Marathon Organizers and Black Lives Matter Protestors Compromise on Peaceful Demonstration
7 Oct, 2015By: Mary Helen Sprecher
At the end of the day, the most essential concern of Sunday’s Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon – the one that was most on the minds of runners – was not settled in the office of event organizers. It didn't even take place the day of the marathon.
It was decided in a closed-door meeting with the mayor of St. Paul and it was held on the Thursday before the marathon. It ended with the Mayor Chris Coleman, and with Rashad Turner, the local Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizer, standing together to announce that BLM’s protest, originally planned to ‘shut down’ the marathon, would be a peaceful demonstration that would not interfere with runners.
And while event organizers, local residents, runners and marathon volunteers heaved a sigh of relief over the outcome, the goings-on were closely watched by others in the event planning community – particularly those in urban areas of the Mid-Atlantic region, where fall is one of the busiest times for large and high-profile events such as marathons, triathlons, group cycle rides and more.
As a consequence of the events that unfolded in the week leading up to the Twin Cities Marathon, the sports business community can expect to be putting in extra hours on security, preparedness and crowd control. And although many events have ramped up awareness since the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, protests are a different dynamic, necessitating their own unique strategies.
In Minneapolis, protesters were told that if they did, in fact, interfere with the marathon, arrests would be made. Another part of the discussion, however, between Mayor Coleman and Rashad Turner of BLM was that better communication would exist regarding the treatment of ethnic minorities by police. In fact, sports event planners in other cities may be watching their elected officials to see if they too engage in such dialogues before large, high-profile sports events.
In its own way, the Twin Cities event has become a case study that future sport management classes will learn from. It’s a complicated, multifaceted equation that represents the balancing act all sports planners fear most: because while participant safety and the avoidance of violence are foremost in event organizers’ minds, the threat of a protest also brings ancillary concerns on the business side, including the protest’s potential to damage the reputation of the event and the domino effect this can have, including decreased attendance in the future, sponsors’ refusal to commit in years to come and the overall decrease of economic impact to the area.
Despite the fact that the protests were peaceful and runners were able to proceed through the course unimpeded, the Twin Cities Marathon was not free of drama. Protesters walked through traffic on their route to their designated protesting area, and staged a "die-in" near the finish line of the marathon at Rice Street and John Ireland Boulevard. Police told protesters to leave the street, but no arrests were made. Several counter-protestors stood nearby, waving Confederate flags. There were no reports of physical clashes by the end of the event.
Officials in the area had already seen the disruptive effects protesters can have on professional sports. In St. Paul, an incident in which a group blocked the light rail train tracks prevented the train’s use by fans attending the Minnesota Vikings 2015 home opener. But it certainly was not the first time a professional sport event had been affected by strife. In Baltimore in April, when riots and protesting in the city forced the relocation of three Orioles home games to their opponents’ stadium in Tampa Bay, the team elected to play a fourth game, scheduled against the Chicago White Sox, to an empty stadium, resulting in tremendous losses to nearby businesses that relied on game day traffic.
Sports is a large stage, and as a result, much drama and protests has been seen at the national and international level, including at the Olympics. This was the first time a disruptive protest was threatened on a high-profile event in which amateur athletes participate alongside professionals and elites. It most likely will not be the last. And like it or not, today’s sports event planners have had an important learning experience as a result of it – and the industry is on notice that it will need to develop protocols for future events.