My Grandmother, the Nazis, and the Shadow of the Olympics – The New Yorker
Two of my grandmother’s favorite athletes were Venus and Serena Williams, who grew up in South Los Angeles in the nineteen-eighties. The Williams sisters have lately been named by Los Angeles’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, as the poster children for the benefits of the Olympics, because they played in tennis programs funded with money for youth sports that came from the 1984 Games, hosted by L.A. While people in other cities have lately lobbied to defeat Olympic bids, after taking stock of the financial and human-rights costs that the Games have incurred elsewhere, Garcetti has been fixated on bringing the Games back to L.A., where I live. The city tried unsuccessfully to get the 2016 Games, which eventually went to Rio de Janeiro, and came under consideration for 2024 after Boston, under pressure from its own citizens, dropped out. Donald Trump tweeted excitedly in July about bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles. Paris was also angling for the Games, and officials there made it clear that they were willing to walk away from any offer other than 2024; L.A. made a deal with the International Olympic Committee to take 2028, instead. Public forums promised by the bid committee never materialized. Instead, officials allowed only a few public-comment periods during the city council’s sub-committee meetings, including one where a councilman told the crowd, “I’m tired of hearing these people coming to us and questioning our decision-making.”
Garcetti will not be in office when the 2028 Olympics take place, and there is a sense that the bid has more to do with his national political ambitions than a conviction that the Games will actually help the city. During the 1984 Games, after all, the Los Angeles Police Department, led by Chief Daryl Gates, swept neighborhoods and arrested hundreds of black and brown youth, “ostensibly to minimize gang crime during the Games.” This was a landmark moment in the militarization of American police, in which Los Angeles led the way. Four years after the Games, Gates led Operation Hammer, during which the L.A.P.D., relying on racial profiling, conducted enormous raids in South Los Angeles. As Venus and Serena Williams developed their tennis skills with ’84 Olympics subsidies, their neighborhood and its residents were being terrorized by the police. Eventually, department-wide corruption and racism were exposed, in connection with Gates’s anti-gang effort CRASH. The seeds for this, or some of them, at least, were planted in 1984.
Now ICE is conducting raids in Los Angeles. These raids began before Trump became President, but they have become bolder, more aggressively public. Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez was dropping off his daughter at her Lincoln Heights school in February when he was picked up by ICE, who claimed to have targeted him over old misdemeanors, a D.U.I. and using stolen car tags. (After six months in a detention center, he was finally released in September, after pleading guilty to lesser vehicle-code violations.) A designation of L.A. as a sanctuary city would help prevent local law enforcement, including the sheriff’s department, L.A.P.D., and prison officials, from collaborating with ICE. But Trump has threatened to deny federal funds to cities that claim sanctuary status, and Los Angeles needs those federal funds for the Olympics. In January, Garcetti said that the Olympics could “be a template for the Trump Administration if it really wants to see infrastructure investments throughout the country.” He added, of the Administration, “We’re their ideal partner.” Garcetti has refused to call L.A. a sanctuary city. There is a climate of fear now in Los Angeles: people are encouraged to snitch on their neighbors, families are separated by police in front of a school in broad daylight. I think of the stories my grandmother told of being exiled in her own home town, a place she’d truly loved.
The Germans visited Los Angeles to observe the 1932 Games. They were inspired by the Coliseum, a giant, tacky arena with the monumental scale of a Cecil B. DeMille film. The 1932 Summer Games were held during the Great Depression; Los Angeles was the only city to bid on those Games, too. The massive spectacle was perhaps meant to serve as a comforting fantasy for the stricken nation, a fun distraction, like Busby Berkeley musicals. President Herbert Hoover did not attend, possibly realizing that celebrating the Olympics’ false abundance in a time of abject national suffering was a bad look. As L.A. spent lavishly on the Games, the streets were lined with “Hoovervilles,” the Depression-era shanty towns constructed and occupied by the city’s homeless and named mockingly after the President.
In 2017, encampments for the homeless again line the streets of L.A. There are tent cities all over downtown, as Skid Row, the historic neighborhood for the homeless, cannot support the size of its growing population. In the last year alone, homelessness in Los Angeles County spiked twenty-three per cent. Homelessness among Latinos in L.A. shot up more than sixty per cent.
Skid Row isn’t just under threat because of the expansion of the homeless population. Those blocks are also a major target for gentrification and real-estate speculation. Downtown Los Angeles has been redeveloped into a luxury zone for the wealthy during the last fifteen years, even as homelessness has risen just outside its limits. In August, Garcetti and other city politicians voted to spend billions of dollars on a sporting event, then mugged for cameras in front of a giant “LA2028” sign on the steps of City Hall. It was a private event; the public could view from afar but not attend. Outside, there were more than a dozen homeless people living on the City Hall lawn.