As much as the International Olympic Committee sells the Games on transforming city infrastructure and being a harbinger of global unity, the event is quickly gaining a legacy as an intensifier of a host city’s rampant social and civil struggles. In Rio’s case, the 2016 Olympics have come at the cost of young black people losing their lives.
Days before fireworks lit up Maracanã Stadium at Rio’s Opening Ceremony, police were cracking down on protests throughout the city, including one in a northern Rio suburb along the torch relay route. Police used pepper spray, stun grenades and tear gas to clear the route, injuring a 10-year-old girl and two others with rubber bullets in the process. Such shows of force became a secondary narrative in the buildup to this year’s games.
For host cities, the Olympics have always carried the expectation of increased security to maintain safety—or at least to preserve the illusion on network television and to advertisers and sponsors that everything is under control. We rarely ask, however, what an increase in police means for the communities discriminated against by those very people, especially when those forces are militarized.
This year, Rio had more than 80,000 police, soldiers, and security officials at its games—double the number London had. Well before the Olympics began, police violence skyrocketed. Police killed 124 people between April and June in Rio, according to the Institute for Public Security of the State of Rio de Janeiro, adding to the more than 2,600 who have been killed by police since the event was first awarded to the city in 2009. Altogether, police killings in Rio have more than doubled since 2015, according to Amnesty International.
The increase in police presence only increases anxiety and resistance, which results in more violence.
Reverend Waltrina Middleton,
Black Lives Matter
Most causalities are black people living in city outskirts and favelas, such as those of Complexo da Maré and Complexo do Alemão in the northern part of Rio, which government officials worked tirelessly to hide from visitors. These neighborhoods are worlds apart from the wealthy neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema and are usually the first to experience violence by police.
It is easy to frame Rio’s increase in police surveillance as necessary and reactionary when the city is supposedly thick with crime, a narrative of which U.S. athletes like Ryan Lochte have taken advantage. But in reality, such framing only erases the financial and social trauma inflicted on marginalized communities when mega-events come to town.
“While I was there, in the tourist areas as well as the favelas, the presence of police was extremely strong,” says Reverend Waltrina Middleton. She was part of a delegation of activists, including Black Lives Matter, invited by a coalition of mothers who lost their sons to police brutality in Rio. Similar to those in the United States, black women in Brazil have been at the forefront of the movement to end police brutality and racism in their country. “These mothers are very conscious that their children were murdered because of the color of their skin,” she says. “They invited us because the Black Lives Matter movement speaks directly to that and calls out that targeted, racial profiling. The increase in police presence only increases anxiety and resistance, which results in more violence.”
Los Angeles is pushing hard to host the 2024 Games. A 25-member delegation led by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti traveled to Rio to promote its bid, focusing on the city’s existing venues to offset infrastructure demands. Delegates from the other bidding cities—Paris, Rome, Budapest—also made the trip to meet with potential IOC influencers. While Garcetti was away, Black Lives Matter activists camped out in front of L.A.’s City Hall demanding he fire the city’s police chief; their sit-in is now entering its second month. Those activists call the Los Angeles Police Department “the most murderous police force in the United States.” According to the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD has shot and killed 14 people this year.
“None of the socio-economic or socio-cultural issues are being addressed, yet the city is willing to invest millions of dollars for the Olympics,” Middleton says.
Nearly 700 people have been killed by police in the U.S. in 2016. Rio should serve as an example to Los Angeles officials about what’s truly on the table when staging a high-profile event in a city with intensifying racial tensions. While resistance to hosting the Olympics is gaining popularity (especially in the U.S., where Boston activists thwarted the United States Olympic Committee’s bid for the 2024 Games), Los Angeles is on the clock. For a city with a history of police violence and problems with gentrification and homelessness, hosting the Olympics would require an omnipresent police force that could further isolate and victimize the most marginalized demographics from the rest of the city—and the world.
In Rio, locals won’t easily forget the amount of public money that went into this year’s mega-event, but at least they’ll be able to bid farewell to the mass security personnel that transformed the “Marvelous City” into a militarized zone. As Rio’s minority population knows, a two-and-a-half-week party for foreigners is not worth its sacrifices.