful, despite a multi-million dollar barrage of pro-Olympic propaganda to ‘cleanse’ the working-class South Side, that days before the Olympic Committee vote the Chicago Tribune found that a majority of the city opposed the bid and 84% opposed using public money to support the games.
In Rio de Janeiro, the thousands of slum dwellers who have been given eviction notices are refusing to go quietly; instead the poor have long prepared to fight and are now putting up a historic resistance in the courts and the streets. With unions holding strikes in at least eight host cities of the 2014 World Cup, and a nation-wide movement of 25,000 World Cup workers have threatened prolonged strike action. In a New York Times report, a resident, Cenira dos Santos, said of the Games, “the authorities think progress is demolishing our community just as they can host the Olympics for a few weeks, but we’ve shocked them by resisting.”
The story in each city remains almost identical. Once selected, a city expends vast amounts of public resource to begin a program of forced displacement, rental speculation, urban renewal projects, demolition of public housing and gentrification. In fact, if there is one thread that runs through almost every Olympic event it is that the poor of each Games subsidise their own violent dispossession.
As money is pumped in to develop, regenerate and ‘clean’ the city, the ‘community’ is forced to flee, transforming an urban collective identity into an individualised consumer one, defined by a narrow homogenised racial, economic and ethnic suburban ego ideal. This process of gentrification and suburbanisation results in deep political and cultural insulation, alienation and detachment; detachment of families from one another and detachment from the commons.
Detachment shapes the way individuals are exposed to and think about themselves in relation to the world, living a life of separation protected from ‘difference’. Passive acceptance of inequality is now actively espoused. The gentrification of the Olympic host city, the withering away of an urban working class, social atomisation and the subsequent erosion of political consciousness is a planned outgrowth of a city seemingly waiting to be cleansed.
Any reading of Olympic history reveals the true motives of each host city. It is the necessity to shock, to fast track the dispossession of the poor and marginalised as part of the larger machinations of capital accumulation. The architects of this plan need a spectacular show; a hegemonic device to reconfigure the rights, spatial relations and self-determination of the city’s working class, to reconstitute for whom and for what purpose the city exists. Unlike any other event, the Olympics provide just that kind of opportunity.
You can also check out: Special Report | #London2012: an Olympian exercise in corporate greenwashing
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