The Olympic Battle for Echo Park

In the shadow of Hollywood, conflicts continue between a community encampment of the unhoused in Los Angeles’s Echo Park and the LAPD. A push by the police and city government to crack down on the encampment is part of a continued attack on the poor during a crisis of safe and affordable housing. LA’s overall unhoused population is around 66,000. That number is expected to rise by 36 percent by 2023. Last year, Mayor Eric Garcetti called it “the humanitarian crisis of our time.”

But that was last year. This is the season not of charity but of the truncheon, and it is not confusing as to why. The Los Angeles 2028 Olympics are in the planning stages and the long-term push to remake the city in time for the games is already underway.

There is a fountain in Echo Park Lake that was built to commemorate the last time Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, back in 1984. As police cracked down, activists projected words like “House Keys Not Handcuffs” and “ACAB” onto the water streaming from the fountain. Now, in the shadow of that very fountain, the encampment and its hundreds of allies are bearing the preemptive brunt of the forthcoming games.

Hamid Khan, the coordinator with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said to The Nation, “The removals need to be seen through the lens of how the city is leading up to the 2028 Olympics—that these supposed eyesores of shantytowns and ‘undesirables’ need to be cleared out. This is obviously what gentrification and over policing produces. But it is also the result of how Los Angeles is looking to further brand itself as a ‘destination city’ for events like the Olympics.”

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is allied with NOlympics LA, a group formed in May 2017 to oppose the city’s bid for the Olympics. From the beginning, NOlympics LA has centered the nexus of policing, gentrification, and homelessness. The group emerged from the Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Los Angeles. Many activists in NOlympics LA also work with Street Watch LA, a group that does outreach with the unhoused while monitoring police interactions with those living on the streets.

Members of both groups turned out in droves—alongside hundreds of supporters—at Echo Park Lake. Annie Powers, an activist with both NOlympics LA and Street Watch LA, attended the standoff “to defend the homes of people living in the park from eviction.” Powers described to The Nation how the police entered the area in full tactical riot gear and did not engage in meaningful dialogue with the unhoused residents. Powers said, “The police came in full-throated, like a military raid.” LAPD officers were quick to whip out their weapons, pointing them directly at protesters. The police crackdown at Echo Park Lake is a grim foretaste of what is likely to arise when the Olympics come to town.

For Powers, fighting the Olympics is a way to simultaneously address numerous political issues in Los Angeles: “The Olympics are a clear representation of the weaponization of neoliberalism and the way that it creates a city that is not for the people who live in it, but for giant corporate interests and wealthy elites.” Powers also connected the political-historical dots as well, saying, “The militarized police that we saw last night are the same type that emerged because of the LA 84 Olympics, because of the increase in policing and the militarization of the police for LA 84.” They added, “The Olympics are only going to take these problems and accelerate them.”

Jed Parriott, an activist with NOlympics LA who helped found Street Watch LA, concurred. He told us that the Olympics provide a pretext for the police and elected officials to “sanitize and socially cleanse the area” to facilitate frictionless gentrification. Parriott said the Olympics are “accelerating and incentivizing the capitalist process that goes down on a daily basis” in order to make LA “a comfortable space for the elite.” He noted, “In LA people will say ‘the Olympics are coming, so we need to start this process now’.”

Parriott denounced City Council member Mitch O’Farrell, whose district encompasses Echo Park, as orchestrating a “militarized gentrification project” that targets the poor and unhoused. The day after the showdown at the park, Parriott helped organize a vigil outside the offices of O’Farrell in Echo Park. “We hope that the voices of the most marginalized and most criminalized residents are heard loud and clear by community members and by the media.”

Ayman Ahmed, an unhoused resident of Echo Park Lake, told The Nation that when it comes to the vigil, the goal was “to show the world that what we had here [in Echo Park Lake] is not the narrative that Mitch frames. He frames us as a ragtag group of homeless people, just drug addicts, and he’s a hero cleaning the park out. That’s not what it is. You’re splitting up a community, a hard-fought community.”

The police did more than attack the community. Reporters and legal observers were detained by the LAPD as a part of this “cleansing” of Echo Park.

Meanwhile, cracks in the political consensus around the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics are beginning to show. City Council members Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman recently voted against the creation of a special Olympic security unit to oversee policing activities at the Games. City Council members Mitch O’Farrell, a full-throttle Olympic booster and the head of the LA 2028 Ad Hoc Committee overseeing preparations for the Games, was unable to answer basic questions about security at the Games, instead leaning on empty clichés and the fact that back in 2017 there was a unanimous City Council vote for the Olympics’ Host City Contract.

NOlympics LA cochair Jonny Coleman slammed O’Farrell for lacking these basic answers, calling it “both embarrassing for Olympic boosters but, more importantly, terrifying for the communities who will suffer due to City Hall’s lack of understanding on the Olympics items they’re regularly rubber-stamping.” Coleman vowed that NOlympics LA “will keep building broad support for canceling the Olympics as we organize against sportswashing and gentrification. The arc of history bends towards NOlympics. Always has."

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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