Black-led women’s running group sues Boston Marathon organizers and Newton police chief for alleged racial discrimination

A Black-led running group is suing the organizers of the Boston Marathon as well as the city of Newton, Massachusetts, and the Newton police chief over alleged racial discrimination that took place in a cheer zone at last year’s race.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the all-women running group TrailblazHers, just days before the 2024 marathon, alleges the organizers, the city, and police violated the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

On the day of last year’s race, Newton police “singled out spectators from TrailblazHers Run Co. (“TrailblazHers”) and other running crews that serve primarily people of color, racially profiling, targeting, and harassing them,” according to the complaint filed in a Massachusetts court.

TrailblazHers had organized a specific “cheer zone” in Newton at Mile 21 and had invited other running groups led by people of color to join, says the complaint. Over a hundred spectators, “mostly people of color,” were gathered there.

For the past four years, the group has gathered at Mile 21, the complaint states, and the marker is significant for the plaintiffs: “It stands as a key place where runners of color are acknowledged and celebrated,” helping create a “powerful and affirming experience for runners of color.”

The lawsuit details specific acts of alleged discrimination, claiming while White spectators were allowed to interact with and celebrate runners, non-White spectators at Mile 21 were harassed by police and told to stay back. The lawsuit includes photos that appear to show the “human barricade” created by police officers and their bikes.

Police formed “a human barricade to physically separate the running crews of colors from the event,” the complaint alleges. “Similarly-situated white spectators received no such treatment.”

“For individual members, police profiling and scrutiny turns what should be a day of joy and festivity into one of pain, humiliation and trauma,” the complaint states.

In addition to forming a human barricade between the spectators and the runners, police on motorcycles also “stationed themselves on the street behind the Plaintiffs’ cheer zone, effectively surrounding and penning in the people in the cheer zone of color,” the complaint says.

Shortly after the incident last year, Newton police said in a statement: “After being notified by the B.A.A. (Boston Athletic Association) 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,” according to CNN affiliate WFXT. “When spectators continued to cross the rope, NPD with additional officers calmly used bicycles for a short period to demarcate the course and keep both the runners and spectators safe.”

Newton Police Chief John Carmichael addressed the lawsuit in a Friday Facebook post, saying, “I stand by my decisions that day, and more importantly, I stand by our officers who acted appropriately, respectfully and as expected.”

The Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, told CNN they were aware of the complaint but “have not yet had the opportunity to review it.”

“We are focused on creating a joyous experience for all,” the organization added.

The lawsuit says TrailblazHers participated in 10 meetings with the Boston Athletics Association as well as meetings with city officials to address the incident, but neither police nor the association “enacted any meaningful reforms to prevent racial profiling and harassment from happening again.”

A total of 30,000 people are scheduled to run from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to Boston in this year’s Boston Marathon. The race, which started in 1897, attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators each year who cheer on athletes through their epic journey.

TrailblazHers is represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based legal group working to fight discrimination, according to its website.

In a Friday news release, Lawyers for Civil Rights framed police harassment at the marathon as part of a larger issue of racism in running and referenced the 2020 killing of Black runner Ahmaud Arbery.

“Overpolicing and hate crimes help explain why running remains a heavily white sport,” Iván Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said in the news release. “Ahmaud Arbery, an avid Black jogger, was killed while running through a residential neighborhood in Georgia. What happened at Mile 21 in Newton is scary, triggering, and traumatic for people who are repeatedly victimized just for running while Black.”

TrailblazHers “was formed to increase diversity in Boston’s largely white and elite running community,” the news release said. “The group’s membership totals more than 2,500 BIPOC runners.”

“We are prepared to seek immediate court intervention if BAA (Boston Athletics Association) or local police engage in the type of discriminatory conduct that spectators of color endured last year in Newton,” Mirian Albert, a senior staff attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said.

TrailblazHers has asked for a jury trial and the lawsuit is seeking “compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages.”

One YouTuber who says he was in TrailblazHers’ cheer zone described his experience in a video posted last April.

User Remy B Reel said in the video he was in the cheer zone at the marathon when “a strong police presence” emerged, preventing spectators from high-fiving runners as they passed. His footage from the day of the marathon shows police officers standing with their bikes between the cheer zone and the marathon route.

“This just left a sour taste in my mouth,” he says in the video.

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