Olympian Michael Johnson on Ahmaud Arbery: ‘This is not about running’

The track and field legend speaks out about the fatal shooting of Arbery

By Martenzie Johnson

Like many people, four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson had not heard about Ahmaud Arbery until a video of the 25-year-old being fatally shot by a white father and son was released on social media last week.

But when Johnson, the former world-record holder in the 200- and 400-meter events, saw the footage of Arbery being gunned down in Brunswick, Georgia, he was infuriated. A few days after the footage was released, Johnson posted on Twitter that the murder of Arbery had “my blood boiling.”

On May 8, Johnson joined with others in running 2.23 miles (Feb. 23 is the date Arbery was killed) to bring attention to the shooting and point out how tragic and unacceptable the handling of the case had been up to that point, Johnson said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we realized — and certainly I realized — that if I can bring awareness in any small way to these sorts of situations and how important it is to support efforts to highlight these injustices, it’s important to do so,” he said.

In the past, Johnson hasn’t been outspoken about race or politics, saying he never felt compelled to be “really boisterous” in using his voice. But in the wake of Arbery’s murder, he said, “It’s just gotten to a point where it’s time for all of us to do whatever we can.”

Johnson spoke with The Undefeated about how the shooting has affected him, why this incident isn’t about a black man running down the street and what needs to change to prevent an Arbery-like killing from happening again.

Keith Smith (center) speaks to a crowd as they marched through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on May 5. They were demanding answers in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. An outcry over the Feb. 23 shooting has intensified after a video surfaced that lawyers for Arbery’s family say shows him being shot to death by two white men.BOBBY HAVEN/THE BRUNSWICK NEWS VIA AP

What were your first thoughts upon hearing what happened to Ahmaud Arbery?

Just like with anything else these days, I tend to always sort of look for more information before I make any judgment to make sure that I understand what’s really going on. So my initial reaction was, ‘Is this real?’ After doing a bit more research and reading other articles I found that, yeah, this is real. And my initial reaction after confirming that this situation is factual — it’s just mind-boggling that two months had passed by and no one has been arrested given the circumstances of this case.

Of all the circumstances — him being gunned down, two months for it to become national news, taking that long until a video comes out for charges and arrests to be made — what would you say was the most frustrating thing with the entire situation?

To sort of pull back from there, the most frustrating thing for me is that we have gotten to a point as a country where people would even think that would be acceptable, that this may be able to just slide by 

or that there could be any possible reason to not arrest these two men who have murdered Ahmaud Arbery, and do a proper investigation of this situation and have a proper trial and take this through the judicial system. That, to me, just screams of this sort of sentiment that black men’s lives are not valued and that these two men who murdered him could get away with this.

Was it surprising that this can still be happening?

No, it’s not anymore, and that’s where the frustration comes from, that it’s not surprising. And it should be, it should be shocking. We shouldn’t be throwing up our hands thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ you know? And that’s what’s most concerning as well for me, that this is becoming so common that racist people feel that they can just take a black man’s life and that there may not be any consequences.

What does it say about the criminal justice system that it takes a video for people to take it seriously?

I think what that says is more about the sentiment around the country at this point, that racists have been emboldened. They feel that they can do these sorts of things, take this sort of action, call the police on black people when they’re just living their lives. They can say whatever they want without consequence. This emboldening of racist people feeling much more comfortable now expressing their racist feelings and expressing that, whether it be in feelings or with action, is what’s most concerning for me. And we’ve seen that now for a few years.

Where do you think that emboldening comes from?

I think it comes from our political situation. It comes from our president not speaking out against this type of behavior. A lot of this is born out of the severe polarization that we see in this country from a political and social standpoint. And then when you have a president who, in some cases, is even an apologist for racist behavior and what we saw in the situation in Charlottesville: ‘There are good people on both sides.’ And when you have racist people and racist chants at some of his rallies. When you have the president of the United States not condemning those things, and in some cases even apologizing … that certainly emboldens those who maybe previously felt that they were in the severe minority and that it would not be acceptable for them to express those sorts of feelings.

