Interview with NOlympics LA, By Daryl Gussin and Steve Couch

Oct 03, 2019

In July of 2017 Los Angeles was “awarded” the 2028 Summer Olympics. It felt like a death sentence for working and middle class folks already struggling to keep their homes and neighborhoods intact in a city with such a visible housing crisis. Everyday more and more people are displaced, forced to relocate to neighboring inland counties or other states.

The campaign was spearheaded by Mayor Garcetti and the city council didn’t push back against his maneuvers to gain the international spotlight. Actual public input was ignored while a highly questionable opinion poll was presented showing what statisticians refer to as “dictator numbers” in support of the event. In the end, decisions were made either not fully realizing the implications, or not caring about the citizens they were elected to represent. City council voted unanimously to support the bid to be the host city. The message was clear: Those at the top get what they want.

This isn’t an attack on sports or athletes. This is about politicians making dirty decisions that bear dire consequences for a massive amount of people, all in the name of something completely avoidable and unnecessary.
So Mayor Garcetti and the L.A. City Council, do the right thing: Let both sides of the argument be presented and put it to a vote. This is reasonable and totally possible. Let the citizens of Los Angeles decide whether or not we want our city to be gutted in the name of a “hotel shortage crisis.” Let the citizens of Los Angeles decide whether or not we want the L.A.P.D. to be under the control of the Department of Homeland Security (including I.C.E.) for an undisclosed amount of time. Let us decide whether or not this is a city dictated by developers, or a city that works for the good of the people.

Referendum now!

In this interview Steve and I sat down with three organizers from NOlympics LA to discuss how we got to where we are now, the disaster looming on the horizon, and what we can do to prevent it. –Daryl

NOlympics LA organizers: David Quattrocchi, Joanna Swan, and Michael Steinborn.

