Fatal Shooting of Ahmaud Arbery Stirs More ‘Running While Black’ Anxiety
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The killing in February of an African-American man in Georgia and the graphic video of it that emerged this week have brought to the fore a unique anxiety that has long troubled countless runners — running while black.
For many black runners, the killing and its aftermath have shed light on simmering fears of being attacked or racially profiled while running, an anxiety largely undiscussed in the wider running community, but one that is now causing runners of color to think even harder about the decisions they have to make when they go out for a jog.
The killing brought to life what Tianna Bartoletta said she faces during a split second of pause — “Is it worth it?” — when she steps outside to go running. The three-time Olympic gold medalist, a black woman, said the activity that has brought her immense joy and professional success is paired with fear.
“I’ve run through streets in Morocco, Italy, Barcelona, Netherlands, China and Japan,” she said over the phone on Friday, “and it’s only in my home country that I wonder if I’ll make it back home.”
Arbery was killed not far from where he lived in Satilla Shores, Ga., a quiet middle-class enclave 80 miles south of Savannah. His family said he was out exercising when two men — who later said they believed he resembled someone wanted for a series of burglaries — followed him in their truck while armed with a shotgun and a handgun, then confronted Arbery and shot him to death.
The killing, which at the time received little national attention, gathered public awareness after cellphone footage showing the confrontation was released this week.
On Thursday, Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault, more than two months after the killing. The case has caused runners of color to be even more vigilant than usual, spending extra time deciding where they run, what they wear, even what they sound like while they are running to try to avoid any confrontations.
As runners laced up their shoes on Friday to run — an act they described as one of protest, defiance and mourning — there was another layer of anxiety because of the face mask recommendations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“What if I catch somebody off guard?” said Keshia Roberson, 33, who founded a running group in Washington D.C., where residents have been asked to wear masks when in public. “What are they going to think? It’s not uncommon for black and brown bodies to be looked at as dangerous, and now you see a figure coming at you quickly and they are wearing a face mask.”
Isaiah Douglas, 58, a longtime runner and operator of heavy machinery who lives in Savannah, said that since the killing he has run largely in a local park rather than on streets to avoid confusing anyone about what he is doing.
He said that in his 35 years as a long-distance runner he had been harassed multiple times, including once during a dawn run when a jeep filled with four white men pulled in front of him and called him by a racist term. As the jeep lingered in front of him, he turned a corner and hoped it did not follow.
“When I am by myself, I tend not to run in certain neighborhoods, where there is a certain feeling I get,” Douglas said.
Da’Rel Patterson, 36, who lives in Atlanta, said he feels safe on the running trails and paths of his city, but if he runs through more residential and predominantly white neighborhoods, he makes sure to wear brightly colored clothing and sneakers so people can easily identify him as a runner.
Since he tends to breathe quietly and has a soft step, he intentionally makes additional noise if he sees someone approaching, yelling “hello” or “excuse me” long before it would be necessary, or laughing loudly if he is running with someone else to signal that he is a friendly presence.
“It’s to disarm them,” he said. “Those moves are instinctual, it’s now a natural part of what I might do.”
Patterson, who does statistical analysis for the Federal Reserve, spoke just before he and his wife headed out on a 2.23-mile walk with their sons, ages 8 and 9. He planned to use the walk to explain to them what had happened to Arbery and how some people might judge them not for who they are but by what they look like.
Bartoletta expressed a similar subconscious protocol, one that’s long been routine. She flashes a smile to passers-by, asks how they are doing and says something about the weather.
“I go out of my way to make sure they know I come in peace,” she said. “I don’t know who taught me that, but I know it’s required, and that’s really sad.”
Runners stated the obvious. No, their fear is not new or unfounded. But this latest killing — and the familiarity of the movement that brought Arbery joy in the moments before his death — cracked the sense of security some had developed while running.
Jerome Owens Jr., a 36-year-old firefighter in Macon, Ga., was meeting friends in the city’s Tattnall Square Park on Friday to complete the 2.23 miles. Owens, who is 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, runs between three and six miles, three or four times a week. Now more than ever he is sticking with his usual tendencies — if he is running early in the morning, he tries to stay in Macon’s well-lit downtown or in neighborhoods where people have seen him before.
He said most runners love to explore new areas, but he worries that if he does, people will think he is “scoping out the neighborhood.” And yet, he said, there is only so much he can do to protect himself. “If these people feel like they want to hurt you, they will hurt you,” Owens said.
Tes Sobomehin Marshall, 42, a leader in Atlanta’s running community, said she has never worried about her safety as an African-American running in her city, where black people make up more than 50 percent of the population. But the thought did cross her mind while running a relay race from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., the same route as the 1965 civil rights march. She remembered worrying that a driver could easily swerve on the highway, hit her and claim it was unintentional.
“I don’t feel that way running down Peachtree Street,” she said, referring to Atlanta’s main thoroughfare, as she prepared for her 2.23-mile run on Friday.
Gavin Smith, 33, of Boston could relate. The educator said that he has always been hyper aware of his surroundings and how people perceive him while running. Despite that, he said he has a sense of ease running in metropolitan areas like Boston and New York City. Smith loses that sense of security while traveling, especially in areas with a history of public racism.
“Running is calming for me, it’s part of my daily routine,” he said. “So if I’m in a place where I can’t do that because I fear for my life because of the color of my skin, then how much freedom do I really have?”
Many runners of color expressed hope that white members of the running world would raise their voices and gain a deeper understanding of their anxieties, ones that white runners do not face when lacing up their shoes.
“Now I need you to pull up,” Smith said, speaking to the greater running community. “I need you to act with me, I need you to act for me, and I need you to act for Ahmaud and his family.”