Evan Neuhausen: The Politics of the Apolitical

person covering facce with hand and symbol for 1968 Mexico City Olympics

A recurring narrative in the media coverage of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is writers chastising the Black athletes for making an inherently “apolitical” event (the Olympics) political. Entertaining the fantasy, for a moment, that there is such a thing as the “apolitical”, it is not clear why the orgy of nationalism, environmental disaster, and forced displacement that characterizes the Olympics would be part of it.

This narrative of the “apolitical”– desperate and pathetic attempts by the ruling class to naturalize systemic inequality – connects Carlos and Smith’s protest with the 1968 Mexican Student Movement. The Student Movement was brutally repressed 10 days before the Olympics when the Mexican army opened fire on a meeting of several thousand students and workers at the Plaza de la Tres Culturas, murdering several hundred and detaining survivors in military prisons. This violence was justified in maintaining the apolitical nature of the Olympics. The students may have stolen the spotlight of the Olympics and made it political. You can’t have a popular, democratic, mass movement in your streets while the international spotlight is on you.

What is this investment in the “apolitical”? Where does it come from and how is it reproduced? What does it obscure and what does it illuminate? Why are certain spaces imagined as “political” while others are “apolitical” in a manner that must be protected with brutal violence? I can only help but think of the current imperialist discourse of waging war in the name of peace; committing political violence in the name of preserving the fantasy of the “apolitical.”

Maintaining the apolitical.
John Carlos and his wife leaving Mexico City after Carlos’s suspension for bringing politics into the “apolitical”.