Displacement and Resistance: The World Cup's Everlasting Legacy of Violence
As another World Cup tournament nears its climax, I’m wondering already what the legacy of these games will be. I’m not talking about the legacy of a bunch of sweaty, oversexed men kicking a ball around. What I’m concerned about is the human rights legacy: the long term repercussions of hosting the Olympics on Brazil, the predicted “death count” (another term for murder) of up to 4,000 workers in Qatar (1,200 so far), and whether this time, this tournament, with all the images we’ve seen of protests and violence, soccer fans will do something to end the shock doctrine shitshow that has accompanied it for decades.
I don’t write too often, but I’m putting this together because I feel that a history lesson is in order. All the focus on Sep Blatter’s corrupt leadership that I’ve seen in the media (including John Oliver’s oft-linked diatribe on HBO) makes it seem like if we get rid of the man, everything will be OK. But it’s more complicated than that: both the World Cup and the Olympics are rooted in a culture of dispossession that has displaced millions of people.
I used to be a megafan of the World Cup. I was truly obsessed. I recall a camping holiday on the North Norfolk coast with my English boyfriend, which was planned entirely around visiting old pubs with idyllic beer gardens to watch the matches. But living in East London during the run-up to the Olympics changed everything.
The timing of the 2012 Olympics couldn’t have been worse, with billions of public money being diverted towards infrastructure for the Games. This included revenues from council taxes for the boroughs of Hackney, Newham, and Tower Hamlets, all of which rank among the eight poorest boroughs in the city (Newham is in the top four). Funding for children’s sport programs, ironically, was one of the areas that was axed the most on a local level.
I could go on and on about the many repercussions of the Olympics on working families in East London, which has been well documented. It seemed like everyone knew someone who had been affected by it. My friend Tim was evicted by his landlord after he responded that he would be unable to afford the massive rent increase to the “market price”. A few months later, his landlord took him to court to seek restitution for several thousand pounds worth of “unpaid rent” in the months after the eviction.
And this is one of the tamer stories I heard. Whispers of thousands of Eastern European laborers living in shanty-like conditions, surface-to-air missile launchers on top of apartment buildings, a crisis where thousands of already paid for G4S security staff failed to show up for duty and the army had to be called in. Public parks were closed off, including East London’s network of canal pathways used by many local cycle commuters to get to work. Cyclists traveling by road who wandered into privatized “VIP” lanes reserved for corporate sponsors faced a fine of 200 GBP. Nearly 200 cyclists were arrested and thrown into jail cells overnight without access to lawyers or food after a critical mass ride dared to venture near the stadium during an opening ceremony that celebrated Britain’s history of civil disobedience.
Looking back at just the past three Olympics (London 2012, Vancouver 2010, Beijing 2008) and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there’s a clear pattern of displacement, regeneration and gentrification. Some have argued that the public transportation systems that are often built for the Games, such as the expensive high speed Gautrain service built in South Africa (the continent’s first high-speed rail), are a sign of progress. But these projects rarely serve the people who need it most. And the East London Line (which wasn’t built for the Olympics but was ready in time for the Games) has been very successful in accelerating gentrification.
As it had in other cities time and time again, the London Olympics offered an opportunity to push through disastrous infrastructure projects and to transfer a sizeable proportion of the city’s remaining public spaces into corporate hands. But once the games started, it was all about athletics and the larger than usual number of British-won gold medals made the headlines. While East London was left with the long term consequences of the transformation (higher rents, gentrification, displacement, the enclosure and corporatization of publicly owned cultural resources, and devastation to family-owned businesses inconvenienced by the construction projects), the rest of the UK will remember the Olympics with a strong feeling of national pride. Because in the end, the popularity of competitive sports always proves to be more powerful.
And that’s what bugs me about the way that so many of my friends, people who consistently expressed horror at the eviction of the favelas before the first whistle, have put their grievances aside to enjoy the matches. Because while these evictions in Brazil leading up to 2014 are more visibly brutal than anything we’ve seen in a while, the initial outrage at their ugliness is nothing new. The reason why we know so much about what’s going on is because there are more journalists and civil society organizations than ever reporting on the human rights consequences of these tournaments. As Ashkok Kumar wrote of the Olympics in 2012:
“Everywhere the Games injects itself, the story remains the same; beginning with the easy targets – sex workers and the homeless – the decision-makers soon move towards driving out ethnic minority and working class residents from their city.
The Olympics have always been utilised as a means to pursue what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ from visible policies of forced evictions to veiled ones such as gentrification. This violent process is intimately connected to reconfiguring the landscape for capital accumulation and, indeed, is a prime motivation for the very purpose of the Olympics itself.
The Games are not simply hosted to ‘clean up’ the city, but to fundamentally reconfigure it, to ‘cleanse’ it of its poor and undesirable; to not only make way for a city by and for the rich, but to expand the terrain of profitable activity.”
Kumar goes on to point out what makes the Olympics or the World Cup so attractive to host governments, in s pite of the huge debt legacy that these events usually leave behind. Hosting the Olympics or the World Cup isn’t about sports, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Kumar cites a 2007 study by the UN-funded Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions that examined host cities of the Olympic Games between 1988 and 2008. The report concluded that the Olympics alone evicted more than two million people in a period of twenty years, and the Games remain “one of the top causes of displacement and real-estate inflation in the world”. Up to 250,000 have been displaced in Brazil to make way for the World Cup, and human rights organizations monitoring the future World Cup in Qatar have frequently warned of highly exploitative working conditions.
