On Sunday, just hours before kickoff at the Super Bowl, rapper 21 Savage was arrested by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Atlanta, just a few miles from the stadium. The case immediately made headlines — ICE said that 21 Savage, whose real name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is actually a citizen of the United Kingdom, but most of his fans assumed he was born and raised in Atlanta, since the city is such a big part of his music.
But as fans and tabloids were trading lighthearted jabs about the rapper’s suddenly unfamiliar origin story, the incident represented something much darker to organizers at NOlympics LA, an activist group that is opposed to Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics. For more than a year, the group has been arguing that one of the reasons the Olympics will be dangerous for LA and the city’s residents is because it will clear the way for ICE to take over a substantial amount of the city’s law enforcement operations, perhaps for months in the run-up to the games.
This is particularly concerning given the fact that nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 11.1 million undocumented immigrants reside in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It’s directly related because any time there’s a sports mega-event like this, the security apparatus is the same,” said Steve Ducey, an organizer with NOlympics L.A., when asked about Savage’s arrest.
After all, 21 Savage was hardly hiding from authorities; he is a high-profile rapper who is nominated for two Grammys this year. Less than a week ago, he performed in front of a sold out crowd in Atlanta’s massive NBA arena, and is technically still on tour. According to his attorney, the federal government has been aware of his immigration status for years, and only took action when ICE descended upon Atlanta under the brightest spotlight possible.
“As a minor, his family overstayed their work visas, and he, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own,” his attorney, Charles H. Kuck said in a statement, referring to the so-called DREAMers.
“Mr. Abraham-Joseph has never hid his immigration status from the U.S. government. The Department of Homeland Security has known his address and his history since his filing for the U-Visa in 2017, yet they took no action against him until this past weekend.”
Because of its size and stature, the annual Super Bowl is usually designated a National Special Security Event, meaning the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deems the event is of national or international significance, and therefore is a potential target for terrorism or other criminal activity.
On the surface, such a designation makes sense; these events are often heavily populated, and providing adequate security could overwhelm local law enforcement. Therefore, federal law enforcement — including the FBI, Secret Service, and even ICE — are dispatched to collaborate with the local infrastructure.
“During the mega sporting events, the police and military apparatus is deployed to ‘clean the city up,'” Ducey said. “And then it manifests itself in things like the arrest of 21 Savage by ICE, under the guise of protecting its citizens. These mega events gives ICE the chance to further embed themselves in the city.”
Depending on the size of the host city, these deployments can be massive. In 2002, the United States literally had more troops in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics than it did in Afghanistan.
“Shows of military and security strength goes hand in hand with sports,” Ducey said.
Unlike the Super Bowl — a large event, but one that lasts just a day and is confined to a single location — a summer Olympics stretches over the better part of two weeks and multiple venues. It is unclear exactly how long any partnership between the LAPD and ICE would last, but according to a tweet by ICE itself, the federal security effort in Atlanta was the culmination of two years of planning.
People from around the country are in #atl for #SuperBowlLIIII, most of them enjoying the festivities surrounding the big game. The men & women of ICE #HSI have been hard at work as part of the federal security effort. This is the culmination of 2 yrs of planning #SBLlll pic.twitter.com/keCjg3vqtU
— ICE (@ICEgov) February 4, 2019
Last year, the security deployed for the Super Bowl was the largest in Minnesota history — it included not only extra officers, but also “[u]nseen security tools likely include license-plate readers, social media tracking of possible threats, radiation detectors and hundreds of temporary surveillance cameras to supplement existing public and private cameras,” according to the StarTribune.
This is especially concerning given the LAPD is already one of the most militarized police forces in the world, in large part because of the 1984 Olympics. As Dave Zirin wrote for The Nation a few years ago, one can draw a line between the ’84 Olympics — which history has coined a major success — and the 1992 LA riots. The LAPD has already stated its plans to hire 2,500 more police officers in the lead-up to the Games, an increase of more than 25 percent in its force.
Of course, political headwinds will (hopefully) change a lot between now and 2028. In last November’s election, Alex Villanueva narrowly defeated the incumbent Jim McDonnel to become the new L.A. County Sheriff. One of his campaign promises was to implement stronger firewalls between local law enforcement and federal agencies like ICE, and “physically remove ICE from the county jails,” if necessary. However, Ducey says that he still sees signs of cooperation with immigration authorities.
And Los Angelinos don’t just have the Olympics to worry about — the city will first host its own Super Bowl in 2022, and then share hosting duties during the 2026 World Cup. Both events will likely be given the NSSE designation as well. That is a lot of information sharing and collaboration between the LAPD and ICE.
“I think it’s a moment that people have to take a big hard look at the perceived benefits compare them to the possible consequences,” Ducey said. “We’re already seeing things we’ve been predicting come into fruition. It’s happening even faster than we’ve anticipated.”