In just over a year, from July 28 to August 6, Winnipeg will be totally overrun with 8,500 cops, correctional officers, immigration agents, border guards, and firefighters from more than 50 countries for the “World Police and Fire Games” (WPFG).
This biennial “Olympic-style” international sporting event (apparently the largest sporting event in Manitoba’s history, featuring more than 60 sports) is set to consume almost every corner of the city and region: the downtown convention centre, both major universities, the Forks, Assiniboine Park, Fort Whyte Alive, Birds Hill Park, and many other venues.
It's also going to be accompanied by a "smart cities technology exhibition on emergency services" that will "develop partnerships with local technology companies to demonstrate smart city technologies for law enforcement software and records management."
These “games” must be fiercely opposed. Here are four reasons why.
It's a blatant celebration of police and carceral violence
The World Police and Fire Games were first created as the "California Police Olympics" in 1967 by San Diego police captain Duke Nyhus "with an eye towards promoting physical fitness and sport as both a means for officers to, improve their overall fitness, reduce stress, and to increase their professional abilities."
This might sound innocuous enough. But as media coverage of the 1997 games in Calgary repeatedly pointed out, the event was explicitly devised in response to "bring peace to a panicking California police force" as "the States were heating up with racial riots and anti Vietnam War protests" and "police officers began feeling the stress — physically and mentally." Another article at the time reported that "police officers required some fun and games to take their minds off bullets and bombs." Nyhus claimed that "law enforcement was really taxed to the limit."
In other words, cops responded to rising resistance to racist, white supremacist, and imperialist violence by playing games with each other. The same thing is happening today: after years of anti-police and anti-carceral organizing led by Black and Indigenous people protecting their communities from horrific violence, thousands of cops, ICE agents, and prison guards are flocking to Winnipeg to socialize and compete with each other. It's spitting in the face of every person in the city who has demanded defunding and abolition.
It's a direct threat to the safety of oppressed peoples
Along with being a grotesque celebration of state violence, the greatly increased presence of cops and other carceral agents is a direct threat to the safety of already oppressed peoples and communities in Winnipeg. This includes Indigenous, Black, and other racialized people; poor and unhoused people; people who use criminalized drugs; sex workers; and people with mental health issues.
This plays out on multiple fronts. As with every major international sporting event, the lead-up to the World Police and Fire Games will include major crackdowns and displacements of people in the city's downtown and adjacent communities who are coded in deeply racist and anti-poor ways as representing "disorder" or "blight." After all, this whole spectacle is essentially a marketing gimmick for the City of Winnipeg, not to mention the reputation of the Winnipeg Police itself (who will undoubtedly be very invested in what other police forces make of their practices). The many years of displacement of mostly poor, Indigenous peoples from the downtown will likely only accelerate in this context.
But then there's the actual presence of thousands more of police, border and prison guards, ICE agents, and more in Winnipeg. We already know that cops do incredibly dangerous things while socializing, such as the near-constant habit of Winnipeg Police officers drunk driving and killing someone as a result. Now multiply that exponentially: thousands of hyper-masculine, competitive, and likely inebriated assholes in a city with the highest urban Indigenous population in the country. This is a recipe for more unchecked racist violence.
It's a huge waste of money
These games are estimated to cost around $17 million to run. While events like this always brag about the supposedly massive spinoff benefits to hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment venues, these are overwhelmingly captured as private profits that nobody other than the business owners benefit from. The increased tax revenues — from the hotel tax, PST, income tax — will be marginal, at best.
Even if the $17 million was being privately raised, that would be a problem (as we oppose all celebrations of police and carceral violence). But a sizable chunk of that money is being publicly subsidized, including $4.9 million from the province, $2 million from the federal government, and up to $1.5 million from the city's "special events and tourism fund."
Further, the city is contributing at least $500,000 in additional funds, around half to cover the costs of subleasing more than 5,000 sq. ft. of downtown office space for the host society and the other half to cover the salary of a full-time firefighter to serve as the "director of sporting events" for the games. There's also guaranteed to be plenty more costs incurred by the city along the way, including all the extra pensionable overtime for Winnipeg Police providing "security."
This is all money that can and should be funding things that actually keep people safe: housing, harm reduction, non-violent crisis response, food security, 24-hour safe spaces, and so on. Blowing millions more dollars on police and carceral agents is a sickening prioritization when so many people in Winnipeg are unhoused, unable to afford food, and are receiving no help at all from government. Rather than publicly subsidizing these games for the alleged spinoff benefits, governments can and should raise revenue by taking it from the rich.
It can be cancelled
Opposing a highly organized and well-funded event of this size is obviously an intimidating and overwhelmingly task. But the World Police and Fire Games can be cancelled: after all, it happened in 2017.
The 2017 games were scheduled to take place in Montreal. But in 2016, the year prior, the police and firefighter unions in the city called on other unions to boycott the games due to provincial pension reforms that were being proposed. Many police and firefighter unions throughout the world agreed to the boycott, and the Canadian Police Association later joined as well. As a result, the games were called off and relocated to Los Angeles.
Now, this is obviously a unique situation in which powerful unions and the athletes themselves organized to force the cancellation. There's no hope of the same thing happening in Winnipeg on the basis of anti-police and anti-carceral opposition. However, it does demonstrate that with enough pressure, the games can in fact be cancelled and relocated. It's now up to us to generate that pressure in the coming months.
The first thing that you can do to help in this struggle is come protest the launch of the World Police and Fire Games on Friday, July 15. Members and friends of WPCH will be gathering in the courtyard of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet at 11:15 am and will then move to where the launch is taking place. If you're planning on coming, please let us know so we can keep an eye out for you. Bring a sign, wear a mask, and join us in building opposition to this disgusting celebration of racist, white supremacist, carceral violence.
More long-term, please get in touch with us if you'd like to get involved with opposing these games in the lead-up to 2023. There will be plenty of work to do! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us via social media.