In celebrating the news that Los Angeles would host the 2028 Olympics, Mayor Eric Garcetti has lauded the Games as a means of making Los Angeles a city for the future. In doing so, Garcetti has invoked his predecessor Tom Bradley’s vision of the 1984 Games — the last time L.A. hosted the Olympics — as an investment in the city’s people and infrastructure. Like the 1984 Olympics, which were dubbed the “Capitalist Games” for being the first to rely on private financing and corporate sponsorship, the 2028 winning bid aims to be revenue-neutral, even profitable.
During the bidding process, the major concern of the International Olympic Committee was the city’s legendary problem with traffic and congestion. Security and visas for foreign athletes have also been central concerns, but they have not been viewed as an obstacle to hosting a successful Games.
Perhaps they should be.
The 1984 Olympic Games suggest why. Garcetti and others heap praise on the ’84 Games for its profitability and investment in sports and recreation programs still in place today. But they ignore the dark side of the Games: how they helped to militarize the LAPD, bolstered its ability to wage a war on crime that lasted well into the 1990s, and accelerated the mass arrest and incarceration of African American men. Although the city may leverage the 2028 Games to rebuild its infrastructure for sports and recreation programs, it may also once again leave behind a robust — and controversial — security apparatus.
As Los Angeles officials prepared for the 1984 Olympics, they were not concerned about the fate of African American or Latino youths living in neighborhoods devastated by an economic recession, unemployment rates that had topped 40 percent or a growing drug epidemic. Rather, they focused on combating the international attention that drug-related crime and rising gang violence had brought to the city. Such attention, officials feared, would ruin the image of Los Angeles as a city of the future and gateway to the Pacific Rim.
To ensure that these African American and Latino youths did not embarrass Los Angeles on the world stage, local lawmakers, national security administrators and officials from the Los Angeles Police Department invested heavily not in jobs programs or addiction services, but in get-tough policing and security measures.
As a result, for many poor African American or Latino youths living in the South Central neighborhoods surrounding the Coliseum — the venue which hosted opening and closing ceremonies as well as track and field events — the Olympic Games did not lead to prosperity. But they did lead to the greater possibility of police harassment, arrest and incarceration that came to be associated with the War on Drugs.
There’s reason to fear the same for the 2028 Games. First, there’s the climate: Los Angeles’s dubious history as the nation’s largest jailer, the growing national attention on police killings of black people, and the crisis of mass incarceration.
Then there’s the news that the 2028 Games will rely on a robust security apparatus that will rival any major international city’s. As the California Legislative Analysis Office reported, the “bid documents envision a security command structure called the California Olympic and Paralympic Public Safety Command (COPPSC) that would include local, state and federal agencies.” The Los Angeles bid, Garcetti admits, also relies on federal resources for security. The Department of Homeland Security will coordinate these measures by labeling the Games a National Special Security Event. Some estimate that the Los Angeles bid’s profitability relies on offloading at least $2 billion in security costs to the federal government.
The same reliance on federal resources accelerated the city’s militarized police tactics three decades ago. The LAPD used its federally allocated Olympic budget to buy an arsenal of machine guns, infrared-enhanced viewing devices and a radio system for its SWAT teams. The department also deployed spatially targeted policing operations for Olympic security in 1984. To do so they fast-tracked a new wave of recruits through training to conduct what Commander William Rathburn, the LAPD’s Olympic coordinator and future director of the gang and drug sweep program, called an “unprecedented” crime-fighting project.
Cooperation among local, state and federal agencies also helped. More than 170 police agencies teamed up to create a crime alert network stretching from Oregon to the Mexican border during the month of the Games. The Olympics Major Crime Task Force, made up of LAPD, Los Angeles Sheriff Department and FBI officers, conducted mass sweeps to rid the Coliseum area of gang members, drug dealers and homeless residents before the Games. Partnering with the Department of Defense, the LAPD hired additional officers, at a cost of more than $20 million, to “sanitize the area” and keep crime to a minimum during the Games.
These resources and tactics didn’t disappear when the athletes left town. They would continue to be used for aggressive policing and punitive policies in the city’s most vulnerable communities in the years that followed. On Feb. 6, 1985, an LAPD SWAT team used a military-grade V-100 tank-like vehicle received from the Olympics and equipped with a 14-foot battering ram to smash down a wall of a suspected “rock house.” The officers found two women and three children eating ice cream, no guns, a small amount of marijuana and no cocaine.
Three years later, the LAPD engaged in massive anti-gang sweeps known as Operation Hammer, which led to the arrest of 24,684 mostly African American youths, often without cause, and involved detaining them for 24 hours in a specially constructed holding facility at the Coliseum. By the early 1990s, black men had routine contact with the criminal justice system. A study by the Los Angeles County Adult Detention Center found that nearly a third of black men ages 20 to 29 in the county had been arrested at least once in 1991. Some observers have even linked the bubbling discontent over this discriminatory criminal justice system, which spilled over in the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, to the 1984 Games.
Garcetti and other boosters can praise the 2028 bid and its potential profitability as a means of making Los Angeles a more equitable and prosperous city just as Mayor Tom Bradley did in 1984. But without paying serious attention to the ways the 1984 Olympics expanded police militarization and authority, they may very well find that the Games will leave an expanded security state in place, one with the potential to exacerbate tensions between the police and residents of color in the future.