CLARA HERZBERG FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
On May 12, the leaders of Los Angeles' $5 billion bid for the 2024 Olympics wrapped up nearly four days’ worth of courting inspectors from the International Olympic Committee (IOC)Evaluation Commission. Both sides did their best to dazzle, with the committee trumpeting their dinner with stars like Kobe Bryant, and with commission chair Patrick Baumann describing the city's venues as "spectacular." Meanwhile, however, evaluators banned members of the public from attending their meetings and shooed away journalists during the tour. Their secrecy stemmed in part from the fact that the city's bid is running up against growing opposition, spearheaded by the new campaign group, NOlympics LA. The organization, started by the LA chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, aims to bring attention to the negative effects the 2024 Olympics would have on Angelenos -- especially the most vulnerable. Their movement couldn't come at a better moment.
At a time when is Los Angeles is already among the most unequal places in the country, the city shouldn't waste close to $5 billion to impress the IOC, but should instead use the generous funds earmarked for the Olympics bid to help the city's most disadvantaged residents. As Jonny Coleman, an organizer with NOlympics LA, said, "LA has no shortage of problems that are more urgent than securing the bid."
Indeed, the NOlympics LA campaign has converged at a time when Angelenos can least afford to host such an exorbitant show. The cost of living has skyrocketed to among the highest in the country, with the average monthly rent and utilities for an 85-square-meter apartment hovering around $2,191. According to a new estimate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a Los Angeles-based individual earning less than $50,500 now qualifies for low-income housing. Unfortunately, affordable developments are filling up even before they open, and there are 40,000 people on the waiting list for Section 8 rental assistance vouchers. Those on the waiting list could be waiting more than a decade.
Given high rental prices and the low availability of affordable units, it's no surprise that Los Angeles now has the highest number of "unsheltered" homeless people in the country -- 47,000 in 2016. Similarly, in spite of the elevated income levels in certain upscale pockets of Los Angeles, nearly 16 percent of residents qualify as impoverished, with LA ranking among the top five of the country’s poorest big cities.
In addition to high poverty levels, the city's aging infrastructure is stretched to the breaking point. It's estimated that it would take almost $4 billion -- more than 50 percent of the city's yearly operating budget -- to fix LA's pipes. Repairing the sidewalks would cost another $640 million. The price tag for fixing the worst of the city's streets, 40 percent of which have received a D or F grade, would be roughly $4 billion. But good luck finding the money to pay for all this. According to Mayor Eric Garcetti's new budget, the city will have a $245 million deficit for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2017 -- and officials are not even addressing the deferred maintenance on streets, sidewalks and other components of the city's infrastructure, estimated at more than $10 billion a year.
In addition to the city's budget crisis and corresponding high levels of poverty, Los Angeles has one of the country's worst records of police brutality. What's less obvious is that the Olympics are set to make it even worse. Few people remember that the 1984 games provided the pretext for "Olympic gang sweeps" -- a vicious Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) crackdown against the homeless, the poor and people of color, notably Black youth in South Central and East Los Angeles. The games led to further militarization of the LAPD, highlighting that police brutality claims against the department increased by 33 percent in the five years after they finished. Now, 25 years after the riots, police brutality in Los Angeles is on the brink of becoming even worse. According to Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator of Stop LAPD, if LA hosts the games, "We can be assured [the Police and Sheriff's Departments] will be on the frontlines of surveillance and infiltration before, during and after the Olympics."
In the face of all this, how do the bid committee and evaluation commission justify their efforts to stage the games in Los Angeles? Well, Mayor Garcetti has insisted that their "risk-free" bid will save money by using existing venues, possibly producing a financial surplus, as in 1984. But the bid does not include the approximately $2 billion in security costs the federal government will support, nor does it take into account the long-term damages that the extensive displacement of residents currently standing in way of the future Olympics facilities.
Generally, the IOC takes public opposition into consideration before voting for the host city. So all we can hope is that the NOlympics LA movement gathers enough steam for the evaluation commission to take heed. It's in the best interests of Angelenos not to be saddled with the 2024 Games, for what lies behind the dazzle of the event is the threat of increased marginalization, police militarization and outsize costs for a city that can hardly afford it.
Clara Herzberg is an adviser in dispute resolution and has worked in several European and Asian countries.