Redeeming the Olympic Martyrs of 1968
Redeeming the Olympic Martyrs of 1968
1968. There was never a year when the worlds of sports and politics collided so breathlessly, without mercy or respite. It was the year Muhammad Ali, stripped of his heavyweight title for resisting the draft, spoke on 200 college campuses and asked the question, 'Can they take my title without me being whupped?' It was the year Bill Russell's Boston Celtics became champions once again, yet the player-coach saw his house vandalized by bigots. This led Russell to call the city of Boston a 'flea market of racism,' and say 'I am a Celtic, not a BOSTON Celtic.' It was the year the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, playing in a city that carried the specter of insurrection with riots in the hood, snipers on the roofs, wildcat strikes in the auto plants, and Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets"
ringing throughout the projects.
And most famously, it was the year that Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the 200-meter medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics to raise their black gloved fists in a demonstration of pride, power, and politics. Smith and Carlos were part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and they made their stand because of what was happening outside the stadium: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; the growth of the Black Panthers, the May strikes in France, and most recently in their thoughts, the slaughter of hundreds in the country where they were being feted with gold.
On October 2, 1968, right before the start of the games, Mexican Security police murdered as many as 400 students and workers at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Today we remember that violent echo of 1968. We remember those put down like dogs for the crime of peaceful assembly. We can remember at long last, without tears, because of news Monday that a measure of closure may finally be coming for the families that have waged a 37-year quest for truth, justice, and a pound of flesh. Mexican prosecutors announced that they were finally acceding to a four-decades-long campaign, and filed long-awaited charges against former President Luis Echeverria for ordering the Tlatelolco bloodbath. Echeverria was interior minister and head of national security at the time of the massacre. "It has been almost 37 years of impunity and justice denied," prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo told Reuters. "Now for the first time it is possible that the justice system may perform its duty."
The Tlatelolco killings were fatally intertwined with the oncoming Olympics. Student strikes had rocked Mexico throughout the year. This was a time of mass struggle from the Yucatan to Tijuana. But the students and their supporters, despite previous clashes with the state police, could not have foreseen the fanatical desire of Mexico to 'make their country secure' for the coming Olympic games.
Echeverria's Olympic clean-up, not the actions of panicked police, rogue officers, or indiscriminate trigger happy shooters, were responsible for the deaths. Recently declassified documents paint a picture of a massacre as cold and methodical as Echeverria's instructions, and the blood in his veins. As Kate Doyle, director of the Mexico Documentation Project describes, 'When the shooting stopped, hundreds of people lay dead or wounded, as Army and police forces seized surviving protesters and dragged them away. Although months of nationwide student strikes had prompted an increasingly hard-line response,no one was prepared for the bloodbath that Tlatelolco became. More shocking still was the cover-up that kicked in as soon as the smoke cleared. Eye-witnesses to the killings pointed to the President's 'security' forces, who entered the plaza bristling with weapons, backed by armored vehicles. But the government pointed back, claiming that extremists and communist agitators had initiated the violence. Who was responsible for Tlatelolco? The Mexican people have been demanding an answer ever since.'
Thousands of people have marched in the streets every year demanding justice for what is seen as Mexico's Tiananmen Square. And while it is certainly welcome to see Echeverria doddering in cuffs, this arrest should not be seen only as an epilogue of the past but a warning for the future. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the British Olympics of 2012 both hold the potential for crackdowns that could make Tlatelolco seem mild in comparison. At the very least in China, where human rights and trade union organizing are a daily battle in normal times, the Olympics will hit those struggles with the force of a hurricane (a metaphor I don't use lightly.) We need today to organize a new Olympic Project for Human Rights so people in China who want to resist the corporate monolith and state repression which trail after the Olympics like so much detritus, have the political space to do so. It would be a true, living justice, if the martyrs of 1968 can be resurrected to haunt a new generation of Echeverrias already planning security operations in Beijing.
Dave Zirin is the News Editor of the Prince George's Post in Prince George's County Maryland, for which he writes the column Edge of Sports. His work can be read at www.edgeofsports.com. To have his column sent to you every week, just e-mail email@example.com.