THE MARATHON OF EQUALITY
Well…if I ever needed to create some social tension for blog material, I couldn’t have made anything better than this. I suppose this one could write itself.
To summarize an upcoming spike in the still smoldering tension surrounding the treatment of black citizens in the United States, the Black Lives Matter organization has publicly stated they will disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon this weekend. For those not in the running know, the Twin Cities Marathon is a high-profile event both locally and nationally, with a quality field of competitors and a course that attracts elites trying to qualify for the US Olympic Trials. This is, obviously, no small thing. Black Lives Matter is using the attention the marathon receives and the environment it creates to continue demanding a shift in the social order towards equal treatment of black citizens, which has brought continued criticism of their confrontational and disruptive tactics by authoritarians, some of the general public, and now some of the running community. In the following post, I hope to raise considerations that will better inform what may or may not come to be this weekend.
THE INTENTION OF DISRUPTION
It is important to thoroughly consider the tactic of disruption that Black Lives Matter has stated they will use during the marathon, essentially blocking the path of runners somewhere along the course, maybe the finish line. BLM could very easily join the spectating crowd and hold signs that state their grievances and demands, but they aren’t, and we should really think about why.
Disruption as a matter of tactic is powerful, hence so much growing concern and anger on the internet and in the running community. Disruption steps out of the bounds of agreeable relationships between people and/or institutions and, in a way, creates adversaries, or at least draws a line and asks you to step on one side or the other. It is powerful in that it doesn’t remain confined to peaceful abstractions, “having one’s say”, or any other tame manner of expression, but demands action, demands a response, and upends expected social norms of behavior and privilege. So, instead of saying, “we will be heard” by holding signs to the audience along the marathon route, they have stated, “we will be heard” by putting ourselves in the way of the runners and not allowing them to continue the event.
But in the age of global social media, does BLM even need to engage in disruption to have their message heard? I mean, haven’t we been hearing about BLM and their demands since the recent waves of shootings of black individuals? Why would they feel compelled to spread this “message” further through outright disruption of a large social event and not a campaign of Facebook posts and articles? Admittedly, I’m playing devil’s advocate here because, obviously, there are very specific and blatant reasons why peaceably allowing business as usual to continue isn’t always the best approach to having one’s message heard or demands given. BLM has understood this from the beginning of their formation and acts outside this paradigm of lawful compliance for good reason, namely because as often as we hear that “black lives matter”, little is being done to actually make that a reality by authorities and authoritarians.
Yet, even considering the potential value of social disruption, “the message” in abstract form, as simply a statement within the confines of legality and free speech, is an important component to the disruption tactic. It is turning up the volume on the discussion about the treatment of black citizens in the US and pushing it to the forefront of the social conversation. Without even lifting a finger, BLM has already accomplished this with their threat to shutdown the marathon alone, forcing people like me to write blogs, share Facebook articles, and watch insecure white people lose their minds on message boards. Where I initially thought a pre-warning was a bit foolish (allowing the opposition to prepare and plan), maybe this was more calculated than it appears. Because here we are, again talking about black people being treated differently than white people, all because a marathon is about to take place. Now imagine the message that will be turned up and spread further should they pull off this disruption during the marathon. It will be louder, reach further and rise above the cacophony of social noise we have to navigate these days. The disruption will play the same role as every other spectacle that competes for our attention, more than requests for fair treatment, more than sign holding, and more than any business as usual approach to activism, even if only for the sake of being heard.
But really, this is more than just being heard. This is an upheaval of the social order, of the privileges and recreations of society. Disruption is a momentary stoppage of business as usual and BLM knows this. It is meant to bring a small degree of frustration and discomfort to those authorities, authoritarians and institutions that seem untouchable by their opposition. It is, in a small way, meant to bring frustration to those who don’t often feel frustration in their lives, who are accustomed to getting their way and having society function in the manner that assures their safety and enjoyment. Disruption is a way to share the experience of oppression, to not just say “this is injustice”, but to make one FEEL it. Through disruption, BLM is saying, “You don’t like it when you leave the house and things don’t go as planned? You don’t like it when your fun is ruined? You don’t like it when you can’t expect the social order to protect your interests?….Yeah, how does it feel?”
And let’s be real, the discomfort and frustration of those affected by this potential marathon disruption is NOTHING compared to the everyday fear and danger BLM is trying to convey to society at large, to ask for changes, to demand justice. This little potential disruption is surely not even comparable to the grievances BLM are stating and for which they demand a fundamental, societal change. I find it hard to sympathize with the marathon spectators who are already up in arms about this threat of potential shutdown.