Daryl: $6,900,000,000 for a two-week party—this is something you think is a bad idea? [laughs]
Michael: Correct.
Steve: [sarcastically] Why? It sounds great. [laughs]
David: I don’t think it’s something anyone thinks is a good idea once they know what happens. When the Olympics polled people and actually got some info out in front of them to make a more educated decision on what they wanted, or even if they wanted this or not, the approval rate goes down the more info people have. Not only is it an exorbitant amount, but the “two-week party” is precipitated by a decade of devastation on communities. We as taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the money unless it goes over budget, which it probably will…
Michael: Because literally every Olympics has gone over budget since the ’60s, I think.
Daryl: And that falls on state taxes?
Michael: Yeah, the state tax payer. So people in Fresno will be footing the bill for the L.A. Olympics. And that money cannot be used for housing. Any profits Garcetti claims—he says we’re going to make a billion dollars on the Olympics, which is like a Trumpian statement—it’s not based on anything. And even if it did make a profit, that money would go to the LA84 Foundation, which is a non-profit that was established to take the profit from the ’84 Games, but in reality is more like a real estate money-laundering scheme. They fund swimming lessons, which is their big thing, and youth sports.
Daryl: And I know the L.A. Times has a big hand in supporting the 2028 Olympics. Don’t the LA84 Foundation and the L.A. Times have some dubious connection?
Michael: They do. [laughs] I’m not super in the weeds on what it is, but I know there are connections. The new owner of the Times has specific ties and that’s why we don’t see honest coverage in the Times—either of Garcetti, the Olympics, or even just homelessness. It’s all wrapped up in real estate investments.
Steve: Something David mentioned is that you don’t see the ten years leading up to the Olympics and the kind of harm that comes along with the build up. What is that harm that happens to a city when they decide to host the Olympics?
Daryl: And what we also have to make note of right off the bat is that Los Angeles is in the midst of a massive housing crisis, which will only perpetuate exponentially by the Olympic Games coming to the city.
Joanna: Definitely.
Michael: It’s really just a question of, “Who is it for?” The Olympics are not for people who can’t afford it. It’s for elites. It’s for people who do not live in Los Angeles, for the most part. We were in Tokyo meeting with other organizers against the Summer 2020 Games, in the first ever trans-national anti-Olympics summit, which was incredible. Everybody, from Korea to Brazil, had similar problems, if not the exact same problems we have.
Joanna: There’s such a precedent for it. David and I were just in Atlanta for the DSA Convention (Democratic Socialists of America), where 30,000 people were evicted from their homes and thousands of public housing projects were demolished in the lead up to the ’96 Olympics. The people in Tokyo and Seoul were speaking to that. It’s interesting to see how many anti-Olympics activists in Japan are also unhoused, ’cause it really draws that connection.
In L.A., there are thousands of affordable housing units in every district that are at risk of being replaced by hotels or market-rate housing. We’re already seeing it with the construction of what’s called “The Fig,” which has already threatened, if not demolished, a number of units of affordable housing. Displaced a number of low income residents near USC. Now we’re running a campaign in Hollywood, which has already been designated as the “Olympic staying area” where there will be “accommodations for the tourists.” If you go to Hollywood, you see these concentrated areas with cranes on every corner. Those are not building public housing or affordable housing. They are building hotels for tourists.
Daryl: What happened on Whitley Avenue yesterday?
David: I was not there, but I know tenants were out protesting this very thing. I don’t want to speak too much about the events without having been there.
Joanna: I know the big thing was that the landlord was sneakily trying to remove the stoves from the tenants’ units because of some loophole that says as long as there’s a stove, you can’t push someone out. The tenants temporarily won yesterday because so many people from the community mobilized with the Hollywood local of the L.A. Tenants Union there that was really boosting that. It’s a rent-stabilized residential hotel. It’s being converted to a commercial operation where there’s already ten other hotel projects.
David: We’ve been pretty steadily canvassing since the Homes Not Hotels campaign started. There are people who are protected by rent control, and they’re being harassed daily in eight-story apartment buildings. And the landlords are just waiting to convert them into hotels—using any mechanism from harassment to Ellis Act Evictions—anything to get them out.
Michael: For the sake of clarity, what’s the Ellis Act?
David: Let me tell you, Mike. [laughs] It’s when a landlord deems that they’re not going to be using their property for rental purposes so they can turn it into a business or whatever. And even if you’re protected by California’s rent control laws, this is a major loophole that a lot of people get fucked on. You lose all your rights as a tenant and have to kneel to it.
Daryl: Do you think this stuff would be happening with the same intensity if there wasn’t the 2028 Olympics?
Michael: It would be happening, but not with the same intensity, because they point to the Olympics as the reason for these hotels. They’ve cited a “hotel shortage crisis.” [laughs]That’s real. The city council has said that in meetings. It’s on city record.
