NOlympics members pose for a photo at their retreat in September 2019. [Credit: Courtesy of NOlympics LA]
(LOS ANGELES) — Jonny Coleman, a journalist and organizer for the grassroots activist group NOlympics LA, is effortlessly cynical. Professionally, Coleman has jumped from “one sinking ship to another.” He wrote for LA Weekly before “it got bought by Trumpists;” LAist until it was “killed by a billionaire;” and The Hollywood Reporter until the COVID-19 pandemic prompted mass layoffs. But Coleman’s frustration with Los Angeles’ “media desert” also shaped his identity — and his political acrimony — as a relentless activist.
Officially, NOlympics LA has a lofty goal: to ban the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. But the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to the Southern California city back in 2017. So, while the games are a done deal, NOlympics’ activists hope to bring awareness to the potential downsides of the massive, touristic event, including displacing low-income and immigrant residents and further disenfranchising the city’s homeless population.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, along with a summer of Black Lives Matter protests across the nation, NOlympics LA’s calls to end the militarization of police and fight gentrification in a rapidly developing city are as timely as ever. Now, with local and national elections in the rearview mirror, the group is preparing for the changing of the guard. And with new progressives like Nithya Raman — who refused to take campaign contributions from corporations, developers or fossil fuel companies — on the City Council, the group may have the opportunity to make significant strides in their fight to educate the public about the potential perils of the 2028 Olympics.
How did you get involved with NOlympics Los Angeles, and how did your personal background prepare you for this role?
I first became interested in the Olympics in 2017 as Hamburg, Rome, and Boston famously dropped their 2024 Olympic bids. The whole world had seen how bad Rio de Janeiro was in 2016, and the Olympics represented an intersection of a lot of issues I was interested in: homelessness and housing, which also touch policing and immigration. I was working as a journalist for Curbed LA at the time (which doesn’t exist anymore), and I started to wonder why there wasn’t any opposition to Los Angeles’ 2024 bid. The state of local news in LA was rapidly declining, and I felt that certain issues, like the Olympic bid, weren’t being covered critically. So I started investigating it for myself to see if there was a viable story.
Turns out, there was no input from the communities that would be hurt by the games. There was no citizen vote. I thought, “How dare you throw out a bid for the Olympics without asking anyone in the city.” I knew the bid would be rubber-stamped that fall, so 2017 was all about building the NOlympics coalition.
I was also working with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) LA’s Housing and Homelessness Committee that year, and it was a great gateway into organizing for me. We were doing work with the Los Angeles Tenants Union, Black Lives Matter, and all of these folks who were concerned about the implications of the Olympics—namely the gentrification, the policing, the displacement, the criminalization of poverty, and the erosion of democracy. Later that year, we hosted a forum with all of our coalition partners: BLM, Tenants Union, Ground Game, DSA. We invited the bid committee and Mayor Eric Garcetti. None of them came.
2018, then, was about conducting our own survey work. We were suspicious of the only poll circulating, which was conducted by Loyola Marymount University (LMU). It claimed 88% of Angelenos supported the Olympics. Those are dictator numbers. The LA24 committee funded part of the poll. We felt that information alone discredited the results. We’re just trying to go through all the myths, like that the Olympics bring jobs and more transit, and puncture them.
You mentioned you were working at Curbed LA when you first entered the organizing force. As a journalist, did you need to recuse yourself from covering topics that conflicted with the NOlympics mission?
I was — and still am — a freelancer. I was working for a lot of different organizations, and I had only written one piece for Curbed at the time the Olympics idea came up. In that first piece, I was frustrated because my editors had made me remove the name of the landlord who was trying to evict a bunch of Mariachis in Boyle Heights. My second piece was the Olympics assignment. During the writing and reporting period, the NOlympics campaign had not been launched yet. But things got interesting when Casey Wasserman (the big financial booster behind the Olympic bid and a board member of Vox) got wind of the story. When editors removed facts in the piece that I thought were newsworthy and fair, I got the vibe that the story wasn’t going to get a fair, editorial shake given the Wasserman relationship. So I chose not to finish the piece, and it was never published.
Since the NOlympics campaign launched three years ago, I have continued simultaneously writing about politics. I always try to disclose upfront in my reporting that I’m both a writer and organizer with my own very specific politics. Admitting ideology is uncommon for a lot of journalists and newspaper folks who are taught that objectivity is both achievable and sacrosanct. But I believe it’s ethically acceptable and manageable to balance.
Let’s go back to the LMU study, which stated that 88% of LA citizens backed the city’s bid for the 2024 Olympics. You mentioned you disagree with that result. If incorrect, why do you think that number was so high? What communities do you think pollsters should’ve spoken to?
The methodology of that survey was phone polling, which leaves out unhoused people and undocumented folks. None of the unhoused folks we’ve spoken to have ever been phone polled. It was also written in a way that was misleading. It was binary: either you supported the Olympics, or you didn’t. So it seems like an effort to manufacture consent. There weren’t levels of gradation like very strong, strong, neutral, or weak. One poll also is not statistically meaningful. It doesn’t reflect how opinions have changed over time, so that number feels sloppy.
Plus, other cities have more robust polling than Los Angeles. WBUR in Boston did polling every month for a year, and then a year after they rescinded the bid. LA has conducted zero media polls. After the 2016 election cycle, I don’t think there was a lot of confidence in public polling after it had just misled everyone in national politics.
