7. 28. 2023
The Coalition to Cancel the World Police and Fire Games
In Ancient Greece, the Olympic games were a festival of feats of strength, tests of speed, and competitions of endurance. The games were cultural events with mythological potency. This summer, a very different type of games, with its own cultural myths, is coming to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city is set to host the 2023 World Police and Fire Games (WPFG) from July 28 to August 6. The WPFG are a biennial, Olympic-style sporting event whose presence in Winnipeg will take over municipal venues and government funds much needed by communities, all in the name of glorifying police and the carceral violence they perpetuate. The WPFG have become a catalyst for a number of community organizations to come together, forming a coalition to challenge police myth-making and calling for the cancellation of the games.
Myth-Making with Public Funds
Initially dubbed “The California Police Olympics,” the games were founded in 1967 and billed as a way for police to build camaraderie with each other. This was the same year that activists were voicing their opposition to the Vietnam War by marching on the US Capitol, and the Black Panther Party began their patrol program to protect Black communities from police. Since then, the event has grown and globalized, rebranding as the WPFG in 1985. The 2023 iteration of the games is expected to draw more than 8500 competitors from numerous countries, including police officers, correctional officers, firefighters, ICE officers, and border agents. Police use symbols such as the thin blue line to portray themselves as defending against some unspecified anarchic brutality that threatens to overwhelm society. This is a cynical view of humanity that places police beyond critique, mythologizing them as heroes worthy of constant celebration. Just as the ancient Olympics rooted sport in myth, those games being said to originate with the god Zeus wrestling his father Cronus, the WPFG are rooted in the political context of 1967. Officers perform shooting range drills just as they fired upon Black rioters in 1967’s long, hot summer.
This summer, the WPFG are being held in Winnipeg, a city with the highest urban Indigenous population in the country as well as exceedingly high rates of police violence. The police have long dominated both municipal imaginations and budgets, replacing community care with paternalism and punishment. In 2023, the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) demanded a bloated $327 million, over a quarter of the city’s entire operating budget. Meanwhile, Winnipeg libraries remain underfunded, understaffed, and over-policed, free transit lines are axed, and two centrally located public washrooms cannot operate 24 hours a day due to lack of funds. Still, the city has found money for the WPFG. In addition to $2 million from the federal government and $4.9 million from the Manitoba government dedicated to the games, the City of Winnipeg has committed nearly another $1 million in the form of venues, free transit passes, and other sponsorships. The games are expected to cost a total of $17 million.
The City of Winnipeg’s enthusiastic investment in the 2023 WPFG is disappointing, but not surprising. It is another way the city places its fate at the feet of the police – not, in this case, to address crime, but to encourage tourism. While “crime” is often understood as the result of poor choices or of people supposedly having a “criminal mindset,” the reality is people are driven to theft or violence due to the complex impacts of poverty, lack of social support, systemic racism, and colonization. Furthermore, activities considered criminal are rarely prosecuted when committed by the wealthy. By classifying a broad array of social ills under the term “crime,” the police become a catch-all solution for the city’s concerns. Because the police respond only through punishment, this strategy fails to contend with the composite ills of the city in any meaningful, sustainable way. Just like the city’s reliance on the WPS to solve “crime,” its investment in the games is similarly doomed to fail as a tourism revenue-generating exercise. The WPFG are estimated to generate only $11 million in revenue for private companies, a small fraction of which will be recovered by governments. Likely, none of this revenue will go towards addressing the city’s real acute needs.
The WPFG have given the police an excuse to engross more of Winnipeg’s budget to fund a spectacle of police propaganda in the name of sport and tourism. However, abolitionists can use this event as an opportunity to reflect on the ways police propaganda tries to normalize the violence cops inflict on our communities, as well as how we can fight back.
Abolition on the Prairies
The movement to defund the police in Winnipeg, as elsewhere, garnered substantial support following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, when calls to defund – as well as more radical calls for outright abolition – achieved widespread appeal. Many Winnipeg residents demonstrated their growing distaste for policing by signing Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg’s petition to defund the WPS, joining protests, and getting involved in abolitionist work through community groups and social media. Despite this, police budgets have continued to grow, and the city hosting the WPFG demonstrates a continued fetishization of police. Community organizations such as Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, Bar None, Millennium For All, and Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition show resistance by collaborating with one another, focusing on different issues while sharing a core opposition to the carceral system and its oversized share of public funds.
