Protests, Politics, and The Sochi Olympics

By this point, you have probably heard that a group of militants, who are being called Cossacks, were seen attacking members of the protest punk band Pussy Riot as they attempted to perform a song in front of a sign for the Olympics. They used whips and pepper spray, and several members of Pussy Riot had to be hospitalized.

First of all, I want to address the question, who are these Cossacks? Apparently, they are a semi-official group of volunteers assisting with security at the Sochi Olympics. They “carry out self-appointed vigilante police duties” that are gaining some official recognition. Ominously, Putin has commented that sometimes these Cossacks can be more effective than the police. Their role in law enforcement has not been officially codified and thus presumably goes more or less without scrutiny by any higher authority.

More importantly, I want to address the International Olympic Committee’s response to the attack. Specifically, they called it “unsettling” but went on to say “I would purely say that it’s a shame if the Olympics is used as a political platform, and that’s what we’ve always said…We saw yesterday the strong feelings on both sides that these sorts of things provoke, and that’s why we ask the Olympics not used as a platform for people to express views and we will continue to say that.”

This is a common complaint from the people who plan huge events like the Olympic games. Or the World Cup, to be hosted in Brazil.  Much of the world has a problem with the idea of “politicizing” major events like these. They want us to “respect the athletes” and to honor the idea that countries can lay aside politics every once in a while to enjoy some sport. There might even been an underlying hope that peaceful, cooperative celebrations of these events might somehow lay the groundwork for successful cooperation on other projects in the future.

Here’s the problem. These events, like anything else, do not occur in a vacuum. They are inherently political in and of themselves. Countries like Brazil, or South Africa, a former host of the World Cup, justify the massive expenses of hosting a mega-event, despite extreme poverty in their countries, by arguing that the spending will lead to more development, and the tourist money generated will offset the costs. That has rarely been the case, even for more developed countries like the U.K.

Beyond that, the decision to bid on hosting an event like this is one way states try to prove that they are developed and competent, capable of becoming a major tourist destination and place to invest, hopefully even after the event. (That’s why, even though some people have said it is petty for Western media to focus on stories of problems with the logistics of the Sochi games, it is kind of relevant: the games are a way for future investors and travelers to judge Russia’s potential.)

The point is, the Olympics, the World Cup, and events like them are not now and never will be purely about the athletic competition or international sportsmanship.

Now, you could still argue that fine, the process of picking hosts and to an extent the media coverage of the games is political, but that doesn’t mean protestors should further politicize them, to try to inject their particular issues and projects into the coverage.

That, frankly, misses the point of most protests. In the wise words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The injustices faced by political protestors like Pussy Riot have not stopped during the games. In fact, they have intensified. It is only natural that they seek new ways to get their message out to an ever-bigger public, in the hopes that it might bring greater pressure to bear on the government they oppose.

So we can lament the fact that the events we idealize to be somehow pure of the dirty undertones of international politics, or we can use them as a chance to become more educated.

When we say we don’t want to politicize the Olympics, what we are really saying is that we don’t want our entertainment spectacle interrupted by reminders of oppression and suffering. But especially for those of us who consider ourselves progressives, or liberals, or advocates of human rights, we owe it to ourselves, to Pussy Riot, and to protesters everywhere to listen when the speak out, no matter what venue they choose. And then, if we find them persuasive, we must act. (All of that does not preclude also watching the Olympic events and enjoying them. In addition to Cossack militias, I’ve also learned a lot about twizzling this year. And also that ice dancing exists/is not the same as figure skating.)

With that in mind, here are some groups you can support if, like me, you are inspired instead of annoyed by protests in Sochi.

Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/

In their own words, HRW “is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.” They are also well rated by the watchdog organization Charity Navigator.

Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org/

“Our vision is for every person to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion, and are funded mainly by our membership and public donations.”

I didn’t talk about them as much in this post, but if you are particularly interested in gay rights issues in Russia and around the world, a solid choice to support is the Human Rights Campaign http://www.hrc.org/

Although a lot of their work has focused on domestic U.S. advocacy, they are apparently trying to shift to more international work as well.

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