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Meet the Grassroots Organizers Trying to Keep the Olympics Out of Los Angeles

NOlympics LA, an effort led by members of the Democratic Socialists of America, says the city's bid to host the Olympics in 2028 will ultimately damage and displace its most vulnerable populations.
Journalists visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on May 11th, 2017.

Journalists visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on May 11th, 2017.

It's 8:30 a.m. on a Friday and the Van Nuys Civic Center, an auxiliary city hall that sits way out in suburban Los Angeles, is mostly empty. Besides city council members and a few boosters from the International Olympic Committee, the Swiss-based governing body responsible for bringing the Olympic Games to the world, just a handful of people are gathered here. The atmosphere is muted, as drab as the building's maroon curtains and olive-colored carpeting.

The hush is soon lifted with the arrival of a tiny squad of activists, many of them wearing shirts emblazoned with political slogans such as "YES ON PROP 10" or "White People For Black Lives." This six-person cohort of dissenters are all members an organization called NOlympics LA, which has been very public about its grievances with the city's dalliance with the IOC. Today will prove no different.

Jed Parriott, one of the NOlympics organizers—who joked that he'd worn a nondescript blue shirt in order to have his public comment taken more seriously—lambasts the city council and the IOC for allocating millions in funding for youth swimming initiative "10 years from now while there are children living in the streets!" Other members promise that the city should withdraw from hosting, or they'll be forced to. After grimacing through the NOlympics-heavy public comment period, the city council appears relieved to speak to the friendly IOC representatives. "Now we're gonna ask you the tough questions," one council member jokes.

The IOC officially awarded Los Angeles the 2028 Summer Olympics last September, the culmination of a bid process that began in 2013. "What does history feel like?" Mayor Eric Garcetti asked as he signed the host contract. "It feels like this."

But for members of NOlympics LA, which formed a few months prior to Garcetti's signing, hosting the games is a dangerous proposition—one that will ultimately damage and displace the city's most vulnerable populations. "Will there be water in 2028? What will rents be like?" asks Jonny Coleman, a NOlympics organizer.

NOlympics LA formed as an offshoot of the Housing and Homelessness Committee of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the spring of 2017, while L.A. was still in the throes of a rollercoaster bidding war for host privileges—a battle it would eventually win.

"There was no organized opposition," says Anne Orchier, a NOlympics activist and DSA–LA member. "There was diffuse vocal opposition, but it hadn't been formalized." And so an opposition coalition was formalized. Thanks to the organizers' DSA roots, partnerships were quickly formed with other progressive organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the L.A. Tenants Union. Within a few months, 40-odd members had joined.

Why do the NOlympians feel so strongly about keeping the Olympics out of L.A.? It's a question the coalition members relish fielding. Here is their answer: The Olympics coming to L.A. will raise rents in a city already drowning in housing crisis. It will gentrify Inglewood and Skid Row and displace many of Los Angeles' 58,000 homeless people—75 percent of whom are unsheltered. It will lead to a larger and more militarized police presence, especially in communities of color. This all happened the last time Los Angeles hosted the Olympics, in 1984, the NOlympians will remind you. Oh, and the organizing committee still hasn't come up with a budget for the games.

As the NOlympics organization began to strategize its opposition, it sought advice from organizers in Chicago, Boston, and New York—three places that had staged successful opposition campaigns where the cities dropped the bids, according to Orchier. "One of the things they were saying was that it's very effective to really publicize the media polling showing that there isn't public support," she says. "And we realized: No [media] has done any polling or surveys, and there were no plans to."

In Boston, the local NPR affiliate did monthly polling while the city was in the running for the 2024 games. When the U.S. bid committee dropped Boston from its shortlist, it did so citing a lack of public support seen in the polling. In L.A., neither the Los Angeles Times nor KPCC, the city's main public radio station, have conducted any sort of polling. Only Loyola Marymount University had conducted a 600-person poll on public support for the 2028 Olympics, which, NOlympics will be sure to remind you, was commissioned by the IOC. That poll showed 83 percent of respondents in L.A. County supported the bid to host the Olympics.