Organizers go out every week to put posters up around the city and distribute pamphlets that point out the racist, wasteful, harmful impacts of the games. A major strategy of the anti-WPFG coalition is culture jamming. Culture jamming refers to the repurposing and alteration of existing cultural artifacts to amplify an alternative message. In this coalition, activists culture jam by using official WPFG colour schemes, fonts, and design templates to create posters announcing the racism, violence, and expenses of the games. By making use of official design and responding quickly to “copaganda” promoting the games, the anti-WPFG coalition enmeshes itself in the ecosystem of the official rhetoric – so observers see opposition anywhere the games’ imagery is present. Right now, the primary role of the anti-WPFG coalition is to spread information to the public, which is largely unaware of the government money being funneled into the games. By raising awareness, the coalition aims to bring more people out to join the call to cancel the games through protests and actions.
Ultimately, the call to cancel the WPFG is only one step in the broader work of abolition in Winnipeg. Even if the games are cancelled, the police would still rarely be held accountable for the violence they inflict, they would still terrorize and brutalize racialized people, and they would still leech public funds. Nevertheless, the cancellation of the WPFG is an important immediate goal that can drive the broader struggle for abolition forward. The WPFG are a wedge activists use in conversation and in public messaging to get people to re-examine the role of the police more broadly. Just as a prison or police precinct is built brick by brick, so too must it be taken down brick by brick.
Organized Labour and Abolition
While the World Police and Fire Games come laden with mythological potency, they are not impervious to pressure. In 2017, the games were set to be hosted in Montréal, Québec, but were cancelled in response to boycotts by the city’s police and firefighter unions prompted by disputes with the province. The cancellation of the games in Montréal came about for two reasons. First, police and firefighter unions had substantial enough political sway to call for and effect a large-scale boycott. Second, in response to their call, a number of police unions across the globe agreed to participate in the boycott in solidarity with officers in Québec.
Because of their role as guard dogs for the ruling class, police are afforded immense financial and operational stability in a political and labour climate that is increasingly precarious for others. Police unions often function as the political arm of the police, protecting individual officers from legal consequences and maintaining the public image of the police to deflate calls for defunding. A number of recent studies have pointed out the incredible harm of police unions: their increased influence has produced more violent and more fatal policing.
Organized labour is not a component of the anti-WPFG coalition in Winnipeg, nor is it a driving force for abolition and defund campaigns across the globe. Community-centred organizing not primarily tied together by labour has been very important to meaningful abolitionist work; it is mostly through that form of activism that the Black Lives Matter movement was built. One major reason labour has not been a larger driving force in calls for police abolition is that the carceral state is rarely discussed as a workers’ issue. Additionally, historic and ongoing anti-Blackness, racism, and colonial perspectives in the labour movement hamper its participation in abolition. Commitment to abolition is an important step if unions are serious about implementing anti-racist and anti-colonial practices.
Organized labour is important to abolition because of the ability of workers to collectively withhold labour from capitalists, which damages profits and sends a message of resistance to the ruling class. A city’s public servants make huge contributions to community safety and prosperity despite having less power and garnering less respect than police. Abolitionists can help remind workers that they don’t need police to keep them safe. Workers in precarious positions, who are often hassled and confronted by police, should be encouraged to imagine what their labour conditions might look like without police. Workers of all sorts should be galvanized towards abolition by reminders of the role police have played time and time again in disrupting labour negotiations, demonstrated in the Winnipeg context by the police’s brutal response to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.
The 2017 cancellation of the WPFG in Montréal is not an ideal example of organized labour’s potential role in abolition. In that instance, pressure to cancel the games came from among the games’ participants themselves rather than from other workers. Calls for abolition must come from unions entrenched in labour struggles that support the working class as a whole – not from police unions, whose members function as attack dogs on behalf of bosses and the state, and so serve to repress other unions and workers. Police are an enemy of any revolutionary movement; as defenders of the status quo, they are necessarily antithetical to a progressive political imagination. Some labour unions have already taken action to oppose the police, such as local unions across the United States who defied national AFL-CIO leadership and distanced themselves from police unions in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
What role does the spectacle of the WPFG play in the story of the police more broadly? The games both require and perpetuate police mythology. Through the games, police are represented as a caste of honourable warriors, deserving of an enormous celebration of their physical prowess because of their role as our protectors, despite obvious failures to achieve even their stated goals. Winnipeg’s investments of public funds, services, and venues in support of the games reinforce such dangerous fantasies. Just as the Olympics of ancient Greece lived in the connective space between reality and myth, so too do the WPFG. Nevertheless, just as the Olympics of ancient Greece ended, some myths are better lost to history. The games are not perched atop Mount Olympus, they exist alongside us, and through concerted, collective action, they can be halted.
Caleb Fenez is a gardener and writer hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are particularly interested in ecology, abolition, and the intersections between the two.