We also ran a Twitter audit of @LA2024 and Garcetti’s personal accounts and found that over 50% were bots. They have a lot of money that can buy a lot of influence, marketing, and public mindshare. You can advertise to people all day long, but if what you’re selling is something that most people in LA can’t afford to go to, we feel we still have the upper hand.
We know that there’s still a nice hangover from LA’s 1984 Olympic games. But we also think we’ve done a good job in showing the harm that the ‘84 games did. One of the big myths of those games is that LA made a lot of money. None of that money went back to LA, it went back to the nonprofit LA84 Foundation that has millions invested in Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, Merit Energy.
Eight years is a long time. There might be significant improvements in homelessness and temporary housing by 2028. Los Angeles County just passed Measure J, which requires that “10% of locally generated, unrestricted county money — about $400 million — be spent on housing, mental health programs…instead of policing.” With that said, do you see a way in which LA might start to recover ahead of the Olympics? Is there any chance the Olympics might not be a divisive event?
We don’t think there’s a happier, nicer version of the Olympics that doesn’t cause harm or have a $10 billion federal policing apparatus attached to it. The International Olympic Committee has a profit motive, and that’s the driving force behind these mega-events: corporate sponsorships, military contracts, media contracts, and the billions of dollars changing hands between these entities. There isn’t a slightly less harmful version of the Olympics that we’ll cosign. So we’re taking a militant stance. None of this will change unless you replace the system with a worker-run, athlete-run, or community-driven event.
Let’s say the Olympics happen in Los Angeles in 2028. Would NOlympics organize protests every day of the games, and hold events right outside of the gates?
If we had to have the games, our goal would be to undermine, subvert, and draw attention to the issues the games will magnify. But we don’t know what will happen. We think there will be at least one major economic event between now and then, if not multiple. We’re in one now; the world has changed so many times this year alone. If the Olympics happen here — I’m kind of joking — I’ll probably be in jail by the time they start. Host cities criminalize protests all around the city and take away basic rights with a smile. We saw that in Russia, where they had these authoritarian “protest zones” miles away from where the games were. That’s also going to happen here, so we plan to disrupt whatever we can before then.
But there’s also a version where LA gets its shit together and goes down a very different path. If we get people in City Hall who have the political will, we could start taking money from the police and putting that money into housing. And if we want to defund the police, then we can’t have the Olympics, or the 2022 Super Bowl — two national special security events.
People are willing to have these tough conversations right now. They’re willing to reimagine sports, police, and what their city should look like. Most of the NOlympics members are millennials, and you don’t even need to make the climate change argument to them. They understand intuitively what carbon and climate implications are when 100,000 tourists come to a city. Whether we can turn these conversations into actionable, meaningful change is the part that we’re grappling with.
You told LAist that you’ve been able to convince people in five minutes that the games are “a bad idea.” I’m curious what kinds of people you’re talking to. Are you cold-approaching individuals on the street? And has there been a circumstance in which you’ve spoken to someone who thinks the Olympics are an opportunity for unity and pride — something that LA will look back on fondly, as some still do with the ‘84 Olympics?
We’ve talked to all sorts of folks and in many different languages across LA. The majority are renters. In 2019, we were doing tenant organizing in major areas of Olympic hotel developments like Hollywood, which is the tourist zone for 2028, Downtown LA, and Venice. In Hollywood, we knocked on thousands of doors. We’d meet people at their doors, at the metro, or on the streets sometimes. We’ve done phone banking. We’ve worked with librarians who were trying to kick cops out of the LA library system. We work with academics, high school students in East LA, Ph.D. students and professors at USC and UCLA, and media folks.
At West Hollywood Pride in 2017, we went out to support our queer comrades. We even talked to some cops who understood our argument. But there was one person that I talked to that day who was well-informed and knew all the talking points, as well as the implications. I said, “The only way you could possibly support the Olympics is if you are one of the developers.” And he smiled. He was a developer. I was never going to convince him because he stands to profit off of the Olympics. So, yes, there are a bunch of rich people and individuals with positive memories from ‘84, but we still feel that’s a beatable minority.
We’ve found that a lot of people we speak to are politically checked out and don’t think they can do anything about the Olympics. But I can work with that; I can work with people who feel like they’ve been left out of the political system, because most of us have. We’ve gotten good about meeting people we’re there at.
So, how do you actually ban the Olympics?
It starts with the people in positions of power. There’s a couple of people on City Council who are highly skeptical of the bid because of our work. There’s one person who will be taking over a seat soon who told me personally that he is not a supporter of the Olympics. There are also progressives that I would love to see in office. And, luckily, most of the people who were part of the initial rubber-stamping will be termed out across the board. All of these new players present organizing opportunities for us. If City Hall was filled with people who were skeptical or critical of the bid, that would absolutely help us kill the bid.
But there’s still a decent amount of public education we need to do. We could go through a ballot measure, find a mayor who doesn’t want to destroy the city, or use a leftist flank to push against an adversarial City Council. There are so many budgetary and fiscal issues that there might be an opportunity to pick away at the project and deflate their sales. We don’t have it fully figured out yet, but we’re happy to be upfront about that. We’re listening to the city and what it needs, and right now, the city needs a lot of support.