That data smelled fishy to NOlympics members, including Orchier, whose day job in market research has given her a lot of experience with surveys. She was frustrated that media coverage was treating a singular poll as definitive. "Especially in the wake of the 2016 election, it feels very weird that people are so confident in any polling, especially in a single poll," she says. "One of the reasons we wanted to do this is to show, it is worthwhile to do more of this, to talk to more people. That one poll isn't enough."

To set up their own poll, Orchier worked with two other Nolympics organizers who she says work full time as statisticians. (To protect their employment, they asked to remain anonymous.)

Using Surveymonkey's audience panel service, which solicits paid respondents for surveys, they polled 1,000 people about their support, disapproval, or ambivalence for the 2028 Olympics. Unlike the LMU poll, their respondents came from across the state of California, about 35 percent in Los Angeles. Orchier says it's important to survey people from across the state, given that state taxpayers will cover any cost overruns.

The NOlympics LA-funded survey found 47 percent of respondents across California and 45 percent in L.A. County were opposed to hosting the games in 2028. In stark contrast to the LMU poll, only 32 percent of L.A. County respondents expressed support for the bid (26 percent across the state). Around a quarter of both L.A. County and statewide respondents didn't support or disapprove of L.A. hosting the Olympics, and chose to answer neutral.

Crucially, the NOlympics poll also included the option for a neutral response—something the LMU poll didn't offer. "So many of the people who we've talked to in person have said, 'This is really far off, I don't know that much about this, and don't have time to think about this, so I don't really give a shit,'" Orchier says. "If the bid committee is making the case that there's a popular mandate for this, then you need to make sure you're not lumping in people who don't care."

Still, Coleman doesn't exactly expect that the powers that be will take their polling seriously. The main goals, he said, are for the survey to encourage academic and media institutions with a bit more cash on hand to do polling of their own. "The lack of polling and surveying is not just this standalone issue," he says. "There's been a lack of discourse and sharing of meaningful information."

Which gets to a central aspect of the NOlympics critique. Not just that the Olympics would be bad for L.A., but that what they would mean for the city hasn't been meaningfully discussed with the public, and in the media. For Coleman, who writes for a living, all of this is inextricable from the depletion of local L.A. media over the past decade—the meltdown of LA Weekly, the reduced LAist, the depleted newsrooms across the city. "I don't see the bid passing through as easily as it did if there's more robust local media," Coleman says.

But until that fourth estate shows up to their liking, NOlympics have stepped up as its own media outlet. It has published a slew of articles and videos highlighting abuses at past Olympic events, such as the Tlatelolco Massacre at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Last week, it began releasing episodes of a 10-part podcast about the Olympics. It also relentlessly trolls Garcetti in blog posts and on social media—for both his Olympic and presidential ambitions, often depicting him in memes with Olympics versions of rapper Post Malone face tattoos and hairdo.

Garcetti's unwavering championing of the L.A. Olympics has meant that local Democratic politicians have shown little interest in NOlympics' organized opposition. "Who's the most prominent elected official in L.A.?" Parriott asks rhetorically. (Garcetti.) "No. No elected officials."

At least for now. Several NOlympics members spoke of the possibility down the line of a ballot measure to extricate Los Angeles from the 2028 Olympics. There's precedent for this: Two years after agreeing to host the 1976 Olympics, and just two years before the games, Denver pulled out of hosting after Colorado voters rejected a funding measure. But the organization is still exploring its options right now. It's also possible that, in the near future, its cause might not be anathema to all local elected officials; Coleman and Orchier point to the possibility of DSA getting a candidate on the city council long before the Olympics arrive.

Either way, for the NOlympians, the mission is clear. "We also live in a world where we could end up having to host the Olympics," Coleman says. "And if we do have them, maybe we can mitigate the damage."