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Boston Says No to Olympics: Working People’s Victory Over Neoliberalism

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On July 28, the bid to bring the summer Olympics to Boston was laid to rest. Mayor Marty Walsh conceded the defeat on a plan he initially championed – after six months, the public pressure and opposition to the neoliberal and gentrification plans of big developers and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) triumphed! Boston joins a growing list of cities such as Munich, Oslo, and Stockholm that have rejected bids for the Olympics. These victories show that it is possible to push neoliberalism back and can give strength to other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

The Summer Olympics, alongside the World Cup (soccer), is one of the most watched international sporting events in existence. The 2012 Summer Olympics held in London saw over 219 million U.S. viewers tune into the sporting event, becoming the biggest single TV event in U.S. history. Big business and developers in a city like Boston clamor at the chance to bring the event to the town and use it to make massive profits through gentrification.

Contrary to the fanfare, hosting the Olympics is a nightmare for the working class. In London, £ 24 billion (roughly $37.5 billion) was spent on the 2012 Olympic games, but the majority of regular Londoners could not even afford to attend. Civil liberties in the city were restricted and landlords used the opportunity to astronomically raise rents in the city, resulting in the eviction of many working class Londoners. Moreover, the promise of job creation proved hollow, with only a small fraction of locals employed in the run up to the games. The experiences were similar in Beijing in 2008 where an estimated 1.5 million people were displaced, many forcibly evicted to make room for the games.

Boston – Fastest Gentrifying City in the U.S.

Reports released in 2013 found that Boston is the fastest gentrifying city in the country. Traditional working class neighborhoods like the South End and South Boston have been transformed, turning into commercial hubs and expensive condos.

The plans laid out by the pro-Olympic group, Boston 2024, would enable an acceleration of this pattern by further razing working-class neighborhoods to build structures like the Olympic Village which after the event would be turned into more unaffordable condos rather than the high-quality affordable housing the city so desperately needs.

The Boston 2024 plan used a familiar idea: put tax paying working people on the hook for any overages, but privatize any and all profits. By giving huge handouts to big private developers to tear up the city and kick out working people, the city would subsidize these big business interests. It was revealed in the weeks up to the pulling of the bid that despite claims to the opposite by the pro-Olympics group, that tax money would be used heavily in “land acquisition” for the Olympic sites and “post-Olympic development and infrastructure” – read gentrification – in Boston. However, none of the working people paying for the handouts to these companies would ever see any of the profits.

Neighborhood opposition

Protesters rallied against the Boston Olympic bid outside the Institute of Contemporary Art on the night of December 8th while a debate took place inside (Photo: Eric Wilbur)
Protesters rallied against the Boston Olympic bid outside the Institute of Contemporary Art on the night of December 8th while a debate took place inside (Photo: Eric Wilbur)

From the beginning, the prospect of hosting the Olympics was met with opposition. In Boston’s neighborhoods, groups were launched to develop a grassroots effort to resist the Olympic games. Organized by working people, these groups formed the backbone of the resistance, holding demonstrations and intervening in pro-Olympics public meetings to give a voice to the opposition.

During the 2014 World Cup, working people and the poor in Brazil convulsed the nation with demonstrations – from protests to strikes and occupations— calling for “FIFA quality” schools rather than the billions being spent on the soccer matches.

In Boston, the fight back never reached such a height. However, even the smaller scale resistance gained a huge echo in the city, polls showed massive public opposition to the games, growing from around 33% against in January 2015 to over half of the city by July. Even The Boston Globe, the conservative mouthpiece of business interests in the city, came out strongly against the bid.

The boosters of Boston 2024 dared not go as far as the elites in Brazil had in the run up to the 2014 World Cup. For one, it was a very narrow section of the Boston-centered elites that actually sought to benefit. This was a stark contrast to the national plan forced through in Brazil. Also Boston 2024 was still merely “a bid” that could be replaced by another U.S. city with less local pushback like Los Angeles, whereas Brazil had been locked in as the 2014 World Cup host all the way back in 2007. In the end, the Brazilian elites had much more at stake and were willing to go much further than big business and politicians in Boston.

Mayor Marty Walsh – Hero or Villain?

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was the biggest backer of the bid since its inception. Due to his close ties with big developers through the mayor-appointed Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) it was no surprise that Walsh supported the Olympics so heavily. The BRA is a rubberstamp body designed to push through all major private development that the Mayor supports, and is essentially the legislative arm of gentrification and displacement. Walsh was brazen in his underestimation of the popular opposition. He repeatedly referred to the anti-Olympic camp as “10 people on Twitter” to try and force through the plan. In the end, even he could not deny the strength of the opposition among working people in the city.

Repeated gaffes exposed in the pro-Olympic development plan led to an inability for him to continue to support the Olympics without damaging his own image. When push came to shove, Walsh was pushed down the road he chose by the conditions of the position he was in. He claimed his final opposition was due to the lack of a guarantee that overruns would not be on the taxpayer’s dime, which, had always been a component of the plan since its inception and throughout his support.

The defeat of the Olympics bid in Boston is a massive victory for working people not just in New England but around the country against neoliberalism. Boston is the first city to outright defeat the USOC in a battle over Olympic-style privatization. This victory shows the massive potential to build a fight back against the assault on working class people in the city and the possibility of using such a force to not only repel the attacks of the big business interests but win offensive victories such as rent control, jobs programs, and the construction of high-quality affordable housing instead of high dollar condominiums.

Building on the victory

Now that we’ve beaten back the Olympics, what is next? The anti-Olympics groups have stated their intention not to dissolve, but to continue fighting. This is 100% correct. The Olympics would’ve only been the nail in the coffin of a Boston working class that is facing astronomical rents, an expensive transit system rocked by crisis, and overall unaffordability in our day-to-day lives. While new structures go up and the 57 universities in the Greater Boston area continue to expand, none of that is benefiting regular folks in the city.

The grassroots nature of the anti-Olympics opposition in the city could evolve into a powerful force against corporate schemes. These neighborhood groups could approach other grassroots movements like ‘People for Bernie’ and unite around a pro-worker, anti-big business program for the city of Boston that could develop into a powerful broader campaign for things like a $15 minimum wage, rent control, and massive investment in transit infrastructure funded by taxes on big business and large developers located in and around the city. As well, they could fight for the abolition of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and its replacement with a directly elected city planning body actually accountable to the people of Boston, not the Mayor, as a step towards community control over planning and an immediate way to confront gentrification.

It is also important that the activists in Boston work with and spread the lessons of this victory. If big business in L.A. or any other city pursues bids for the Olympics, Boston activists should be active in those fights. The victory in Boston means more if the resistance to neoliberalism and the massive displacements is spread to other cities.

The victory scored against neoliberalism in Boston sets a huge example around the country and world for working people rising up against corporate interests and the plans of the 1%. The attempt to use the Olympics or other mass sporting events to push these plans is rapidly being exposed as a Trojan horse to drastically gentrify. In conjunction with the victories of the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter and other movements of working people and youth so far show that the road of struggle is one we have to enter upon to win big victories and that we cannot rely on lobbying big-business politicians. Ultimately, we need our own independent movements and political candidates to challenge the grip of big business over society.

Working people want and deserve to have sports games like the Olympics. What we don’t want are games that are largely paid for with our tax dollars, but are hugely damaging to the development of the city, inaccessible to most of the public and where profits flow only to the very rich. This fightback is an inspiration to all who want to organize against neoliberalism and gentrification, and all who want sports games for the people, not for profit.

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