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Allen Johnson: Running while Black can be hazardous to your health
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Allen Johnson: Running while Black can be hazardous to your health

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I don’t have a lot in common with Ahmaud Arbery.

He was much younger than I, only 23, and in infinitely better shape.

Like, me, however, Arbery, a former high school football player in Georgia, ran nearly every day, not only to keep in shape but to clear his mind.

I know the appeal.

Despite two creaky knees and a tender left foot, I continue to run (or something like it) every morning, when the air is cool and the sun hasn’t peeked yet over the horizon.

Sometimes it’s a short circuit through my neighborhood.

Other times the route is whimsical and open-ended, for however long to wherever my feet and knees are willing.

Those exploratory runs often take me places I’ve never been, through communities I’ve never seen before … and that have never seen me before.

There’s where another characteristic I share with Ahmaud Arbery comes to mind. I am Black.

Many runners of color (like me) will tell you that there’s always the suspicion, in the backs of our minds, that something could go wrong. That someone may see an unfamiliar Black man jogging and assume he’s running from something. Or that he doesn’t belong here and therefore must be up to no good.

Call it Running While Black.

So I do my best to convey that: I COME IN PEACE. I MEAN NO HARM. I AM RUNNING FOR MY HEALTH AND STATE OF MIND.

SEE THE BALL CAP AND RUNNING SHOES? HEAR THE NERDY PODCAST PLAYING ON MY IPHONE?

I feel guilty until I can prove that I am innocent, recalling a line from one of Richard Pryor’s routines about an encounter with police.

“I … am … reaching … for … my … wallet.”

I’ve had these thoughts before Arbery’s senseless death on Feb. 23, 2020. But I’ve had more of them after it.

Arbery was chased by three white men in pickup trucks and shot dead on a two-lane road.

Those men say Arbery fit the description of a person who was burglarizing their community. They had concluded that, because he was running, surely he was fleeing from a crime scene.

The suspected crime was that he was stealing items from a house that was under construction in the area. Yet he wasn’t running with arms full of door knobs and bath fixtures.

The suspected thief was both unarmed and empty-handed.

Meanwhile, local enforcement assumed the men were innocent. It took more than two months for them to be charged in Arbery’s death.

The encounter was captured on video that showed the trucks cornering Arbery, a struggle ensuing and Arbery being killed with a shotgun. One shot missed. Two didn’t.

I share another similarity with Arbery.

When I was living in an apartment in Lake Jeanette, I routinely toured houses that were under construction, during walks with my wife or after runs.

Many folks did, either because, like me, they were in the market for a house. Or they were looking for home improvement ideas. Or simply curious.

To my knowledge, none of us stole anything or were chased by pickup trucks.

As for the unfinished house that Arbery apparently visited, Travis McMichael, the man who fatally shot him, admitted that other people entered the same house at other times, on other days. Why were they not suspects?

Camera surveillance footage confirms that. It also confirms that Arbery had entered that house the day he was killed, but nothing was stolen.

I can’t help but wonder for a moment, as others have, if Arbery had been a young white man running through a Black neighborhood and two Black men in a truck had chased him and then killed him.

Can you imagine law enforcement not immediately making an arrest? Can you imagine it taking two months?

Then there was McMichael’s admission when pressed by the prosecutor Thursday, that his original account to police wasn’t entirely accurate.

He had told them that Arbery reached for his shotgun. Now he says he doesn’t remember whether Arbery did or not.

“I just killed a man,” he said. “I had blood on me still. It was the most traumatic event of my life.”

Not as traumatic as what happened to the man he shot … for doing nothing wrong.

This isn’t the first time someone white has provoked a confrontation with an unarmed Black person who had not broken any laws and was minding his own business, shot him dead and then pleaded self-defense (remember Trayvon Martin?).

Which brings me to the biggest difference between me and Ahmaud Arbery. I’m alive. He isn’t.

He’ll never live to grow old enough to complain about bum knees and achy feet.

So, yes, there tend to be other things on Black runners’ minds in addition to time, distance and heart rate.

More than the hazards posed by an occasional unleashed dog or an inattentive driver.

Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if one day you might be running for your life.

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