Black running crew files federal discrimination lawsuit against Boston Marathon and Newton Police

BOSTON — A Black-led running group has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Newton Police Department and the Boston Athletic Association claiming police targeted and singled-out Black spectators during last year’s Boston Marathon.

The lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of TrailblazHers Run Co., asks the court “to enjoin racial profiling and harassment against the running group and its members.” The lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Boston, also seeks redress for emotional distress and trauma caused by last year’s incident.

“Today, we send a clear message to the BAA and to all police departments along the Marathon route: the law does not tolerate racial profiling,” Mirian Albert, senior staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in a statement on Friday. “We are prepared to seek immediate court intervention if BAA or local police engage in the type of discriminatory conduct that spectators of color endured last year in Newton.”

The Boston Athletic Association issued the following statement regarding the lawsuit on Friday: “We are confident that the B.A.A. and our partners are prepared for a Boston Marathon that is welcoming to the 30,000 participants, spectators and eight cities and towns along the route. We are focused on creating a joyous experience for all. While the B.A.A. is aware of the complaint, we have not yet had the opportunity to review it.”

Last April, the Boston Athletic Association issued an apology on the matter, saying that they should have done more to create a more welcoming and supportive environment along the 26.2 mile race route. Black members of two running clubs, PIONEERS Run Crew and TrailblazHers Run Co., said they were singled out by police with “surveillance and aggressive treatment” while watching the 2023 Boston Marathon.

This week, the Boston Athletic Association issued another statement in response to media questions around a Jan. 17 letter that Boston Athletic Association President and CEO Jack Fleming sent to Westwood Police Chief Jeff Silva, who serves as president of the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council.

The Boston Athletic Association said in a statement that the apology was recognizing the role police play. In that statement, Fleming said, “Simply put, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) did not do a good job last year communicating the longstanding policy that we need a clear course – free of spectators or other disruptions – to assure our 30,000 participants have an unobstructed path for all 26.2 miles.”

“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,” the B.A.A. statement said. “We have appreciated the opportunity to review these issues with all parties and take responsibility for our role. We are making every effort to assure that the policies are clear in advance of this year’s race and that all can experience an enjoyable race day.”

“My message to the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council was focused on the important role they play and to acknowledge that omission in our message,” Fleming said.

Frances Ramirez, founder of TrailblazHers, said in a statement that she took issue with the apology the Boston Athletic Association recently issued to police about last year.

“That is completely backwards,” Ramirez said. “They should be apologizing to us – the spectators of color who were racially profiled and harassed. The BAA clearly approved the discrimination we experienced last year. BAA CEO Jack Fleming’s lack of acknowledgement of the Boston Running Collaborative, a collective of BIPOC running crews and leaders of Boston that the BAA created, during a recent news interview was insulting and degrading to the work we have done together.”

On race day, Mike Remy posted a YouTube video that showed a heavy police presence along the route at mile 21 along Commonwealth Avenue. In the video, Remy said Newton officers on patrol bikes blocked a group of primarily Black spectators from the Marathon course.

“TrailblazHers set up a cheering section at Mile 21 of the marathon course in Newton with more than 100 spectators, most of whom were people of color,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said in a statement, adding that the group had gathered with food, music, signs, and confetti to cheer on their fellow runners and “to build community and celebrate the joy of the Boston Marathon just like everyone else.”

“What ensued was alarming: multiple hours of police barricades, surveillance, harassment, and escalation, when the NPD – upon BAA request and approval – targeted the Black spectators and formed a human barricade separating them from the course,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said. “Police physically separated the Plaintiffs and their members from runners, obstructed their view, and prevented them from seeing passing runners.”

“Additional NPD officers on motorcycles stationed themselves behind the spectators, effectively penning in the people in the cheer zone of color. The Black running crew and its members were surrounded by police with officers refusing multiple attempts at de-escalation,” Lawyers for Civil Rights said.

In a statement, Newton Police Chief John Carmichael says he became aware of the lawsuit filed against him and the department less than 72 hours before the Marathon.

“Upon reviewing the complaint, I unequivocally contest the document’s substance as presented,” he said. “I stand by my decisions that day, and more importantly, I stand by our officers who acted appropriately, respectfully and as expected. This year we will again be focused on ensuring everyone stays safe on Marathon Monday and I look forward to a great event for all.”

Meanwhile, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, “White spectators in nearby locations who engaged in the same celebratory activities – considered standard for Marathon Day – received no BAA or police response. They were permitted to enjoy the public event in peace.”

In a statement, Liz Rock, founder of TrailblazHers, said, “I am deeply disappointed by the lack of attention that the BAA has given to our cause. Over the years we have worked tirelessly to make running more accessible to BIPOC runners in Boston, and we expected the BAA to be a partner in this endeavor. However, their actions have not lived up to their words.”

According to Lawyers for Civil Rights, TrailblazeHers was formed to increase diversity in Boston’s elite running community. The group has more than 2,500 BIPOC runners.

The complaint is available here.

Despite the lawsuit, other runners picking up their bibs in the rain Friday said they’re ready.

“It doesn’t get old,” said Maura Szendey of Andover.

Waves of people of all ages and backgrounds smiled ear-to-ear as they rushed into the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

“I’m so excited I’m running for MGH Emergency Response Team I trained all season,” said Jasa Onembo.

While some people said they chose to run and test their athletic ability other people said they’re running for a cause close to their hearts.

“I’m running for 261 Fearless, an organization that assisted in empowering women through running and education,” said Wendy Emory of Brookline.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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