This disruption, however, although it affects the participants and spectators of the event itself, goes beyond these demographics. This disruption is aimed at the general social order established by politicians, authoritarians and the authorities, and those individuals themselves. It is aimed at the various institutions and organizations that benefit from a social order that demands for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. Those many are often the black individuals for whom BLM is demanding justice. It’s important to recognize that marathons are big business, they are used as the face of a city, and they are enabled by many businesses and individuals who find benefit from an engaged, pacified public. They use these events, whether consciously or subconsciously, as gifts to the public, to request continuous permission (or distraction) to exist through participation. So disruption of an event that is sanctioned by the city, that paints a face of peace and order for the city, is more than just an act of isolated defiance. It is a lasting threat that business as usual, that the privileges these politicians and institutions enjoy through social cooperation, are in jeopardy. The fear that all recreational, profit-making, socially distracting events will be met with resistance creates strong incentive for change. It creates leverage for those demanding justice, if they are able to cause enough of a disruption by exerting organized, social power, to persuade authorities to their demands in exchange for something of a renewed social peace.
In short, disruption isn’t about ruining someone’s fun for childish motives. It’s a tactically powerful force that demands response and strikes fear in the hearts of the powerful if it establishes momentum and continues to grow.
WHY THE MARATHON?
When the Boston marathon bombing took place, the running community responded with all sorts of statements about the determination of runners and many other chest thumping sentiments. They took it personally, which I believe was a shallow consideration of the weight of the moment. In truth, the bombing had zero to do with runners and everything to do with symbolism and numbers. If it wasn’t an attack on the nationalism of a “patriot’s day” event, it was capitalizing on a social spectacle that was being watched by the entire country and parts of the world. The marathon is a potential target for social disruption for the same reason football games are a target, political rallies, parades, and any other event that draws thousands of people together. Marathons and large events are attractive to terrorists for the same reasons they are attractive to businesses – the far-reaching impact of the message or action. This is why BLM also acted to disrupt the opening game of the Minnesota Viknings football season (unsuccessfully, unfortunately). Mind you, I don’t at all mean to associate the BLM organization with terrorists (or marketing agencies for that matter), but to quell some of the personal offense runners have taken at this appropriately targeted threat.
With that said, it’s important to recognize that any recreational function of a society founded upon white privilege is going to be a function or product of white privilege…no matter who participates. If a fundamentalist christian church organizes, hosts and promotes a basketball game, and even if every player in the game is an explicit atheist, the event is still a product and enabler of the fundamentalist christian agenda. The events sanctioned by the institutions responsible for the social order, no matter how much pleasure they give us, do not escape this dynamic, the marathon being no exception. BLM has never stated they are seeking to disrupt the marathon because the organizers or participants are white supremacists, but they did acknowledge the previously stated dynamic saying, “Our job as an organization is to keep the pressure on. Our job is to let the community know that every day we are planning on dismantling white supremacy.” Although not explicitly detailed, this recognizes the marathon event, as all popular, authority-enabled events, as a part of the social order founded on and functioning through white supremacy.
BLM is seeking to disrupt the marathon because there are many eyes watching, because it is a product of a social order based on white privilege that ends in the casual and disproportionate killing of black citizens, and because it is a recreational privilege established by this system of white privilege that can be used as tactical leverage against itself.
BLACK LIVES MATTER (MORE THAN RUNNING)
Tactical and theoretical nuances aside, the idea that “black lives matter” is more important than a running event shouldn’t even be a discussion. Ultimately, what BLM is continuing to say, is that we as a society are more willing to invest ourselves in the meaningless recreations of spectator sports than we are the causes of justice and equality. I won’t go into the various aspects of human behavior that work to create this dynamic, but for those in the community that don’t have the privilege to ignore the inequality, they are more than right to attempt to put a stop to business as usual, even if that means cutting the marathon short a mile. In the bigger picture, black lives matter…competitive running doesn’t, and if you are unwilling to admit to that or carry it out to its logical conclusion, then as they say, you are DEFINITELY PART OF THE PROBLEM.
And to further reiterate a previous point made, if as a runner you feel inconvenienced, frustrated, dominated, and treated unfairly due to this potential disruption of your running event, then BLM has effectively made it’s point. Because what they are trying to do, in part, is convey what it is to be dominated, to not have the social order in your favor, to experience just the most tiny bit of what it’s like to NOT be privileged. Just be glad you can go for a run and not worry about being stopped and shot.
