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June 3, 2020

A Tale of Two Months

By Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh

A month ago, I put my thoughts about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery on paper. I didn't plan to share it but wanted to help myself process the difficulty I had with the circumstances surrounding his murder.

Today, June 3, 2020, is Global Running Day, and with the nation in a state of unrest focused on issues of police brutality and racism, I feel that this needs to be shared. It's important that the life and unjust killing of Mr. Arbery be remembered. It's also important that as most of us celebrate our ability to go run today and every day, we accept it's a privilege that not everyone enjoys.

It's been two months since my company has been working from home. That fact dawned on me today for a couple of reasons.

The first is that being at home has allowed me to spend more time with my kids and for us to do things together, like exercise. We haven't done much, but a few push-ups here and there is refreshing to someone feeling their athleticism slipping away. The second reason was Ahmaud Arbery. A news headline reminded me that it had been two months since he was shot and killed.

The reason his death has stuck with me, though, has less to do with the outcry for justice. It is less that he was in the prime of his life and essentially hunted, or that I have two sons of my own, and I pray something this terrible would never happen to them. This particular death has stuck with me because two months prior I had half-jokingly suggested to my mother that this could happen to me.

Ahmaud Arbery photo

Ahmaud Arbery

I remember telling her the weather in Michigan, where I live, was warming up, and I wanted to begin running again but wouldn't because of COVID-19. She said I should just wear a mask and go early when no one is around to maintain social distancing. I then said: "You want me, a black man, to put on a mask, and run, in Michigan?" She laughed and so did I. Like I said, it was half-joking.

One of the saddest aspects of Ahmaud's death for me is the fact that according to all the publicly available evidence, he was killed doing what so many of us are doing in this time of social distancing – exercising.

But it's the serious part of that conversation with my mother that led me to doing push-ups instead of going out for a run.

One study estimates rates of exercise are up by as much as 88 percent since the start of the pandemic. Running rates are up by as much as 117 percent. While so many Americans are using exercise as a mechanism to help cope with the stress and social turmoil brought about by this pandemic and its accompanying economic challenges, exercise is responsible for this young man's death.

His death reaffirms the fact that being able to safely and comfortably run, walk or jog outside isn't a privilege universally shared. I know I'm not alone when I thought, "that could have been me."

If you criticize me for focusing on this one aspect of this tragedy and not some of the others, I would understand. I agree that there are many frustrating aspects to this case.

Ahmaud was killed because, like so many other people of color, he was assumed to be guilty and dangerous simply because he was black and running. This has been true of many other killings, but the fact that Ahmaud was, of all things, exercising strikes a chord for me that is unprecedented.

Sport is one of the most quintessential of all American pastimes. The American Academy of Pediatrics has estimated that 60 million youth participate in organized sports annually. Sports contributes $60 billion to the economy each year and athletes, at all levels of sport, are household names in their community. That this former high school athlete could go out to exercise like so many Americans and be killed because he ran past the wrong men, in the wrong neighborhood, simply does not seem right.

Which American heading out for their morning run, as so many of us are doing during this pandemic, think we might be mistaken for a burglar? The reality is, it crosses the minds of many people of color. It's this reality that led me to doing push-ups instead of running.

In my professional life, I lead the creation of curriculum at RISE, a nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, improve race relations and champion social justice. Our work is based on the premise that sport is a platform that brings people together and provides an opportunity to address issues of racism, bias and inequity. Sport allows people to work together towards a common goal or come together to root on the same cause in spite of the obvious or deeper differences that might exist among them. Regardless of age, race, nationality or ideological differences, sport exemplifies that teams and organizations can be successful even where differences exist. Using sport to bring people together, we can teach the skills required for people to be culturally competent and spark much needed conversation around issues of race and injustice.

It is for this reason that we need to stop and consider seriously what took place in Brunswick, Georgia. It's the circumstances of this case that fuel discussions of fear, privilege, injustice and racism for many people of color today.

The facts of this case lead to awkward jokes between mothers and sons at odd hours of the morning. Killings like these, and this one in particular, suggest that as a black man in America, I can be doing what I have every right to do and still get killed.

Two months ago, while many of us were working out in our basements, gyms or through the streets of our neighborhoods, a young black man was shot and killed for no explicable reason.

Andrew Mac Intosh, Ph.D. holds degrees in Kinesiology, Applied Psychology and Sociology. As Vice President of Curriculum at RISE, he is responsible for the design, delivery and evaluation of RISE's leadership and cultural competency curriculum, which is administered to professional, collegiate and school-aged athletes, coaches and administrators throughout the country.

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