I am a runner. I am not fast. I don’t compete save for a few odd races here and there, and I’m not really competing in those except against myself. I’m not much for group runs or Facebook running groups. But I am a runner no less. There aren’t many things I would say are defining parts of me. One could easily pare me down thus for an epitaph: a loving partner and parent, a rabid hockey fan, a committed communist—and a runner. I see running as my way to keep sane in an insane world. Last summer, when my cousin’s husband died at the age of 37, with three young children, I was heartbroken. He was killed while running in the midday heat of a July Sunday. Since then, no day has passed without me thinking of my cousin or of the fate that met her partner, Mike.
Fuck Cars (and Opioids Too)
I rarely have nightmares, but if I did, they would probably feature the horrible sound of steel crashing into skin, muscle, sinew and bone, and perhaps the sight of a body flying up into the air and through a windshield. On that hot day last summer, as Mike ran on the shoulder of a road in his neighborhood, the driver of a car struck him and he was killed on impact. The driver drove away from the scene with a human-sized hole in his windshield. He was caught within an hour.
Although I drive a car and, in fact, I earned my bread for many years as a delivery driver for various entities, I understand well the deleterious effects that cars and car culture have on society and on our planet. Before Mike was killed, before two different regular users of the library where I work were killed by cars—one being hit by two different drivers who drove off and left him for dead—and before a comrade was hit and killed while delivering food on his bicycle, I understood and vaguely subscribed to the sentiment articulated by bicycle-riding comrades and friends: fuck cars and car culture. When I got the news about Mike, including how he was killed, that sentiment rose again like bile in one’s throat to the surface of my being: really, fuck cars! He was running! As we tried to process our flood of emotions, my partner and I talked about how we would rather be running in the deep woods and be bitten by a venomous snake and die, slowly, alone on the path, than to meet the running fate that Mike did. At least it would be natural and the run prior to being bitten would have been pleasant.
Then we found out that the driver who hit Mike was high on opioids. Long ago, in an Advanced Driver Training course I had to take for a job, the instructor, a Vietnam veteran, told us that not enough people realized that when driving a car, we are in command of a killing machine. He likened fiddling with the radio or otherwise not paying full attention to the road to “standing up in a war zone!” (always exclaimed). The person who killed Mike stood up in a war zone and killed someone else. This news only served to make me at once more numb and more enraged. Although the presence of drugs in the driver’s system made Mike‘s death seem even more random and life seem even more absurd and trivial, I responded by being motivated to run even more. Fuck cars, indeed! And fuck opioids and addiction. I’m getting older and who knows what will take me and when, but I wouldn’t let fear stop me from running.
Since last July, every time I mention running around my parents, my dad says, “Be careful.” Although I love him dearly and he means well when he says it, my father’s admonishment never fails to get me a little angry: Mike was being careful! Still, I thought of Mike every time I went out to run. That changed sometime in April, amid the pandemic and subsequent shutdown, when video surfaced of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of three white men in Brunswick, Georgia in late February. Ahmaud had been running, something he did—like I do—nearly every day. Now, I held both Mike and Ahmaud in my thoughts as I pounded pavement to keep sane as the world plunged deeper into a catastrophic health crisis.
Fuck White Supremacy
More than a decade ago, an activist who was obsessed with analyzing gentrification but not truly fighting it said to me that one of the first harbingers of gentrification was the presence of white people running. I immediately recoiled. Was this somehow an indictment of me, a so-called white person who ran? But beyond the immediate personal reaction, which I realized was petty, I rejected his clever ‘analysis’ because of its implication that Black and Brown people don’t run. I knew this to not be true, and further, it invisibilized BIPOC who do run, whether to get or stay in shape, to be part of a running community, or, like myself, to stave off insanity in an insane world. Yes, the burgeoning road racing industry swells with the ranks of white people who think nothing of dropping $50-100 to run in a 5K just to get a medal or a cool shirt , but those who run in races do not represent all who run.
Ahmaud Arbery’s former high school football coach was quoted as saying that Ahmaud loved to run, that he ran every day. But the white supremacist vigilantes who killed him didn’t care. They saw a Black man running in “their neighborhood,” and for them that was too much. They confronted Ahmaud, chased him in their vehicles as he ran for his life (again, fuck cars), then shot the 25-year-old man to death.
Where Mike‘s death was collateral damage in the latest American epidemic—opioids, Ahmaud Arbery’s death was the latest in a tale older than America. Racist violence perpetrated by white people is embedded into U.S. history and culture. Despite my walking nightmares, I could shake off my father’s caution to be careful when running after Mike‘s death, but when I learned of Ahmaud’s death, I couldn’t help but wonder if his parents had warned him to be careful, too, because he was simply running while Black.
For many—if not all—women, trans folks, and Black people of all genders, a simple run—a time to feel strong and healthy and free in one’s body—is not so simple. Whether seen as sexual prey, as something to fear, or as criminal or not belonging, so many runners are decidedly less than safe than white guys like Mike or me when they run through city parks, country roads, or their own neighborhoods. Whether an elite runner such as Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials but was not even mentioned by NBC Sports until the 23rd mile of the race; a celebrity such as Jay Pharoah, who recently was detained by police in Los Angeles while running (and hasn’t run since); or an ordinary young man like Ahmaud Arbery, fitness or distance running is not a safe pastime. And I would hold that the idea‑espoused by an anti-gentrification theorist, a white supremacist, or anyone in between‑that Black people don’t run, that running is a ‘white people thing’, does nothing to help describe the world and is itself almost a form of racial violence. It’s so important at this time to uplift groups such as Black Men Run or Black Girls Run, rather than marginalizing or rendering Black runners invisible.
Fuck the Police (and Fuck Safety While We’re At It)
The year I turned 40, I was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest march after we were thwarted in attempting to take a highway. I tried to outrun some cops, and was told later by a comrade that, while chasing me, one of the cops fell and face-planted in the street (!). Alas, I was ultimately caught. At 2014’s end, in taking stock of that year’s events, I vowed to myself to keep running and to get faster, and to not get caught if that situation arose again (and to always wear good sneakers to a march!). So far, I have kept up my resolution from those years ago, even if the getting faster part gets more difficult every year. As everyone knows, not long after news of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder surfaced, George Floyd was murdered by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. And people all over the U.S., previously held back by the exigencies of a COVID-19 reality, poured into the streets to demand justice, for George Floyd, but also for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others. A dam had opened. For many, they have never lived under any illusion of “safety.” For some, the sense of safety or a future has been eroding for some time and has worsened during the pandemic. For others, perhaps the curtain was at last removed and they saw clearly the lack of justice and safety that Black folks face every day while driving, shopping, running or just existing. Whatever has motivated people to act in the bold ways they have, it bears repeating that folks have been doing this amidst a pandemic. The rallying cry “no justice, no peace,” when carried to its fullest, is quite radical; similarly, the exploration of forging a world without police implies that we are foregoing the illusion of bullshit safety and security in favor of something real. We must carry these explorations to their fullest flowering, and the only way to do that is to stay bold and audacious.
Amid the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns in some major cities, we have had the chance to imagine what a world with far fewer cars could look like. This is a necessary start. My hope is that in a new society, we won’t have any of the tragic vehicular murders that killed my cousin’s partner, Mike. And, of course, a bare minimum goal of the movement is to eliminate racist murders such as those of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so, so many others. To that end, let’s continue to ditch the path of safety in favor of the path toward freedom. For those who, like me, are runners, I will meet you on the road, running along and carrying the new world—along with Mike and Ahmaud—in my heart.