The city already has experience in violating the rights of its citizens in the name of security at major events and for massive manhunts
At Cheers, everyone already knows your name. But if Boston gets the 2024 Olympics, they won't be the only ones. Photograph: Eric Gaillard /Reuters
If the Olympics come to Boston – and the US Olympic Committee, having chosen it as their contender to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, hopes they will – the government will likely treat it as a National Security Special Event. That means the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police would fall under the authority of the US Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, and Federal Bureau of Investigation, which would be in charge of security operations. All people within the NSSE “security” zone – possibly the entire Boston metro area and beyond – could lose a host of constitutional rights, including the right to protest on public land, and the right to not be searched or questioned absent any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Proponents have already said that the security at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 (an NSSE-designated event) provides a security model for a possible 2024 games. And Dave Zirin reported at The Nation in November that the International Olympic Committee was particularly interested in Boston “because of how the city was able to shut itself down after the Boston Marathon bombing”.
That’s a chilling statement. On Friday April 19, 2013, Bostonians woke up to shocking news: the government was taking the unprecedented step of asking residents in the Greater Boston region to remain in their homes. People were not to go to work. The public transit systems were shuttered. To say that it felt like a declaration of emergency law is not an exaggeration.
But on that day, as always, all was not equal. Many in the Boston area felt a particularly neon-bright target on their back because of their religion, their dress, or the color of their skin. Just imagine having that suspicion affixed to people like semi-permanent tattoos for a full year, in the lead-up to the lighting of the Olympic torch.
And for those of us who remember the 2004 DNC in Boston, comments about our city’s efforts then serving as a model for security in 2024 are troubling. In the days leading up to the DNC, authorities built a protest cage for “free speech” sealed by razor wire, overhead netting, and chain fencing, monitored by rooftop snipers. Federal authorities claimed that the cage was an adequate accommodation for our freedom of speech.
After the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild challenged the restrictions, a federal judge called the cage “an offense to the spirit of the First Amendment”:
Protesters, demonstrators, and dissidents outside a national political convention are not meddling interlopers who are an irritant to the smooth functioning of politics. They are participants in our democratic life. The Constitution commands the government to treat their peaceful expression of dissent with great respect –respect equal to that of the invited delegates.
But the court nonetheless upheld the use of the cage.
Before the DNC, hundreds of federally networked surveillance cameras were put in Boston without any public debate. Those cameras (or more powerful replacements) still watch us a decade later. Subway bag checks started with the DNC, too – but, like so much less-visible surveillance, they didn’t leave with the out-of-town guests.
Under the NSSE regime, Boston will likely receive substantial federal funding to expand its already unaccountable and secretive surveillance apparatus. Moreover, history suggests that the people targeted by the permanent surveillance regime won’t be elite athletes or business leaders; it will be poor people, communities of color and political activists.
Before hosting the games in 1996, Atlanta officials arrested more than 9,000 people – most of them black. In Atlanta and in Salt Lake City in 2002, the ACLU sued to challenge antidemocratic secrecy and unconstitutional limits on free speech. In Georgia, for instance, our colleagues noted for the court that the Centennial Olympic Park’s regulations “make it a criminal offense to ‘hold vigils or religious services, and other like forms of conduct which principally involve the communication or expression of views or grievances.’”
Boston, like the rest of the nation, is struggling with issues of public safety and community concern: police militarization from the wars on drugs and terror; the disproportionate targeting of black and brown youth for harassment and arrest; and the trickle-down of “national security” warrantless surveillance to the state and local level. When communities of color are calling on police departments to reform stop-and-frisk policies and demilitarize their forces, the prospect of turning our local police departments over to even less-accountable federal agencies is worrisome.
Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics must include an open, public discussion of how the city will protect civil liberties and rights during the games. Otherwise, if the Olympic games come to town, the civil liberties landscape for the ordinary people of Boston could be forever damaged, long after the visitors go home.