Black Lives Matter and the Marathon: A Pair of Dilemmas (Updated)

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UPDATE: BLM and the St Paul authorities have come to a compromise.

… the Mayor announced that Turner and the St. Paul Black Lives Matter chapter have agreed to refrain from interfering with runners trying to complete the course, as had previously been threatened. Instead, BLM, will demonstrate near the finish line, raising their voices about the issues that have boiled on the front burner since the death of Ferguson, Missouri resident Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer.

“The Mayor took the time to listen, he heard our concerns,” Turner shared. “We will not disrupt the course.”

Turner said BLM St. Paul still intends to protest at the marathon, but in a designated space without blocking any runners.

Hat tip: Renee.

The current plans (and I use the plural of “plans” intentionally) for a Black Lives Matter action at the upcoming Twin Cities marathon, and the discussion surrounding those plans, exemplify areas in which Black Lives Matter could do a better job at organizing, and how people responding to Black Lives Matter’s activity could be more thoughtful. Much of this is apparent in a recent WCCO report by Esme Murphy which I will use as a framework for my provisional comments. First, I’d like to state that I stand with Black Lives Matter. The problem here is that there are three of them involved in this maneno (National, Minneapolis, and Saint Paul) and the are at odds. So, this is one of those situations where it may be impossible to lose. Or win.

So, this was reported:

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As Black Lives Matter Minneapolis said repeatedly on Twitter that they are not responsible and have no role in the Sunday’s protest of the Twin Cities Marathon, Black Lives Matter St. Paul offered a very different version of what protesters plan to do.

One could argue that having very little apparent coordination between groups is a good thing. Please put that argument in the comments below so the rest of us know what that is.

Rashad Turner is an organizer with a Saint Paul group of Black Lives Matter. According to Murphy’s report, Turner said “…on Saturday: “My hope is the marathon runners realize they are not going to be able to finish this race.”

Many see this as a problem. When a person runs 26 miles in a race, they come very close to a limit of endurance and need to go through several steps in order to reduce the chance of a bad medical outcome. This involves modulating the amount of energy they spend over time, near the end of the race and for a while after. It also involves a support system for hydration during the race, proper cool down and hydration right after the race, quick access to medical aid if needed, etc. The timing and spatial organization of all these things is critical. The range of negative outcomes caused by disruption of any of these things includes minor injury, serious injury, and death. So, if “not going to be able to finish the race” means a runner has to top at mile 25, then the BLM disruption is a very serious thing. This, I assume, is why the Saint Paul police have indicated that they will not tolerate any such disruption, and it is why some (many?) runners are concerned.

But, apparently the stated plan is not the plan. Continuing with Murphy’s report…

Turner walked that back Tuesday.

“We are not going to physically stop any runners,” Turner said. “Runners will have an option to stop in and join the protest, but we have no plans for physically stopping the runners.”

Turner insists this is not a reversal, and that the protests will be noticeable.

“It’s going to be a disruption, it is not going to be business as usual,” he said.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that someone clued Turner in on how a marathon works, and this particular Black Lives Matter group changed their plans a bit. Having said that, I’m not sure how the last mile or so of a marathon is “not going to be business as usual” while the runners also have full access to what they need. Also, I don’t see how most of the runners will stop at mile 25. What happens to those that don’t? A lot of booing as they run by? This is unclear. In any event, Black Lives Matter protestors may be a bit disappointed as most of the runners run right by them, heading for the finish line (the reason for running the first 25 miles) and much needed rehydration fluids, etc.

Anyway, this does look like a reversal, saying it isn’t doesn’t look very honest, and the plan kinda sucks. A disruption without a disruption, but if there is a real disruption, putting people in danger.

But this is not all about Black Lives Matter (one group anyway) doing a poor job of organizing. The reactions from many are exactly the sort that uncover the basic problem that Black Lives Matter is trying to address. Many people are philosophically or intellectually in support of addressing a clear problem in the way people of color are treated by the police and other authorities in our emerging post-9/11 police state. Again, back to Murphy’s report. But that isn’t really enough.

Runners are continuing to react with anger on social media with comments like this: “I, too, worry about being trampled to death in a terrifying panic situation.”

Alicia Perkins is a Twin Cities runner who vented her frustration on her popular running blog and on Twitter.

“How dare you say your cause is more important than anyone else’s?” Perkins said. “You don’t know what people are running for. Some people are running for personal reasons, some people are running for charitable reasons.”

She has been training since May for Sunday’s marathon and is hoping to get a good enough time to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

“I guess it helped release anxiety,” Perkins said. “I respect everyone’s right to have a voice, but not when it infringes on other people’s rights.”

She is among the many runners and others saying they are not opposed to the cause, but are opposed to the forum and the proposed disruption of the race.

