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From Winnipeg to Tokyo: Sports capitalism and the surveillance state

As athletes rally for racial justice, the ways in which sports teams and arena management enable policing is going overlooked

Canadian BusinessHuman Rights

A police officer stands guard during a Winnipeg Jets game. Photo courtesy the Winnipeg Police Service/Facebook.

About a year ago, the Downtown Safety Partnership, a “pilot project to improve safety and public confidence in downtown Winnipeg,” was launched through a collaboration between the city, the Winnipeg Police Services, the Winnipeg Downtown Business Improvement Zone, and True North Sports and Entertainment—the owner of the Winnipeg Jets.

The project was designed to foster collaborative relationships between its various stakeholders and subordinates—including private security outfits—to improve data collection, information sharing, surveillance, and outreach to make the downtown core safer.

In an already overpoliced city like Winnipeg, the Downtown Safety Partnership portends greater harm to already disenfranchised and at-risk people. And, with True North at the centre of it all, the initiative underscores the role of private sports and entertainment companies in propping up and facilitating a climate of overpolicing that disproportionately impacts the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Indeed, the return of the Jets to Winnipeg in 2011 foretold increasing securitization of the downtown core alongside inevitable gentrification. Facilitated by CentreVenture, an arm’s length agency of the city that exists to facilitate development and privatize land, the Jets were heralded as the cornerstone of a downtown “comeback.” Of course, there were uncomfortable questions about the poverty and displacement that still runs rampant through Winnipeg’s inner city. Then-CEO of CentreVenture, Ross McGowan, “likened drunks and aggressive panhandlers downtown to ill-mannered children who were not welcome to sit around the dining room table with the adults.”

True North (co-owned by Canada’s richest man, David Thomson), CentreVenture, and other development partners shed any responsibility to improve the fortunes of those on the margins in Winnipeg’s downtown. This included abandoning an obligation to provide affordable housing units in its development plan.

As of 2019, more than 30 percent of people in downtown Winnipeg lived in poverty. Ross’s comments reflect creeping securitization, both private and public, of the downtown core in order to police the problems of poverty, housing precarity and racism out of sight. A downtown safety report published in December 2019 by the Winnipeg Police recommended forcible removal of panhandlers from the downtown core and into addiction treatment programs.

Sporting events, and the crowds they attract, often provide cover for increased neighbourhood policing in service of protecting private interests and justifying increases in police budgets. Fan “whiteout parties” during the Jets’ 2018 playoff run resulted in $788,000 in police overtime, with no actual property damage incurred and a paltry number of tickets handed out.

In the run-up to the opening of Rogers Place in Edmonton, the Edmonton Police Service deployed dozens of additional officers to the downtown core, along with a massive increase in private security. During the NHL bubble in Edmonton, the local police deployed additional officers to the arena, with associated costs covered by the league. While the NHL collectively participated in the August multi-league wildcat strike against police violence, its institutional anti-racism response in light of these payments rings hollow.

Sports and the security state

Since 9/11, security at and around sports venues has been on the upswing with little oversight, affording greater power and autonomy to both private security firms and police forces, including more invasive forms of securitization, such as facial recognition technology, which was recommended by the Winnipeg Police in their 2019 downtown safety report.

The increasing and conspicuous valourization of police by sports teams is a rising trend across North America. This has included promotional offers that, for example, give fans a free ‘Thin Blue Line’ hat when they purchase a ticket.

Many modern instruments of policing were piloted immediately after 9/11 in sports venues and are now accepted in most facets of public life. The mass of spectators and activity around games positions new surveillance technologies in a manner that allows them to slip under the radar.

This is perhaps more pernicious than the justifications for additional beat cops around stadiums and on game days. Sports have become one of the primary facilitators allowing police and intelligence services to insert themselves more deeply into everyday life. The NFL, for example, partnered with 40 federal agencies in the name of security during the 2017 Super Bowl. Police have checked racist predictive crime algorithms against sports schedules. The NYPD has repeatedly surveilled Arab sporting events they themselves sponsored.

“Anti-terrorism” measures have also been used at sports venues to deploy and test more invasive hiring practices, with extreme vetting at new venues, including hand-and-fingerprinting, as well as snitch systems informed by guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta’s gleaming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (home to the Falcons) deployed disinfecting drones as part of its hygiene protocol. This could portend another, more visible step in new and normalized methods of surveillance and security.

The relative lack of attention given to the increasing securitization of professional sports is staggering, but the reasons for its escape from scrutiny remain unclear. Much has been written about the role of sports venues in accelerating gentrification, but comparatively less ink has been spilled on the question of policing. In a similar vein, we have seen plenty of analysis of the high-tech amenities that are a marquee feature of most modern stadiums, but their advanced and sometimes insidious security systems rarely merit a passing mention.

Analyses of the relationship between intelligence services and sport point to a deliberate omission from mainstream security and sports discourse. These nascent examinations suggest a fully developed relationship between the two that has become inseparable (and deliberately kept in the shadows) in the wake of 9/11, and a process by which civilian and securitized life have become intertwined.

