The Black Lives Matter Movement and The Boston Olympics

With the nation bursting at the seams against the scourge that is police violence against the Black community, Boston residents have been vocal in pushing for greater community control of the police, as well as the host of socioeconomic changes that could lead to the abolition of policing entirely. If we want to continue making progress towards these ends, we must issue an absolute refusal to host the 2024 Olympics. Failure to defeat the 2024 bid will mean relinquishing the little control we have over local police forces while simultaneously allowing these forces greater access to weaponry and surveillance mechanisms. The result of such a defeat won’t surprise many: our city will see an uptick in state harassment and violence against Boston’s PoC, poor, and LGBTQ communities that constitute the vast majority of this city’s residents.

This line of argumentation was powerfully delivered at a June 2nd forum on the negative consequences mega sporting events have on the cities that host them. Organized by No Boston 2024, one of the two Olympics opposition groups (though a leading member of the other opposition group attended), the event featured Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, alongside Dave Zirin, the powerhouse sports editor at The Nation, who claimed to have reported on (critically, of course) every Olympics since 9/11.

While I could write a book on what Zirin said, it was Crockford’s presentation of the linkage between the Black Lives Matter movement and a 2024 Olympics that stood out to me as someone aware of the immense flurry of anti-police brutality organizing happening in this city. While I had intuited the link that leads from a Boston Olympics to greater policing and surveillance, I hadn’t understood the extent to which this link will become a border widening the already huge gap in living conditions for Boston’s (disproportionately white) rich and Boston’s (disproportionately PoC) poor.

To make this connection stick, Crockford began by discussing the legacy of the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC), which was held in Boston. Reminding the audience of how many surveillance cameras monitor our city’s public spaces, Crockford explained that their origins stem from the DNC. While justified to the public at the time as necessary tools for the uniquely high-risk Convention, these cameras remain today. As Crockford rightly emphasized, rarely do security forces willingly relinquish policing and surveillance gadgetry once they have their hands on them. Although such surveillance technology has long existed, political norms in liberal Boston prevented its widespread deployment until a National Special Security Event, or NSSE, came to town. NSSE, as explained by Crockford, is a designation created by Bill Clinton, who came up with the category to signal a ‘high-security’ (read: high surveillance and policing) event. Upon receiving this designation, responsibility for  ‘security’ shifts from local police forces, as broken and lethal as they may be in their own right, to the Secret Service. Crockford laughed while explaining this, reminding the audience of this agency’s total incompetence.

Once policing power transfers to the Secret Service, Boston residents will no longer have claim to any transparency or accountability from these forces. While I agree with writers who have called for the abolition of all police, the Secret Service doesn’t even have to pretend to listen to our complaints or concerns. Giving it jurisdiction over our city will be a step backward in our struggle. An opaque centralized operation, federal security forces act in anonymity, fully separate from the communities they terrorize. During an NSSE, the DNC being one such example, our attention is directed by media and politicians alike to the purported action, be it Olympic gymnastics or the political carnival that is the DNC, and when our view is fixed on that spectacle, security forces move toward greater coordination between agencies, rolling out controversial technologies and weapons in the process.

In 2004, these changes left our city a legacy of video cameras, to which the FBI retains access, as well as a nasty taste in our mouths that came from the “festering boil” that was the ‘Free Speech Zone’ for the Convention’s protestors, a wire cage under a highway, to which all residents and visitors critical of the Democrats (recall, this was immediately after the Iraq War, a disaster supported by Democrat and Republicans alike) were directed. Further, the normalization of ‘random’ bag checks at Boston area train stations began with the DNC. Today, these checks remain, no longer purportedly serving as preventative counter-terrorism measures, but rather, as a source of surveillance for Boston’s large immigrant community, with the predominately latino/a community of East Boston one such neighborhood regularly subject to the whim of these unwarranted searches.

The BPD won’t have ultimate authority on ‘security’ strategies, and can be guaranteed to use their subordination to claim innocence as complaints against police harassment multiply in the lead up to the 2024 Games. However, they will retain the toys brought to them from federal agencies. As Zirin mentioned at the forum, international arms dealers live for these mega events, and there’s no chance that the BPD will miss out on a chance to imitate their big brothers, the NYPD, and stock up on any goodies they can get their hands on.

It is important to think about this future in connection to the murder of Usaama Rahim on the morning of June 1st by FBI and BPD agents, under the guise of a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and alongside the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative. Boston is one of a handful of cities host to a pilot CVE program, and as many of the city’s Muslim residents can attest, CVE has provided one more excuse for blanket state surveillance of Muslim communities. Rahim was under 24 hour surveillance when he was approached by the multi-agency police team, despite not having been charged with a crime, and as a Black Muslim, Rahim was also a target for BPD’s racial profiling. While we continue waiting for authorities to release the tape of Rahim’s murder, it’s clear that the introduction of JTTF, CVE, and FBI decreases the transparency of policing and surveillance in our cities, allowing a dead man to be labelled a terrorist simply due to the presence of this federal alphabet soup at his murder scene.

As for the 2024 Boston Olympics, it will surely be designated an NSSE. Boston’s poor and PoC residents will be surveilled and harassed with greater frequency and intensity than they are currently (which in today’s United States, is saying a lot). Meanwhile Mayor Walsh’s controversial anti-sex trafficking initiative will likely kick into high gear, creating a terror amongst the city’s sex workers and LGBTQ population alike, the latter being regularly targeted by policing under the guise of anti-prostitution laws, with the trans population, and particularly trans-WoC, disproportionately subject to such arrests. Whether the people of Boston will benefit from any of the purported improvements that come from hosting a mega-event is unknown (though I suggest readers pick up Zirin’s recent book for a contemporary account that might answer that question), what we do know is that the majority of Bostonians will become targets in their own neighborhoods, trespassers in their own public spaces.

Just a few blocks from my Roxbury home, there are basketball courts. When the weather’s nice enough, as it is today, dozens of youth from my neighborhood gather to play pickup games. And no matter how few or many people are at the courts, there’s always at least one BPD vehicle idling nearby, the officers looking on as Roxbury’s youth play ball. No matter how many times Boston 2024 Committee member and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish talks about the “transformative power of sport” during one of Boston 2024’s sham community meetings, I know that he isn’t referring to my neighbors’ sports. If he were, he’d know that come the Olympics, there’ll be no time or space left for basketball, with police forces lining up to stop-and-frisk this city’s athletes while blocking off our public spaces to better ensure NSSE ‘security.’

The path our city will head down if we host the Olympics is one of cascading negative effects for all but the wealthiest residents. We’ve already begun down that path, as anyone looking at rent prices knows, and it’s already unacceptable. By mobilizing now, we can reverse this dynamic: rather than being pushed out ourselves, we can show the IOC just how inhospitable Boston is for them and the security circus that surrounds them. This city’s people have enough battles to fight as it is, and there’s no way we’re going to take on even greater obstacles just so Fish and his international counterparts can enjoy a party nine years from now.

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