Comparing the relative importance of “causes” is a commonly used strategy by those who oppose the cause. We see this all the time. Someone or some group opposes a particular industrial or agricultural health risk, and someone else points out that more people die in car accidents than from that health risk. Etc. People are running for … reasons. Therefore those reasons are equivalent to the frequent abuse or slaughter of members of a class of people. No, Alicia, that is a false equivalence. This does not mean that you don’t support Black Lives Matter’s cause. But it does mean that you don’t get it.

Perkins and others are also saying they are worried about any interruption, especially at mile 25, when runners will be so exhausted.

Well, maybe. When I first heard about the BLM plans (which were entirely vague at the time) I supported the idea of doing something at the marathon because of the previous two actions in the Twin Cities. One was at the State Fair (disrupting traffic at a main entryway to the fair) and the other an action to stop the transit line leading to the Vikings home opener. I did think the former was a bit silly. Getting a large group to show up and disrupt traffic at an event that was essentially defined by having a huge crowd and horrible traffic seemed to be like casting a pebble into the surf. Also, since the State Fair is a multi day event that is reliably covered in every news show (morning, noon, early PM, evening news, nightly news, special coverage in between at all hours), I thought BLM would be able to capture part of every one of those news cycles by doing something every day. The traffic disruption itself was not a bad idea, but it was too little.

Here’s the thing. For both of those disruptions, plans and adjustments were made. BLM got their disruption in, but nothing really went wrong. For example, some complained that stopping the train line would be dangerous, but everything turned out to be fine.

With that background, I had assumed that BLM and others would end up with an effective action at the marathon that would not backfire. However, I now realize that things are a bit different. There was never a good plan, there were never, apparently, any good conversations between BLM and others as to how to do this, and of the three BLM groups (national, Minneapolis and Saint Paul), two oppose the action and only one wants to do it, and that group, apparently, does not have a good plan. Well, maybe they have an excellent, secret plan, and I’ll take all this back later when it is carried out. We’ll see. But so far what we see does not inspire confidence.

Turner says there will be signs and chanting. But St. Paul Police have promised if there is a disruption of the race, protesters will be attested.

Signs and chanting is a good thing, I suppose. But that is not what BLM usually claims to be sufficient, and generally I agree with them. It may be that a disruption of the marathon turned out to be a bad idea, BLM is backing off on those plans (though somewhat clumsily, not admitting a mistake), and this will turn out to be a mere “awareness raising” event. It may be that once we have hindsight it will be clear that targeting the marathon with disruption at mile 25 was a bad idea, plans were changed, and not much happened.

Black Lives Matter is on the horns of a dilemma with this one, as are commenters (such as myself) who question the idea. The dilemma for BLM is needing to go forward with truly disruptive actions (that is their raison d’être) but being stuck with a declared plan that would potentially backfire. The dilemma for those who might comment on this action is that opposing BLM actions is almost always a form of tone policing, which is a huge part of the problem, a huge part of the reason that our society has not addressed the regular killing of people of color, which has been going on at varying levels of intensity for a very very long time. On the other horn, of course, is simply expressing an opinion (that a particular action is not a good idea) when the opinion seems valid and important.

My initial reaction to the BLM plan was to shut up, point to it but not with comment, and see what happens, trusting that BLM would come up with something like their previous two actions, essentially shutting down the Tone Police and making the points they needed to make. But now I’m switching horns, provisionally, for this one event. If you prefer the interpretation that I’m not being supportive of BLM with this post, please note that I’m in line with two out of three BLM groups, questioning the wisdom of a planned action by a third. Indeed, anyone who supports a disruption at mile 25 of the marathon is opposing two BLM groups. Dilemma.

Having said all that, to be clear, I’m asking questions and putting together relevant information here. I’m not going to form a particular strong opinion about any of this until after the race. It all depends on what happens.

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One thought on “Black Lives Matter and the Marathon: A Pair of Dilemmas (Updated)

  1. As a marathon runner when I get to mile 25 two things are very likely.

    1) I’m in a lot of physical distress

    2) I’m very close to my goal time.

    There are very few circumstances that would cause me to stop, a protest isn’t one of them, and if someone gets in my way I’ll just dodge them and keep running. If they persist I might even shout. Note I’m a very passive person and I suspect a lot of runners would get aggressive very quickly.

    Therefore those reasons are equivalent to the frequent abuse or slaughter of members of a class of people. No, Alicia, that is a false equivalence. This does not mean that you don’t support Black Lives Matter’s cause. But it does mean that you don’t get it.

    I don’t think the “causes” statement is sincere, it’s just a cop-out because she doesn’t want to explain the actual motivation. I care about Black Lives Matter, I care about a lot of causes, but that doesn’t mean I’ll dedicate my entire life to them.

    If I’m running a marathon it’s because running that marathon is personally important to me, it’s probably something I planned and trained for over months. Given the choice between participating in a protest and completing a goal I’ve worked hard towards for a long time I’ll complete the goal every time.

    That being said they just had the protest near the marathon which is completely fine.

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