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TrailblazHers running group files discrimination suit over ’23 Boston Marathon incident

Avery Bleichfeld
TrailblazHers running group files discrimination suit over ’23 Boston Marathon incident
The TrailblazHers tent at this year’s Boston Marathon. PHOTO: Shane Stark

Members of a Black-led running group filed suit on the cusp of this year’s Boston Marathon alleging racial discrimination by race organizers and Newton police for the way they were corralled and surrounded while trying to cheer on their friends along the course at Heartbreak Hill during last year’s race.

TrailblazHers, an all-female group predominantly for runners of color, sued the Boston Athletic Association as well as the Newton Police Department and Newton Police Chief John F. Carmichael Jr. in federal district court April 12.

The suit said the group wanted to avoid a repeat of events last year when Newton police surrounded spectators from the group — as well as Pioneers Run Crew, another diverse running club that did not join the suit — to keep them from stepping out onto the course while cheering for runners where they had set up at mile 21 of the course.

Newton police and race officials did not act to keep white spectators off the course, they said.

Leaders of Trailblazers said the actions of the police and the athletic association failed to consider the well-being of the diverse runners in the club.

“Our main priority is ensuring the mental, physical and emotional well-being of our runners and all participants,” said Abeo Powder, one of the founders of TrailblazHers, in a statement. “Our celebrations don’t jeopardize safety. Our celebrations are safety.”

The scene where TraiblazHers gathered this year was quieter, and proceeded without incident or increased police presence, according to reporting from the Boston Globe. The group did not respond to Banner inquiries about their treatment at their spot along this year’s course.

The suit, which was officially filed by the pro-bono attorney group Lawyers for Civil Rights, comes after members of the running club said they tried to work with race organizers to address concerns. They said there has been little change.

Following the events at the 2023 race, members of TrailblazHers participated in 10 meetings with the Boston Athletic Association. According to the complaint filed in court, those meetings and others with Newton officials, required more than an estimated 40 hours of preparations.

In the wake of the incident, the Boston Athletic Association said in a statement, “We need to do better to create an environment that is welcoming and supportive of the BIPOC communities at the marathon.”

But the complaint alleges that in the end, neither the race’s organizer nor Newton Police took any meaningful steps to prevent future instances of racial profiling.

“Their actions have not lived up to their words,” said Liz Rock, one of the club’s founders, in a statement. “They claim to want to elevate diverse leaders in the sport, but they have consistently fallen short of this goal.”

According to reporting by the Boston Globe, the Boston Athletic Association apologized to a group of police chiefs in January, after the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, a consortium of more than 40 police departments, said it would not help staff the marathon this year without an apology and an agreement to cover the costs of the officers the council provides — both requests the association agreed to.

In that article, the Globe reported that Jack Fleming, president and CEO of the Boston Athletic Association, said that officers followed police protocol and that the association failed to properly recognize the role police officers play in the marathon.

Leaders of TrailblazHers expressed frustration at the apology to police.

“They should be apologizing to us — the spectators of color who were racially profiled and harassed,” said Frances Ramirez, one of the group’s founders, in a statement. “The BAA clearly approved the discrimination we experienced last year.”

At the time, Newton Police said they were responding to requests from the Boston Athletic Association to keep spectators from obstructing runners.

In a statement published by the Globe, Fleming said the apology to the police officers earlier this year came stemmed from poor communication last year about policy around keeping the course clear.

“By not clearly and consistently communicating that policy or creating clear delineation around where spectators can view the race, we did a disservice to all spectators and the police that we rely on to help maintain a clear course,” he said in that statement.

In the suit, attorneys pointed to other instances in the 2023 race — some of them documented by news outlets or on TikTok — where white spectators stepped out on the course to celebrate runners without police response.

“If the BAA is going to say that they want to make sure that no one is obstructing the course, that has to be implemented equally across the board, not just where this specific group of people of color are gathered and celebrating,” said Mirian Albert, senior staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, in an interview.

Leading up to the 2024 race, the Boston Athletic Association announced that it would be adding four miles of additional barricades along the race course, including in Newton, as well as Natick, Wellesley and Framingham.

In a report from GBH, Fleming said the locations of barricades are reconsidered annually.

Attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights said the lawsuit is meant to show that change is needed.

“Our focus was to ensure that the mistakes of the past were not repeated,” Albert said. “We wanted to call on the BAA and local law enforcement to take actually concrete steps to address the racial bias and discrimination that our clients experienced last year to work on a more inclusive, welcoming marathon.”

The suit comes to a sport that is often noted for struggling with diversity.

In the filed complaint, attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights pointed to a disparity where the most elite runners are often Black, but diversity among most who participate in the sport is lagging.

According to a 2023 report from the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, runners of color make up 34% of runners older than 11.

High costs in running can limit participation. That report found the average runner spends $1,795 per year on expenses related to gear and races.

Another 2023 report from the same coalition found that gaps also exist in diversity trends in the running industry. Of the 63 organizations that participated in the survey, it found people of color made up about 25% of running industry employees, about 7% of industry senior management, and about 5% of industry owners.

Black members of the running industry in particular made up about 11% of employees and about 2% of owners.

Iván Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said actions by groups like the Newton police in 2023 are one reason that runners of color tend to be underrepresented in the sport.

“Overpolicing and hate crimes help explain why running remains a heavily white sport. Ahmaud Arbery, an avid Black jogger, was killed while running through a residential neighborhood in Georgia,” Espinoza Madrigal said in a statement. “What happened at Mile 21 in Newton is scary, triggering and traumatic for people who are repeatedly victimized just for running while Black.”

BAA, Boston Athletic Association, Boston Marathon, Newton Police Department, TrailblazHers