David: Groups like the Tenants Union here in L.A. have redefined what the housing crisis is, which is about housing people. We have housing. There’s no crisis with the actual housing—even affordable housing, which the Tenants Union has also exposed as a sham. We need permanent, supportive housing, or public housing.
Daryl: The structures are there.
David: We need a city council with a backbone to actually support the working class. Not tourists. People who have lived here for decades. Pretty much anyone who’s just trying to fucking live.
Joanna: It’s very telling that a number of people in city hall are being investigated for corruption, taking money from these people who are responsible for these evictions ultimately and responsible for homelessness. There’s also the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that we see around. There’s about forty in L.A. and they are in any gentrified or gentrifying area made up of the most wealthy property owners. I was sitting in on a meeting for the South Park BID, which is one of the more powerful Downtown BIDs; the executive director was saying, “We need to improve our security budget because the Olympics are coming. I know it seems like it’s far away, but it’s not. There are a lot of things we could be doing.” Which is businessperson speak for getting all these low income, primarily black people, off the street anywhere near where there might be some tourists.
David: Did you want to unpack BIDs on the street a little more for people who might not know what they look like? Since they have their own security.
Joanna: The red shirts?
David: Yeah.
Steve: Are those the guys rolling around on Segways?
Daryl: And bicycles.
Michael: They have different colored polo shirts.
Joanna: There have been a lot of lawsuits—BIDs have been sued, and the city by extension—because BIDs are public. They’re funded with property taxes that the city has installed in that area. Everyone who’s a business owner ends up paying for that BID, whether they’re a part of it or not. In downtown, there were some lawsuits because of the aggressiveness of these BID patrols. In Hollywood they were handcuffing people to benches and calling the cops using “citizen’s arrest,” which you’re not supposed to do for a misdemeanor. In some cases they were taking people back to their office in a car, which is essentially kidnapping. The Hollywood BIDs still carry guns, I believe. They dress like cops in Hollywood.  They don’t even have the colored shirts. We’re going to see a lot more of this kind of pseudo, public-private security.
Daryl: So that’s what separates them from a private security guard?
Joanna: Yeah, they’re getting paid by property taxes.
Michael: One of those fun neoliberal loopholes. [laughs] Similarly in Tokyo, we were at an Olympic event that a journalist who was with us and I, for whatever reason, were allowed to go to. They had a booth set up outside of the private security firm that is doing security for the Tokyo Games. There was a wheel you could spin to win prizes. Pens and T-shirts. And also tactical helmets and body armor that children were putting on and posing for photos with. It was one of the most dystopian things I’ve ever seen. And to think we’re not getting there here? We absolutely are. It is here.
Daryl: What else did you see in Tokyo that stands out?
Michael: It was really wild. Just the empty promises, I think. The event that we went to was called One Year To Go. There was nobody at this thing. It was press, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) members and whoever the hell else elites. Every speaker from Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, to the prime minister of Japan Shinzō Abe, all made comments about how these are the “recovery games”—referring to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But they never specifically called it out. They referred to an earthquake, a tsunami—they never mentioned the nuclear aspect of it. It was very bizarre framing, and the Olympic torch relay will start in Fukushima.
We had a film crew with us and some of them went on a tour to Fukushima. Everyone came back like they had seen ghosts: abandoned buildings everywhere, very radioactive. They had the top soil in big black garbage bags, thousands and thousands of them in fields. We heard a presentation at Sophia University from a professor who was explaining the payouts they gave people who were directly affected. They said it was like 8,000 to 20,000 yen, which is like $80 to $200. And I believe they said 40,000 people were displaced. And the IOC and the Japanese government are saying, “This is fine, let’s have the Olympics.”
Daryl: Meanwhile, allocating resources to the Olympics rather than repairing an entire city.
Michael: Exactly. They’ve implemented facial recognition and obscene surveillance. Every scary thing. Oh, and I can’t not mention this: The 2028 L.A. Olympics will be designated a National Special Security Event, which will give control of LAPD to the Department of Homeland Security and I.C.E. for an undisclosed amount of time. This is for the seven hundred square miles of Southern California. We spoke with Alex Vitale who wrote the book The End of Policing, and he was like, “Yeah, absolutely expect Border Patrol to be checking IDs in subway stops far removed from venues.” Look back, and so many people talk about the ’84 Olympics like, “Oh yeah, everyone I knew went to jail.”
Daryl: One of the craziest stories I’ve heard about the ’84 Olympics was that this guy, who was like fourteen at the time, he said him and all his friends were indiscriminately picked up and taken to juvie for two weeks. And it was so overcrowded that they were sleeping on cots out on the field.
David: LA84 also has this buzz phrase, the “Play Equity Gap.” Which I never thought was a mistake of how close it is to the “Pay Equity Gap.” [laughs]

