Black Boston Marathon watchers demand investigation after police interaction in Newton
Civil rights attorneys are demanding an investigation into police tactics after officers surrounded a group of predominantly Black Boston marathon spectators in Newton on Monday.
Pioneers Run Crew, TrailblazHers and other clubs with predominantly Black members were supporting members running the marathon near mile 21 in Newton when police on bicycles and on cruisers approached the group.
Legal organization Lawyers for Civil Rights on Wednesday sent a letter to Newton's mayor and police chief demanding an emergency meeting, an investigation of the police tactics used at the marathon and a public apology.
"The military-style formation of the police officers is a concrete example and visual representation of the intimidation and over-policing of Black people," the letter stated. "Allowing this conduct to remain unchecked undermines public safety, perpetuates discriminatory policing, and sows distrust between police and communities of color."
Tasheena Davis, a litigation fellow at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the group hopes to gain some clarity about what happened on Monday.
“We just want to make sure that the aggressive policing that was witnessed at mile marker 21 does not continue, that it is not a pattern or practice of the Newton Police Department,” Davis said. “And we want to make sure that the spectators and the runners … have their voices heard.”
Kelli O'Hara, a spokesperson for Newton police, said the department had no comment on the demand letter. The mayor's office did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Pioneers founder Sidney Baptista said Wednesday that the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, also reached out about a meeting scheduled for Wednesday night.
The race organization so far has not commented, beyond a statement that the BAA is "committed to creating a safe and enjoyable experience for athletes, volunteers and spectators across all our events."
On Thursday, after the meeting with Pioneers and TrailBlazHers, BAA president and CEO Jack Fleming released a statement saying in part that the organization "did not deliver on our promise to make it a great day for everyone."
According to the BAA, the running groups expressed concern that they weren't given the chance to celebrate their friends, family and other runners.
"That is on us," the statement said. "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."
Video of the encounter shows a group of about 10 police officers on bicycles lined up along the road, separating the cheering group from runners on the course. Behind the group on a side road, there are more officers visible in cruisers and on motorcycles.
Newton police, in a statement, said they were notified by the BAA three times about spectators "traversing the rope barrier and impeding runners." The police said they "responded respectfully and repeatedly requesting that spectators stay behind the rope and not encroach onto the course."
When spectators continued to cross the rope, Newton police said "additional officers calmly used bicycles for a short period to demarcate the course and keep both the runners and spectators safe."
The department shared with reporters several videos of the cheer squad joining friends on the course and holding up banners of support.
What Pioneers was doing, though, was no different than other cheer squads, according to Dana Bogan, one of the co-leaders of the November Project Boston, a fitness community that holds weekly workouts.
"We've done the same things and the police have not come up to us," she said. "The difference is our group is majority white and their group is majority Black."
Bogan, who identifies as a biracial Black woman, ran a 3:05 marathon Monday. She said all along the course, friends jumped out to embrace her and ran a few strides alongside her, including at the November Project's tent at mile 18.
That's "the community and camaraderie that characterizes a marathon," she said. "You show up to Boston and you you kind of coast on the energy of the crowd."
American distance runner Kara Goucher, who finished third in the Boston Marathon in 2009, tweeted her disappointment about the incident.
"Running community — we preach inclusivity but we have a long way to go," she wrote. "This is not ok."
Mike Remy, a runner from Billerica who recorded the incident at the Pioneers' tent, said he felt angry, then nervous, at the police presence. He recorded a few minutes of the scene and left.
"It really sullied what was really a good time," he said.
Remy, who is Black, said the group was supporting multiple friends and teammates running the course. He compared his group's conduct to what's seen in rowdier parts of the course, such as near Boston College.
"The things we were doing were more tame," he said. "Definitely louder. But not by any means more outrageous than what they were doing as far as people crossing the street."
Blair Wong, another spectator with Pioneers, said the police presence shook those in the group.
"It wasn't the same afterwards," she said. "We really did our best with supporting our runners and supporting all runners, but it just really shifted the mood a lot."
Baptista, the Pioneers founder, said for people of color, this kind of response is unsurprising.
"I think that as we show up to the sport and as the sport gets more Black and brown, we show up as we are," Baptista said. "We're invited to spaces and then we're policed."
This story has been updated with a statement from the Boston Athletic Association.
This article was originally published on April 19, 2023.