Potential Racial Implications of Police Enforcement at the Boston Marathon

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The Boston Marathon draws an estimated 500,000 spectators every year.

Everyone deserves the right to safely and peacefully watch the race, but this year, at the 2023 Boston Marathon on April 17, a large cheer section was targeted by police officers patrolling the event.

Like many large, well-organized marathon courses, the Boston Marathon has a large police presence along the course to ensure that the excited fans do not encroach upon the runners on the course or cause any sort of physical disruption to the athletes.

There are even written spectator rules set forth by the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) that delineate the expected conduct.

For example, the BAA states, “Spectators are not allowed to enter the course, run alongside athletes, or impede athletes in any manner.”

As such, these rules are usually enforceable and police officers monitor the crowds and the barriers of the Boston Marathon race course.

While this is undeniably an important safety measure, and one that helps ensure fair contest, this year, one section of the course seemed to be overregulated and guarded by police officers.

There was an extremely robust police presence at mile 21 in the town of Newton along the Boston Marathon course.

This is a notoriously popular cheer section, as it serves as the location of Heartbreak Hill, which is arguably the toughest section of the course and one that comes near the end of the race when runners are beginning to fade.

A sizable fleet of police officers was seen lining up their bikes between a specific cheer section and the race course itself.

The reason this is noteworthy is that it seems that race (skin color) was the factor that underpinned this physical “wall” of police officers.

Reportedly, the officers from the Newton police and the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council were responding to three complaints that the BAA had received reporting that the spectators were encroaching on the race course.

Between miles 20 and 21 of the course, the TrailblazHers Run Co. and Pioneers Run Crew had set up a large cheer zone to help encourage runners up Heartbreak Hill and onward towards the Boston Marathon finish line.

The PIONEERS and TrailblazHers include many BIPOC members, as both running clubs were founded to promote running within communities of color.

Therefore, the Newton, MA cheer zone on Monday’s 127th Boston Marathon was largely dominated by BIPOC individuals.

However, this was nothing new.

According to a quote from PIONEERS Run Crew member Aliese Lash to WCVB, the PIONEERS running club has been supporting the runners and cheering at that spot of the marathon for the past five years, with no complaints lodged against them.

This year at the 127th Boston Marathon, things were different and the spectator team members in the cheer section felt unwelcome by the police presence.

Lash told WCVB: “There [were] about 20 bikers in the police uniforms that were just blocking us from the race, but it definitely felt like an intimidation factor.” 

Spectator Mike Remy can be seen in this video discussing his concerns that the sizable police presence was due to the predominantly black crowd. 

Jack Fleming, the president and CEO of the BAA, said that on Wednesday evening, April 19, 2023, the representatives from the BAA met with the PIONEERS and TrailblazHers to discuss the incident.

On Thursday, April 20, 2023, the BAA released a statement regarding the events that occurred with the police presence in the cheer section at mile 21 of the marathon. 

In the statement delivered by Fleming, he said:

“They expressed to us their deep concerns that they were not given the chance to enjoy the day and celebrate their friends, families and all participants as they approached Heartbreak Hill—that is on us. It is our job, and we need to do better to create an environment that is welcoming and supportive of the BIPOC communities at the marathon.”

Newton Police Department Chief John Carmichael also issued a written statement responding to the incident at the Boston Marathon:

“After being notified by the BAA three times about spectators traversing the rope barrier and impeding runners, the Newton Police Department responded respectfully and repeatedly requesting that spectators stay behind the rope and not encroach onto the course.”

He continued, adding:

“When spectators continued to cross the rope, [Newton police] with additional officers calmly used bicycles for a short period to demarcate the course and keep both the runners and spectators safe.”

Since learning of the incident at the 2023 Boston Marathon, other runners have spoken out about the incident, such as Lauren Fleshman who shared on social media a thoughtful post, part of which said:

“People of every race break the rules, stretch the rules, claim space. But not everyone gets the same response when they do it…This level of response shows a fear of Black people, and an entitlement to intimidate them. This is not an isolated incident, it is part of the larger problem of Black people being made to feel unwelcome and unsafe in white spaces, and specifically in our “running is for everyone!” community, at the “pinnacle event” for our sport, no less.”

To hear more, you can listen to Mike Remy on The Rambling Runner Podcast discussing his experience with the seemingly unnecessary and potentially racially-spurred level of policing in the BIPOC-heavy cheering section. His comments surrounding the incident start around the 22-minute mark.

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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