Whether for athletes or not, why is going for a jog such an important activity for people to engage in on a daily basis?

Look, let’s not make this about running, because this is not about running. This is about black people being able to live their lives without fear of consequence that someone is going to make a set of assumptions about them and call the police on them, or in this case, take action into their own hands by making an assumption that they’re a criminal. That is ridiculous, whether you’re going out for a run or whether you’re going out to go to the grocery store or fill in the blank with anything that is living your life while being black.

Did you ever worry about how people would perceive a tall, built African American man running down the street?

I’ve been fortunate to live in communities where people don’t believe that they can take the law into their own hands, and you don’t have these ridiculous laws where people can kill another person and say, ‘I was standing my ground because I felt threatened.’ I’ve been in California, we don’t really have that. So I think that my experience is very different. But I am certainly aware that there are many people who live in communities where their experience is much different than mine.

But that’s not to say as well, though, that even where I live, that I haven’t been conscious of the fact that, as I said, over the last few years, the racist sentiment has been elevated and those racists, wherever they may be, feel much more comfortable taking whatever action they may feel they want to against a black person without consequence.

Have you ever had a racial profiling incident where you were accused or approached by someone because they thought you were doing something you weren’t supposed to?

I’ve had people come up to me when I’m just walking my dog and tell me that I’m not supposed to be walking my dog here, as if I’m playing with my dog in this area. The issue in that particular case was I felt that they felt because this person is black I can talk to them any sort of way, and that has absolutely happened to me.

What’s going through your head when that happens? Do you want to react or do you want to defuse the situation?

I want to educate. I think the best way to educate people is to make sure that they understand that I’m not going to allow you to speak to me in that way. I’m not going to elevate the situation, but at the same time, I’m going to educate you that you do not have that sort of authority that you feel for some reason you have over me because of the differences in the colors of our skin.

Growing up in the ’70s, what type of lessons did you impart about what it’s going to be like for you growing up as a black man?

It was very interesting for me growing up in the ’70s and in Dallas, and growing up in a neighborhood that was pretty well-integrated. It was a really rich experience. There were black families, there were white families, and we all got along. I just didn’t experience any sort of racism. And I think my parents did a good job of preparing us for a future where we were going to be experiencing interaction with people of all different cultures. Mutual respect was important, but also making sure that you were respected and making sure that you carried yourself in a way where you commanded respect.

You have a son, Sebastian. Did you ever give him the talk about growing up as a black man in America?

Yes, after the Trayvon Martin situation. I had to explain to him then, and he was in his early teens at that point. But knowing then when we started having all of these situations with police, I had to explain to him that if you are approached, you’re held to a different standard, and in order to make sure that you get home alive, should something happen, the responsibility is on you to make sure that you don’t escalate any situations. I had to tell my son, ‘Regardless of how you’re being treated, you have to be the one with the calm head and you have to just obey until I can get there or your mother can get there and we can take care of the situation.’

What was it like to have a life-and-death talk with someone so young?

For me, personally, it was sort of disappointing that we live in a situation here in this country where I’m having to have a conversation with my son and basically telling him that he has to stand down, and if he’s being disrespected, that he needs to just take that because his life could be taken, and it’s all because of the color of his skin.

What do white people need to do to prevent someone of their race from doing this again?

More people, regardless of what color you are, need to join in to drown out the voices of the racists and to make sure that people understand that those who are inclined to be racist and exhibit racist behavior understand that you are in the minority. And the overwhelming majority of us, of any color, find your behavior unacceptable. And I believe that for many years, for decades, we were winning that battle. That’s not to say that there weren’t racists, because there absolutely have always been racists, but I believe that in the last few years, the racist voices have started to rise and become much more prominent because they feel much more comfortable that they are accepted, and that their behavior and their perspectives are much more acceptable now than they were.