Joanna: It is not a mistake.
David: They take these phrases—we went to a city council meeting a month or two ago to talk to them about this, because like Mike said, they were earmarking funds for youth sports and swimming programs—and you know, “Can’t we just close this ‘Play Equity Gap’ for these kids in South L.A.?!” The whole meeting was based around this presentation that has this video titled “Tourism Builds Community.” [groans]
Joanna: It was the city tourism board.
David: And all of city council couldn’t be more impressed by this presentation. You go outside and street vendors are being criminalized, but in the video they’re taking images of people of color selling food outside and re-packaging it as catering to tourism, which will “help our city.”
Joanna: I believe council member Joe Buscaino, who used to be a senior lead officer for LAPD, said “The greatest threat to tourism is homelessness.” So they’re really, really getting on that for the tourists.
Steve: [sarcastically] The right reasons.
Michael: The city council loves to pay lip service to solving homelessness and finding compassionate solutions, and will basically take our talking points and give them in press conferences and then turn around and do the opposite. It happens everyday. Garcetti is on record saying, “We do not criminalize homelessness.” Meanwhile, city council last week unanimously voted to criminalize sleeping in vehicles, which 17,000 people in L.A. County do. Over night, those people have nowhere to go. They’re going to get pushed out onto the street, or they’re going to jail.
Steve: Where are the Olympics going in 2024?
All: Paris.
Steve: Have you learned anything meeting with Parisian resistors?
Michael: Yeah, Danielle Simonnet is running for mayor of Paris and her platform is a referendum on the Paris Games. She is awesome, super radical; we saw eye to eye on pretty much all politics. It’s one of those things where the more you learn about it, it’s pretty hard not to oppose. It’s one of those things that people don’t think about, and as soon as you think about it, it’s like, “Oh yeah, fuck the Olympics.” [laughs]
Daryl: Two common arguments that people have in favor of the Olympics are jobs and public transportation. More public transit is exciting, and will be used by the people of Los Angeles. But even nine years away, they’ve already said they’re over budget and need another $3.3 billion.
Michael: Yeah, over budget and they’ve said they’re not going to complete everything. And the transit stuff they’re going to have to do anyway. Because of the Olympics they’re specifically working on Westside transit and areas that connect the Valley to the Westside.
Joanna: Yeah, they wouldn’t be able to get away with not increasing transit. But it’s always the question of who benefits. And like the youth sports thing that David mentioned, in the same way I think about public transit. It’s part of this Trojan horse for them to bring in all over the really horrible aspects. “Oh, look.  We’re doing all this stuff” that they definitely should be doing anyways. Of course low-income children in L.A. should have access to sports and camps and going swimming. That’s cool!
Michael: But they should also have access to homes.
Joanna: Exactly. The divestment from things that will actually result in people’s lives being improved is larger than the small gestures towards stuff that’s not being done in good faith.
Michael: This is actually very similar to what we saw in Tokyo. They were unveiling the medals.
Daryl: Shiny things!
Michael: Yeah, and when they were unveiling them they were saying that they were made from recycled materials. [more groaning]
David: It’s greenwashing.
Michael: If you don’t think about it, it seems good. There’s some environmental help. Activists from Korea were there with us, and for the Pyeongchang Games of 2018 they demolished a 6,400-year-old rainforest to build the ski run.
David: There you go.
Joanna: What was the other argument you said?
Daryl: Jobs.
Joanna: Well, all of the Olympics jobs are unpaid, volunteer positions.
Daryl: What?
Joanna: People who will be working at the Olympics will not be getting paid. They’re all volunteer positions.
Steve: Really?
Michael: Yes. And in Japan, because of the extreme heat, they will have 200,000 “hospital volunteers.” They said the phrase like everyone was supposed to know what that meant. And it’s like, how about you pay fucking doctors if you’re going to have to do this? They’ve already moved events to six in the morning.
Daryl: And that’s just in preparation for how hot it’s going to be?
Michael: Yes. Some of us were up at six in the morning and if you were outside for more than forty-five seconds, you’d start sweating. It was brutal. It was the most humid place I’ve ever been. And this was exactly one year before the games, so it’ll be even hotter.
David: They also dangle union construction jobs to create tension between people in that sector and people who want to stay in their homes. Pitting people against each other.
Joanna: That’s definitely part of our Homes Not Hotels campaign. Uniting labor with the tenants movement. Working class folks are dealing with housing issues. Those are often people who are in very precarious positions. And pitting labor against tenants just isn’t going to work for the Olympics anymore. I’m excited by the support we’ve been able to start growing from that.
We’ve been in communication with people in Inglewood who are dealing with the new Rams stadium. Okay, that will bring some jobs, but what kind of jobs? Really low-paying service jobs with not enough hours. And now people have to commute an hour and a half to work there because they can’t afford to live there anymore. It sucks because every time we go to city hall it takes time and is more complex than these talking points that the politicians are able to just throw out and wrap it up all nice with a little bow….
Daryl: And then do a full 180 when it comes to policy.
Joanna: Exactly. Just turn away from the actual situation on the ground.
Michael: Even the council members who are somewhat receptive to our talking points, and there are a few who now we know if they were to go back and vote again on the Olympics, some of them would at least... not show up. [laughs] Which to me is a total coward move.