The crowds of people chanting “declaring “Não vai ter Copa” (“There Will Be No World Cup”) don’t represent the first instance of mass civil disobedience in response to a large international sporting event. Vancouver 2010 saw a large mobilization of indigenous resistance, often under the slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Land”. The alteration of traditional Inuit sculptures for the official Olympic logo drew the anger of not just Inuit groups (who aren’t traditionally from the Vancouver area) but also of many organizations representing the First Nations peoples from the area commonly known as British Columbia. For many, this logo was symbolic of the exploitative relationship between the Canadian state and indigenous peoples. As blogger and environmental sociologist Toban Black wrote at the time:
“The worst racism in Canada is reserved for indigenous peoples who are triapped between assimilation and ghettoization… No marketing imagery ever could erase these ongoing legacies of a history of colonial genocide in Canada (and elsewhere)…Protesters also have been raising concerns about how the Olympics are tied to indigenous land conflicts around the tar sands in Alberta… These tar sands operations… are the world’s worst climate threat; and the Arctic indigenous peoples alluded to in Olympics marketing actually are on the front lines of global warming impacts, which are aggravated by Olympic environmental devastation”.
Transcanada and many others among the official sponsors of Vancouver 2010 had (and still have) direct ties to the tar sands, and it was frequently noted that for them, the Olympics was an opportunity to seize a social license to operate, to portray to the world a vision of a unified Canada, glossing over the many conflicts over land sovereignty, oil pipelines, and resource extraction. In Toronto and Vancouver, coalitions of indigenous and anti-poverty activists successfully blockaded the torch route. Twelve years earlier, a boycott organized by the Lubicon Cree (who returned in 2010 to protest Tar Sands extraction on their ancestral lands) had mobilized protests at every stop of the torch relay for the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Yesterday’s announcement that the Vancouver city council unanimously voted to formally acknowledge that the city is on “unceded aboriginal territory” is very much a response to the 2010 protesters’ assertions that they had no jurisdiction to transfer stolen land into the hands of profit-seeking developers.
Just a few months later, the 2010 World Cup attracted even greater controversy. The events that unfolded in South Africa leading up to, during, and after the World Cup were remarkably similar to the current situation in Brazil. A publication by the international charity War on Want detailed the slum clearances that took place in advance of the World Cup:
"Viewed by many as a crucial source of income for the country, the 2010 football World Cup has only exacerbated the plight of South Africa's poor. Since South Africa was named tournament host, the rate of evictions has increased, particularly in areas around stadiums, practice facilities and other sites designed to cater to tourists. Drawing on the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement, over the past decade a vibrant resistance to evictions and economic discrimination has emerged in South Africa…Thousands of poor people across the country have banded together to claim their rights and fight injustice.”
In their coverage of these protests, news reporters noted that the next World Cup in Brazil was likely to result in the violent displacement of thousands of favela residents. It’s been common knowledge among most soccer fans that this was going to happen, just like we already know that the 2022 tournament in Qatar is a miserable deal for the country’s poor and for immigrant workers. And now, just like it happens every four years, fans have lost interest in holding FIFA and governments accountable now that the games have begun. Rather than yelling at TVs in bars “YOU SHOT UNARMED CHILDREN!! or “THAT STADIUM WAS BUILT WITHOUT COMMUNITY CONSENT”, people have pushed these worldly concerns to the back of their minds while they yell out expletives at referees.
The images of the clearances of the favelas are actually nothing new when it comes to the World Cup, but they are more striking to soccer fans living in developed countries because it totally contradicts Brazil’s reputation as being the most soccer-obsessed nation on the planet. But our collective surprise at the indignancy of favela residents says more about us than it says about Brazil. Images in the press of dead children on bloodstained streets tear apart our romanticization of that barefoot (usually black) slum kid who puts all of his hopes and dreams into a soccer ball (recently displayed on a google doodle). This idealization of black and brown homeless children kicking a ball against the wall plays a big role in the American perception of soccer as an apolitical, inspirational, and international agent of global togetherness. And that perception is fucked up.
[image: The Guardian]
Prior to the start of the tournament, we saw renewed emphasis on Sep Blatter’s corrupt leadership of FIFA, and there’s a lot of hope that this will be his last World Cup. But even if it is, the example of the Olympics and the fact that in spite of all his faults (and there are many), Sep Blatter isn’t the one evicting hundreds of thousands of people at gunpoint reveals a systemic pattern of violence at the core of these events. Moreover, the World Cup and the Olympics’ emphasis on competition, while exhilarating and a potential driver of national unity – reinforces their position as a global driver of capital accumulation, privatization of public space and public services, and trickle down fuck-you-nomics.
The World Cup in its present state can’t be reformed – it needs to be dismantled. One could draw attention to events like Wimbledon, which return to the same facilities year after year and don’t require intense social destruction in order to take place. Fans could also push for an alternative model suggested in the Guardian where these events would be hosted by continents (presumably not including Antarctica), which would allow more flexibility for using existing infrastructure rather than requiring every new host country to undertake a multibillion dollar makeover.
When I see friends of mine who have participated in or expressed support for housing rights and fair development campaigns here in Baltimore show more concern for a biting player than the destruction of entire communities for our entertainment, I feel really sick. No sport, no amount of national pride, no amount incredibly skilled footwork will bring back the people who have lost their lives, homes, or livelihood. Even if Brazil wins, it’s not going to put food on the table for the thousands of evicted families who have lost their source of income after losing access to work. And it won’t soften the blows of the escalation of police violence against sex workers.
No, there will be no World Cup for me.