DAY OF TACTICS
All this previous rambling is great and all…but…will BLM ACTUALLY be able to pull this off? Will they be able to organize enough people to swarm an area by evading the police and then hold their ground on the race course, while not allowing the runners to find another way through to the finish? As someone who has participated in stealthy, tactical protest maneuvers like this…it would be an incredible testament to the organizational effectiveness of BLM if they can do just that. To be honest, if I had to put a bet on this disruption taking place, I’d be against BLM…unfortunately. This is why.
They already made a public statement that this disruption was going to take place. Not only that, they even estimated WHERE it would take place along the course. Now, this could always be a bluff, in an attempt to throw off the authorities, but again, it would be incredible if they could swarm an area of the course without being noticed by the police first or corralled by the police before they made an attempt.
Then there are the runners. It doesn’t even matter at what point during the race they try to stop runners from getting to the finish, it’s going to take a considerable amount of demotivation to make that happen. The BLM organizers expressed their wishes that runners would stop and join their protest, with good intention, but that is NOT going to happen. As a radical anarchist who agrees with BLM and understands and supports their decision to disrupt all facets of the social order (even marathons), I’m also a runner who would NOT stop for the rally. Tactically helpful, hurtful or neutral, I’m admitting to that. There is not a doubt in my mind that if they gathered enough people to flood the course in a certain area, that runners would break through the spectators and simply run around them, even backtracking and going a block or two out of their way to do so. That’s simply the truth. I think back to the area marathon course that was inadvertently stopped by a train last year and the decision of runners to either jump through the cars or run through the woods to get around the other side of the engine in order to keep going. Although the concern was expressed that runners would physically confront the protesters, I think that’s highly unlikely and they would sooner be looking for a way around them, and unless BLM manages to get about 50,000 people to one area, the runners are going to find a way. End of story. Mind you, this doesn’t mean the disruption won’t have the desired effect BLM is seeking, but a completely stoppage of the marathon simply will not happen.
If BLM stated, “We’re going to disrupt the Super Bowl!”, even if I planned on going to a Super Bowl watching party, and even if they had the ability to do so, my response would be, “Hell yeah! I back this!”, primarily because I’m not emotionally tied to the outcome of the game and have no stake in seeing it to it’s conclusion (among many other motives). In effect, I have the PRIVILEGE of not giving a shit about the Super Bowl, so if anything happened to it, I wouldn’t care. I don’t have to care. I don’t need to care. Whatever happens to those that DO care doesn’t matter to me….see where I’m going with this?
But this isn’t the super bowl, this is a marathon. And even though I’m not running it, I know the work and investment and determination that each runner goes through in order to run the marathon, so I can’t help but feel connected to it and understand how the other runners might feel about this potential disruption. But with that said, so what? BLM is acting in a way that rightfully puts the privileged in a position they find themselves all the time, but with much more dire circumstances and outcomes. They are saying to the city and to the runners and to everyone connected with the marathon, “We have no stake in the marathon. We don’t care who wins. We don’t have to care. We don’t need to care. Whatever happens to those that do care doesn’t matter to me…oh wait, that sucks? Yeah…we know. How does it feel?” See, the BLM activists experience this all the time and no one cares, so they are putting it back in our face, and they should. And if runners are whining and crying about this, well these runners need to either get their priorities straight or expand their identities to not JUST be runners, but also activists. As it was so succinctly put recently, there are moments bigger than running. This is one of them. Our privilege to run, to experience organized social events, to walk in safety, to assume things will go our way, to know what each day will bring is predicated on a very tenuous social peace, one that is enabled by a system of white privilege and domination. We are only able to enjoy this moment as the functioning of this system is in our favor, but a stratified system never sustains itself.
Until we exist in a culture of relative equality, where a few no longer stand on the backs of the many, our privileges will always be in jeopardy and rightfully attacked. Runners – and anyone for that matter – that feel threatened by the disruptive actions of BLM or any oppressed peoples that push back against the social order need to get a healthy dose of perspective, step away from their privileges, and always act FOR relationships of equality, and AGAINST domination and authoritarianism…even if that means at the expense of recreational privileges.
So yeah, sorry if you miss out on a PR this weekend or fail to make the Trials or even finish the race, but there are moments and issues bigger than running, and the demands of BLM to expect equality and justice is one of them. Let’s do our part to help them get it, so we can ALL get back to an existence of recreation.