Joanna: So brave.
Michael: I guess it’s better than just a blind yes, but still, that’s the kind of bravery you see from L.A. City Council.
Joanna: That’s what happened on the car-dwelling law. At least one member was conspicuously absent on that vote. It’s kind of like some Nancy Pelosi shit. You don’t work with fascists, you denounce them and take a position. And I’m kind of in that boat with people who are going to criticize you for taking a position against the Olympics. Not that you’re a fascist if you support the Olympics. [laughs] But!
Michael: But the Nazis invented the torch relay.
David: Our comrade Steve Duci put it best, “They’re not to be argued with, they’re to be defeated.” I don’t know. I liked it, wanna get it on record. [laughs]
Daryl: So I’ve seen two conflicting polls on whether or not Angelinos support the Olympics or not.
Michael: Is one of them ours?
Daryl: Yes.
Michael: And the other one is the “dictator numbers” of 88% approval. That was the initial poll that was done by the bidding committee. And we have statisticians and marketing people in our group who say that those are “dictator numbers.” You don’t get those kinds of numbers when you poll people on anything. [laughs] So we raised a bunch of money and did our own survey and it was done through a bunch of random respondents in L.A. and the state of California. People who are paid survey takers, and we found very different results. We found that the more people learn about the games, the less likely they are to support them.
Daryl: And what were your numbers?
Michael: We found that 47% of respondents across California and 45% in L.A. County oppose bringing the games to L.A., with only 26% in support. Far different than the “dictator numbers.” Only 9% on respondents strongly supported bringing the games to Los Angeles. And about a third of the number of people was strongly opposed or neutral.
David: And in the meetings leading up to that poll, NOlympics did a really good job of not tilting it too far or slamming the stats in one way. It ended up being fairly objective, because I remember being in that room and thinking, “Well, if you tell someone something is bad, and then ask them, ‘Is this bad?’ I don’t know how honest this is going to be.”
Michael: In an initial draft of the survey we had a section that was “How do you feel about these politicians?” And it went 1) Eric Garcetti, 2) Donald Trump. [laughs]
David: Yeah.
Michael: David and I couldn’t stop laughing. We were like, “Maybe we should take this out?” That was a little too leading.
Joanna: All these things—the housing issues, police brutality, fair jobs, transit—the more the people understand the legitimacy being interconnected, and the critique resting on those powerful politicians who continue to renege on their responsibilities. Of course the support will go down.
Michael: Another thing I thought of from Tokyo is so much of this is unlearning what you’ve always assumed about the Olympics. When I was a kid I had a 1996 Atlanta Izzy mascot tie.
David: What? Get out of here! [laughs]
Michael: In Tokyo we learned that the public schools are required to teach thirty hours of Olympics booster material to kids.
Daryl: Is there a history of popular movements stopping the Olympics?
Michael: Yes, Denver in ’76. Boston for 2024. If you look at the initial bids of cities who are interested, they exponentially drop off. And now it’s like “L.A. won the games!” We were the only people who wanted it.
David: There were no other bids.
Michael: Initially we wanted 2024 and then Paris got it, and they bumped us to 2028.
Daryl: And when I was reading about what had happened, it seemed like they did a double announcement of 2024 and 2028 so there couldn’t be an easy withdrawal. Announcing two Summer Olympics at once was unprecedented.
Joanna: Apparently four cities pulled out of the 2026 Winter Games, which is now being split between two cities. And apparently the IOC has just passed a different bidding process, because so many cities have been having these last minute referendums to stop the games. Last month they announced they’re overhauling the bidding process because it’s becoming such an issue to scramble to find a city. They’re probably worried about Paris. And I know another U.S. city just voted to be able to vote on the Olympics. They decided that they needed a referendum before any public money would be spent. That’s good.
Steve: Do you have any hope that L.A. will get to that point of having a referendum?
Michael: I think it’s still completely possible. This is a moment where people are realizing it for what it is. Within the past year Adam Ruins Everything did a segment on it.
David: Your encounter with John Dwyer from the Oh Sees was really uplifting.
