Before he goes for an occasional jog, Akeem Baker makes sure he’s wearing something light. He draws an intimate course through neighborhoods where he is known. And he looks up at the sky and nods to his best friend Ahmaud Arbery.
The ritual is painful for Baker. He finds it disturbing that he is being forced to follow a checklist of precautionary measures reserved only for black runners to keep himself safe. It also hurts because it was the tragic murder of Arbery – his friend since he was six – in Brunswick, Georgia, a year ago that sparked the security measures he hadn’t put in place before February 23.
“I ran for health reasons,” said Baker, a 2016 graduate of Morehouse College. “Now, I’m running for a sense of therapy as if I’m chasing some kind of freedom.”
Baker’s life and inspiration for running changed when Arbery’s sister called him while he was in New York the night her brother was followed in a pickup truck and shot while jogging. Two white men are waiting for the trial. A third man, who was also arrested, recorded the filming on a cell phone video.
“As of February 23, 2020, I have been thinking of my boyfriend and praying that his life was not in vain,” said Baker. He met Arbery on an elementary school bus and they became quick friends for the next 20 years.
He said he was “stunned” when he read a text message from Arbery’s sister who shared what she was told at the time – false information that Arbery had been broken into someone’s house and killed. “I cried in the bathroom all night,” said Baker. “I was heartbroken. And I’m still confused.”
Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael were chasing after Arbery, who stopped while he was running to wander in a house under construction in their neighborhood, prosecutors say.
The picture is in the brains of black runners who spoke to NBC News: Arbery, 25, trips before falling to the ground after being shot.
“His tragic death changed everything for black runners,” said Kevin O. Davis, a member of the Plano Running Club in Texas, which has 2,000 members, almost all of whom know. “I’ve changed everything. I’ve seen people slow in their cars as I run and look at myself in the rearview mirror to make sure I haven’t robbed their house. I’ve run into white ladies screaming just because they see i run past them.
“Once when I stopped running at a traffic light, this white guy rolled down his window and sprayed insecticide on my face for no reason. I thought I was going blind.
“But Ahmaud Arbery is something different, something terrible. So I don’t jog so much when it’s dark, and when I do I make sure I wear reflectors. I’m nervous when I run in black jogging clothes”, he said . “It’s all different. We have to be aware of ourselves.”
Black joggers are also making adjustments for safety, said Buffalo’s Kim Backey. Backey, an avid runner who takes to the streets in the snow, took Arbery’s killing as a cue to change her running pattern.
“As black runners, we have to worry about what we wear and where we are going,” said Backey, 55. “I wear lighter colors now. I told my sons not to wear a hoodie because they were being judged. Now. ” I have to take my own advice when I go out and run. And that’s a shame.
“We have to run smart, but at the same time we shouldn’t have to give up our freedoms to run because of our race,” she said.
With that in mind, and with Arbery’s spirit, the 2:23 Foundation was formed last year to raise awareness of the shooting and to work to “help young men and women find ways to deal with similar incidents and cases of injustice to avoid”. The group, which has more than 82,000 followers on Facebook, has scheduled a 2.23-mile national race in Arbery’s memory on the anniversary of that death.
Tyrone Irby, owner of The Choice fitness and sports performance center in Durham, North Carolina, has memories that help him understand the fear Arbery felt a year ago. Irby said growing up in Brooklyn, New York, two white teens chased him after he missed his bus home from school. “They yelled at me when I ran,” he said. “I ran fast enough to avoid them. But I remember the fear I felt and can only imagine what Ahmaud was feeling.
“As black runners, we have to keep eyes in mind. It’s part of being black in America. It’s sad to think that every day we have to think about the shoes we wear, the times we run, those Colors We Have Choose where we run. And now, during a pandemic, with a mask, hoodie, and at 6am … it can be problematic. “
But it didn’t stop Irby and others from continuing to hit the sidewalk and raise awareness of Arbery’s death. He founded #TogetherWeStandNC, a group that generates discussions around the race, with Arbery’s murder as a conversation starter.
Irby, a member of the huge social media group #RunWithMaud, has signed more than 100 runners in Arbery’s memory for one more run – the Maud 2.23 virtual run on Tuesday 23rd will be run by Fleet Feet Carrboro, a clothing company in Durham , Sponsored.
“Everyone should be safe when they run. But that’s not the case,” said Irby.
He added, “When I leave the house at 3am, I have my registration in my car, my ID on hand and I’m driving the speed limit. Now we have to take similar precautions when we run. Every day is an emotional burden we have to pay to be black. We have to be aware. It’s a bad way of life. “
For Dr. Terrell Holloway, a black psychiatrist at Yale University, will reverberate Arbery’s murder.
“It’s fascinating because we think of trauma and stress with soldiers in a combat situation,” said Holloway. “But what about the stress of … what happened to Ahmaud Arbery? It’s about how you deal with a situation that affects you. But the fact that black people have such instances and thoughts that it could happen to you, speaks to the importance of racism. “
Baker said the trauma of Arbery’s death led him to seek advice. He visits a therapist every two weeks to help him cope. “It was a lot,” he said. Kobe Bryant “died on my birthday – I was a huge fan. Less than a month later my best friend is killed. Ahmaud was my contact.”
Augustus Turner, 37, a major in the Army stationed in Madison, Alabama, wrote in a viral Facebook post about the psychological trauma of Arbery’s murder. It read in part, “Sometimes in the back of my mind I foolishly think, I’m just a black man who jogs!
“Why would someone shoot me just because I’m black and unknown? I’m a former paramedic. … I’ve been a licensed attorney and active army officer for nine years. I’ve represented and helped over 60 victims of sexual assault. I’ve helped to justify the destruction of hundreds of enemy targets in Iraq. I clarified the names of wrongly convicted criminals. Who would want to hurt me?
“Well, none of that matters because … I’m still a black man who jogs. If I scare the wrong white person or match a threatening person’s description … I don’t become any different from Ahmaud Arbery.”
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Turner said he has no plans to write about the shooting. But then he saw the video.
“I could only see it once,” he said. “We have to be careful not to get killed just for jogging … it takes part of our lives away from us. We have to live in constant fear or be on alert. I took my wife’s worries that I would run alone seriously . She always had. That fear. Now my concern is to take my family for a walk in the neighborhood so people can see that I am a husband and a family man and not a threat. Maybe they will be attached to me remember. Maybe. “
Backey, who was crying and watching the video of the shooting, said, “As a runner, I understand how Ahmaud would stop and look into a house that is being built. That’s what we do – we take in our surroundings. Jogging is freedom. I recently took a different route on my run and I stopped and thought of Ahmaud and I said, “Let me out of here.” It shouldn’t be like that.
Yet few runners expect it to be any different soon. Arbery’s life, and especially his death, will remain resonant for some time.
“Ahmaud and I ran a lot together,” said Baker. “He kept a better pace than I did, but he always encouraged me and urged me to get harder. He might have dark skin, but he was the brightest light. His smile and energy were always bright. And we have to make sure that people always know that. “
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