Olympic Meddle

It may be the most creative thing that’s ever happened in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. Eight members of the Open Door Community (with a little help from their friends) carried toilets into the park and stationed themselves upon them. Others of us surrounded them with placards declaring “Pee for Free With Dignity” and “Outhouses for People Without Houses.

We got a few stares from the downtown lunch crowd. Some passersby laughed. But we were there to draw attention to something that is far from a laughing matter. In 1994, the city government promised to install 25 public toilets in downtown Atlanta. In the two years since, none has appeared. And every day, more and more homeless people are being arrested and spending time in jail for public urination. As Rev. Murphy Davis of the Open Door put it, the policy is “stupid and mean-spirited.” In six months, she says, the city could have paid for public facilities instead of “flushing public funds down the toilet by locking people up.”

Such arrests aren’t new, but they are being stepped up in a concerted effort to create a “vagrant-free zone” in Atlanta during the upcoming Olympics. New ordinances seem to be as numerous these days as official Olympic sponsors and Coca-Cola souvenirs. Among the most controversial laws is one making it illegal to walk across a parking lot in which you do not have a car parked.

The effort is aided by pith-helmet-wearing, walkie-talkie-toting “goodwill ambassadors,” hired by downtown businesses to alert police to “trouble”—and by a new eight-story, $67 million jail. Homeless people who would prefer not to spend the ’96 Games behind bars are being offered a free, one-way ticket out of town. Project Homeward Bound will send any homeless person anywhere on a bus, provided they promise never to return to Atlanta.

Probably the most uncreative thing that ever happened in Woodruff Park was a recent $5 million renovation. The design firm was frank in its acknowledgment that it was “charged with the mission of creating a park that would be inhospitable to homeless people.” Benches were rearranged and equipped with armrests to make sleeping on them impossible. A 30-foot decorative fountain and 17- foot cascading waterfall now dominate a park without a drinking fountain. But there may be other water: The old park had what homeless folks call “pneumonia grass”—turf hiding buried sprinklers that come on without warning, drenching anyone sitting or sleeping there.

I USED TO LOVE the Olympics (though I confess to enjoying the winter version more). On late nights, on my snowy Maine college campus (when no one was looking), I used to put on my cross- country skis, go to the top of the hill in front of the English building, and pretend to be flying out of the Olympic starting gate. I always broke the world record, of course.

I admire the pursuit of athletic excellence and the spirit of international cooperation amid competition. Mary Cowal, a close friend in North Carolina, will be carrying the Olympic torch as one of thousands of “community heroes” across the nation. As a dedicated home care nurse, she more than deserves the honor, and I hope to be present to cheer her on.

I want to love the Olympics. But it’s hard to live in Atlanta and catch the spirit. It’s not just the road construction in a city already in chronic gridlock. Murphy Davis summed it up: “The Olympics has become a multinational corporation masquerading as a sporting event.”

I want to be able to cheer young gymnasts and divers and runners who tumble and flip and sprint and otherwise exhibit amazing strength and grace. But I don’t think I can watch without thinking of the thousands of low-income residents whose homes were razed to make way for Olympic dormitories; and the 72 acres (including shelters, day care centers, and small businesses) that have been plowed under for construction of the Olympic Centennial Park.

Not to mention the pandemic greed that has swept the city. Signs have appeared inviting Atlantans to “Rent your home for up to $1,500 a day!”—a reasonable price, I suppose, for Olympic visitors who would otherwise be staying in Florida and commuting to the Games. Rooms and parking spaces, souvenir stamps and T-shirts, adult-entertainment venues (known here as “lingerie modeling salons”)—everything has become a commodity in demand at the highest price.

In early May, a front-page article in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution declared that, according to FBI statistics, Atlanta is the most violent city in the United States. A story the next day made a correction: Atlanta is actually number two in violent crime, behind Newark, New Jersey. What a relief that was!

Meanwhile, some of the 25,000 extra law enforcement personnel (including federal officers and National Guard units) who will be on hand for the Olympics have begun military maneuvers in the city. They’re hoping to head off terrorism during the Games.

I suppose this preparation seems necessary. But the real security issue seems to me to be an internal one. When are we going to end the greed and cruelty that create poverty and fuel crime? Why not buy ourselves a little security by spending just a fraction of the billions of dollars that the Olympics will cost on low-income housing, education, and job training? Unfortunately, the real terror is within us.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, is in the master’s of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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