Revolution#136, July 20, 2008

The Year of the 1968 Olympics: A World of Struggle and Turmoil

The year of the 17th Olympic Games, 1968, was a year when the dream of achieving an emancipatory society through revolutionary change ricocheted around the world. It was a year when millions across the planet leapt into mass rebellion against the old order.

National liberation struggles raged in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in socialist China was in full swing, and provided a living testament that the oppressed people could wrest power from the hands of the capitalists and fight to continue on the revolutionary road toward communism.

In Viet Nam, after months of intensive carpet bombing by the U.S., fighters of the Vietnamese National Liberation Army emerged from tunnels and showed a glimpse of the future defeat of the most powerful military machine in the world by a peasant army. And all around the world, including right inside the belly of the U.S. beast, there was an upsurge of mass protest against the war.

In the U.S., in response to the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. an unprecedented uprising of Black people shook the system to its foundations and gave great heart to the people of the world. Street battles raged in 160 cities in 28 states at the same time. For the first time since the Civil War, troops were sent to guard the seats of power; machine guns were set up on the Capitol balcony and the White House lawn as the rebellion in Washington, D.C., raged 10 blocks from the White House.

May Day in Paris saw a huge uprising of youth. Students took over universities and secondary schools all over France. Demonstrators set up barricades in the streets and fought the police. And people all over the world followed the events, which went on for days. The protests spread to workers who launched a series of strikes—more than 10 million workers seized hundreds of factories, mines, shipyards, and government offices, in a month-long general strike. The capitol city of Paris was paralyzed and the whole country was in turmoil. Just six months earlier, the president of France, General Charles de Gaulle, had declared that it was “impossible to see how France today could be paralyzed by crisis….”

Mexico had been chosen by the International Olympic Committee, headed up by the U.S., to be the first Third World country ever to host the Olympic Games. But at the end of July, just two months before the Olympics were set to start, a student rebellion erupted with a speed that shocked the government and ignited the broader masses (for more detail see “Upsurge and Massacre in Mexico 1968”, Revolutionary Worker  #975-977). A new sports arena had been built for the Olympic Games in the middle of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) but suddenly the students were in revolt and had taken over the university, shouting “We don’t want Olympic Games, we want revolution!” 13,000 army troops were sent to occupy the campus. Student brigades invigorated the masses across the city with creative street theatre, engineering students designed balloons that burst at a certain height and rained leaflets on everyone below.  “Each day brought news of clashes between granaderos (anti-riot police) and students in different parts of the city; or of lightning meetings in the doorways of factories, of street gatherings, of manifestos published in El Día…In those days, everyone opened newspapers with real eagerness; the student movement managed to infect even the most indifferent…” (Elena Poniatowska, “The Student Movement of 1968”) Unity was forged with peasant communities, railroad workers and the strategic oil industry workers, and even government bureaucrats mobilized to oppose the students rebelled against the PRI instead. The revolt threatened to spread deeper among the workers and oppressed masses at a strategic moment for U.S. imperialism which needed these Games to showcase the “economic miracle” of U.S. imperialist investment in Mexico, in contrast to the national liberation struggles shaking their rule in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Mexico’s PRI regime was a U.S.-controlled “model of stability.” Mexico City housed the largest CIA headquarters in the hemisphere and the U.S. CIA was actively involved in organizing the Olympics and worked closely with the Mexican government to provide crucial intelligence on the movement. Luis Echeverria who was head of the Interior Ministry and would be the next president of Mexico was a CIA informant and the direct organizer of the massacre. Two days before the fateful night of October 2, top officials of the CIA flew into Mexico City from the U.S. to meet with the CIA station chief and it was very likely then, just 10 days before the Olympics were scheduled to open on October 12, that the final bloodthirsty decision was made to unleash death and terror against the protest movement and the 70,000 inhabitants of the huge apartment complex of Tlatelolco.

On the evening of October 2, the students held a rally of 10,000 people in the Plaza de Tres Culturas in the center of the enormous apartment complex. The plaza was surrounded by 5,000 army troops, police and tanks. At 6:10 p.m. the rally was about to disperse when suddenly a lightning-like signal flare lit up the sky and police helicopters opened fire on the people below. Elite undercover Olympic security police called the “Olympia Battalion” had infiltrated the students and the buildings surrounding the plaza. Each member of the battalion wore one white glove as identification to other security forces. Machine guns shot into the crowd for 20 minutes or longer from both sides of the plaza. There was no escape. Many banged on the church doors but were denied entrance. Tanks opened fire on the apartment complex. News reports listed 325 killed in the massacre with 1500 taken prisoner. Other reports state that at least a thousand were killed and hurled into the sea, and students imprisoned in Military Camp #1 reported that the smell of bodies being incinerated wafted into their cells.

Ten days later while students in Military Camp #1 were beaten and tortured, the Olympic ceremonies opened in a flutter of white doves freed from their cages as a nauseating symbol of peace. Family members of the disappeared doggedly searched the prisons and morgues for missing loved ones. Tanks rumbled past billboards in a dozen languages proclaimed “Everything is possible with peace.”

All this, a world of struggle and turmoil—and millions of people throughout the globe with new dreams of a better world—set the stage for the dramatic stand that Tommie Smith and John Carlos took at the victory stand in the 1968 Olympics. (See “Striking a Blow for Freedom—The Courageous Story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos,” Revolution #136, July 20, 2008)


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