“Official Olympics Police State,” by Fireworks Graphics (1984)

Don’t forget about the Olympics

The on-the-ground violence inflicted by police in communities and the high-level surveillance of national security intersects most visibly during the Olympic Games. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, unhoused people were evicted and displaced by police in advance of the games, while undercover police officers incited violence to justify crackdowns on protestors. The 2010 games also marked the largest domestic security operation in Canada’s history, with unprecedented deployment of “closed circuit video cameras, iris scanning, facial scanning, radio frequency identification chips, and satellite imaging.”

In fact, the Olympics have historically been a testing ground for international security collaboration for decades, concurrent with increasing displacement and police violence associated with venue construction and growing global anti-Olympic sentiment.

Political sociologist Minas Samatas described the securitization of the 2004 Athens games in Foulcauldian terms as the implementation of a “superpanopticon,” and wrote extensively of the “Command, Control, Communication and Integration” (C4I) surveillance system deployed by private American defense contractor SAIC during the proceedings.

These games, only three years removed from 9/11, provided an inter-European testing ground for then nascent surveillance methods, with support from NATO, the FBI, and the CIA. The oft forgotten scandal of this system and these games was the impressive amount of extrajudicial power afforded by the €255 million C4I apparatus, including phone-tapping and a general disregard for civil liberties and privacy rights.

Successive Olympic games have only normalized technology from previous ones, while continuing to push the envelope of what the ‘superpanopticon’ is capable of. From crackdowns on non-Olympic related marches (such as a Women’s Day demonstration in Australia) and bills that temporarily gave police officers vastly expanded powers of force, to the implementation of artificial intelligence, robots, and new biometric technologies at the upcoming Tokyo Games, the Olympics provides a perfect excuse to pioneer, test, market, and sell new surveillance technologies for private security, state, and local police forces the world over.

Sixteen years after the Athens games, SAIC is still providing C4I services, mostly to militaries. Their most recent public agreement was an $89 million deal to provide C4I to US Army Forces stationed in South Korea.

The confluence of municipal and state violence at Olympic Games provides a framework by which sports facilitates the intrusion of harmful surveillance and authoritarian law enforcement into our everyday lives—particularly through arena development, stadium security, and gentrification.

Racial justice, sports, and seeing the problem in front of us

The involvement of True North in Winnipeg’s Downtown Safety Partnership reveals the primary movers that enable police violence and make invasive global security tech trickle down to the local level: sports management. Multi-billion dollar ownership groups and corporations have brought these systems and relationships in and continue to perpetuate them, often against the political leanings of the athletes they employ.

While a wave of solidarity and calls for defunding the police emerged from athletes in pro sports this year—with perfunctory support from team owners and leagues—not much appears to have changed in the relationship between sports, policing, and intelligence. Despite an assault against Toronto Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri at the hands of a police officer during the 2019 NBA finals in Oakland, the Raptors continue to maintain friendly relations with police. In June 2020, the Downtown Safety Partnership became a registered non-profit, and received $5 million from the Manitoba government.

The relationship between True North and the Winnipeg Police is among most public recent examples of a partnership that has roots in every major sports team in North America. It is at once an under examined and passively justified domain, but one in which sports management has the power to make progress by intervening to curb police power.

But the political will does not exist, largely due to the difficulty of statistically analyzing these relationships. With a few exceptions, much of the data associated with policing and sports venues is quantified as part of regular neighborhood law enforcement, and is often difficult to tie into venue management. Arena security, anti-terrorism, and crowd control provide easy access for police into athletic spaces. What’s more, the preponderance of police at sporting events has become so pronounced that alternatives can seem unthinkable.

The Downtown Safety Partnership also includes another thread of police and private sector relations that is disturbingly common across the world of professional sports. True North’s director of security is a former Winnipeg Police officer. These direct professional pipelines are frequent across the world of private security, and provide another impediment to reforming the relationship between sports and police.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many opportunities to rethink the way our societies are structured. With teams playing in mostly empty venues (or venues with greatly reduced capacity) this once-in-a-century event provides ample time and opportunity to think about how games, crowds, and neighborhoods can handle sports, without furthering the violence of policing or the security state. However, it is inevitably up to fans and players to start addressing these issues by giving them greater visibility.

With the sports world’s recent focus on police violence and racial justice—and efforts that have moved the needle, if only slightly, in the right direction—there must also be a focus on the obvious issues that surround almost every major sports event in the world: policing and security. Sports enterprises that claim to support anti-racism must be pushed to take steps away from overpolicing and towards divestment from intelligence technology apparati that reflect the most draconian elements of capitalist security governance.

To date, there has been little groundwork on redressing the overpolicing and securitization of sporting events across North America, but the impact of divestment would be monumental for local communities. For the largely low-income and racialized residents of downtown Winnipeg, most of whom are excluded from the privilege of spectating a professional sporting event at Bell MTS Place, an acknowledgement of this issue can’t come soon enough.

Abdul Malik is a screenwriter and journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @socialistraptor and listen to his podcast on sports and politics, @offcourtpod.

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