In Madison, Black Men Run is still running like they always do, but things were a little different for the latest get together.
“This has rocked all of us to the core. Mainly because that young man was doing what we all love to do,” says Aaron Perry, who is the captain of the local Black Men Run group. “I’m certain that each of us is putting ourselves in that man’s shoes and we’re asking ourselves if we could have came out of that encounter any different. Sadly, we all have concluded that Armoud could have been any of us on that day.”
Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger in suburban Georgia, was shot and killed in broad daylight in February after an armed father and son chased him in the streets. It took more than 2 months for the men to be charged with murder and only after video came out of the incident.
The Madison Chapter of Black Men Run, who encourage health and wellness among African-American men by promoting a culture of running and jogging to stay fit, led a Unity Protest Run/Walk on May 8 in the UW Arboretum that was dedicated to Arbery.
“The men were all pretty angry, but we all agreed that this country has taken everything from us,” says Perry, “we’ll be damned if they are going to take running from us. We’re determined to not let that happen.
“When I talk to the black men in our Black Men Run group – and this is not just Madison, it’s nationwide – you can hear the anger in men’s voices,” he continued. “But what was consistent and what we all knew is that you could have taken that young man out of the picture and placed any of us in his shoes on that day at that time and we would have died.
“That is a sobering reminder of what we’re facing sometimes when we choose to go running, especially in areas we’re not familiar with,” Perry adds. “This is another constant reminder of why we constantly have to be aware of our environment, even when we’re out exercising.”
About 25 runners met in the Henry Vilas Zoo parking lot directly across from Wingra Beach on May 8, which would have been Ahmaud Arbery’s 26th birthday. Another 15 people posted their run online from their own neighborhoods.
“It went well. We practiced social distancing,” Perry says. “It was great to be out with the group and to be with people.”
The Black Men Run group had 30 masks available for runners. Those with chronic health conditions were encouraged to run or walk near their homes and join the group in spirit. For Perry, who is also the national director for Health Wellness and Disease Prevention for Black Men Run, it was exactly what a lot of the men needed.
“The national chapter of Black Men Run consulted me and we originally agreed that we were going to suspend all organized group runs just because of how much COVID-19 is affecting black men specifically,” Perry says. “Unfortunately, this tragedy happened and we decided that we had to get together and we decided to host the Unity Run in honor of Ahmaud.
“We felt that we really needed to make a statement, even if it was for just our mental health and well-being, and what came out of that was the community coming together,” he added.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Black Men Run in Madison met regularly. Perry says that the Unity Protest Run/Walk was as diverse as its ever been. “We had a 50/50 split of African-Amerian and white. That was great to see,” he says. “What we did was just encourage people if they see something, say something. If you’re moved by what you see, speak out about it. We can’t fight this fight by ourselves.”
Not everybody in the group was angry and sad.
“Because of the arrest of the two individuals responsible for the young man’s death, I got the sense that maybe for a few of the participants they felt ‘Maybe this was a good thing and now we can relax.’ That’s not our position of the Black Men Run members but we do respect everyone’s point of view,” Perry says.
“For many of us, we’ve been down this road before. We saw George Zimmerman get arrested for killing Trayvon Martin, and he walked free,” he adds. “Even though we know it’s a good step in the right direction, not many are believing that this is over.”
Perry feels disturbed not only by the incident itself, but by how long it took to make an arrest.
“Unfortunately, if there’s no video for this case, there’s certainly no arrest. When I first heard about this, what was glaringly obvious – this man has been in law enforcement for seven years and worked with the D.A.’s office for 30 years. Now this individual has been arrested. To me, this is a crucial time to point out the racism that exists in the criminal justice system,” Perry says. “This is a clear indication that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and racism is still alive and well.
“This is a time where we are being challenged,” he adds. “It’s getting a lot of attention. I know that ESPN has reached out to our national founders and are interested in doing a story with Black Men Run on ESPN’s 30 for 30.”
Perry is the founder of the nonprofit Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association whose mission is to improve the health of African-American men in Dane County. He is planning on making a positive out of this incredibly negative incident.
“This will be an opportunity to really make a statement. As African-American men we have to deal with this and society does expect us to move on. When you’re constantly hearing these types of events, it’s challenging to move on … but we do,” Perry says. “But what are we left with? We’re left with trauma. So, we’re going to utilize this as an opportunity to really focus back on black men’s mental health and well-being.”