Michael: Yeah, I had been talking to John Dwyer from the Oh Sees and Castleface Records about doing some stuff, and then when this Tokyo trip came up and they had a new record coming out, I hit him up and asked if they’d be interested in donating some test presses. Just ’cause I know they’ve done that for organizations before. He was super receptive to it. They ended up raising $2,000 for us, which came in the day before we left. It’s one of those things where if you can explain it to somebody, it’s pretty hard for them to be like, “Well, I like it!”
Michael: Most people who like the Olympics, they like to watch it on TV.
David: It’s a $1,800 price tag to get in the stadium.
Michael: And supposedly you won’t need a ticket, it’ll just be facial recognition.
Joanna: Great!
Michael: That’s what Casey Wasserman, chair of the bid committee, is saying. He also recently made his Twitter account private after being potentially implicated in some Jeffrey Epstein stuff.
Daryl: Fucking gross.
Michael: Yeah, so stay tuned for that. Casey Wasserman, chair of the L.A. 2028 organizing committee, he is a real estate rich kid who grew up with Garcetti.
David: Back to what Steve was asking. When it comes to the referendum, the spirit of this group is that there has to be one. What ever it is, we’re going to push, and we’re going to find the crack.
Daryl: So for people who have read this far, and are thinking, “You know what, I’m not for the Olympics anymore!” What can they do to help this not happen?
Michael: If they live in L.A. they can organize with us. We meet every other Sunday, and canvas every other Saturday.
Daryl: Is there a specific low-key action people in L.A. can take?
Michael: Just boost our stuff on social media. We’re not getting honest coverage from our media. There’s one newspaper, the L.A. Times, and they’re complicit.
Joanna: There’s a lot of good writing on our website. Also go to city hall meetings. They’re really weird and trippy and you feel like you’re in a Kafka novel. [laughs] It’s like some crazy place were it feels like no one is in touch with any material situation on the ground.
Michael: Another low-key action, I think it’s important to mention, NOlympics LA came out of the Housing and Homelessness Committee of DSA-LA, but is also a coalition of groups within the city—almost, if not more, than thirty groups. Black Lives Matter L.A., L.A. Tenants Union, Union Divisinos, all these different kind of orgs that work on parts of our platform so we support all of that work.
David: Arm yourself with knowledge. The more you learn about this stuff, the less you’re compelled to not do anything about it.
Daryl: Alright, so hypothetically, there’s no referendum and the Olympics happen in 2028. What does the city of Los Angeles have the moral responsibility to do?
David: First and foremost, housing.
Daryl: If you could say one thing to Mayor Garcetti and the L.A. City Council, what would it be?
Joanna: Compensate Kryshelle. Garcetti went over to meet with an unhoused woman named Kryshelle and dropped all his platitudes about how he wants to “inspire people to get off the streets” and a wonderful journalist for KPCC named Matt Tinoco followed the mayor and his crew, and Matt came back twenty minutes after the mayor had left and he saw sanitation show up and throw out all of Kryshelle’s stuff. She’s already lost over and over and over again, like so many homeless folks in this city.
It’s this destabilizing cycle. I don’t know if it was the mayor’s staff that called in the sweep or not, but either way they wanted to deny it had even happened. Every week there are hundreds of people who lose their crucial belongings, and that’s why there’s currently a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. Section 5611, Article 6 Chapter 5 of The Los Angeles Municipal Code, which basically allows them to immediately seize and destroy people’s property. Obviously targeting people who are unhoused. Compensate Kryshelle, Mayor Garcetti.
David: Because they don’t listen I would tell them, “We are going to win, your legacy won’t be that this is a success. And the sooner you cancel the better.”
Michael: Yeah, we’ll tell city council whatever anyway. [laughs] They’re either on their phones or walking around during the meetings. And some of us have said some truly amazing stuff. But in terms of Garcetti, man, it would be amazing to look him in the eyes and say, “We auditioned a bunch of strangers to play you because you go out of town so often and none of them knew who you were.” You can watch the mayor auditions on, featuring a bunch of Craigslist actors. [laughs]
David: That’s pretty good.
Joanna: Yessss!

Thanks for reading this.
Please continue this conversation with the people in your lives.
Create the discourse, demand a referendum.