The run club fighting White Supremacy
South Central Run Club is stepping up to remedy the food and fitness apartheid thrust upon their neighborhood by the US government
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I’m in Historic South Central, Los Angeles on a sleepy Sunday morning. People are starting to wake up as I walk the streets of the neighborhood with Zaakiyah Brisker, founder of the South Central Run Club.
Street traders are setting up their market stalls, dogs bark at chain-link fences, buckets of marinated chicken are being thrown on grills, a siren interrupts us as we’re sipping on our coffees. That’s life in Los Angeles.
We talk about that - living in L.A. - and we consider how South Central might be perceived by those living elsewhere. We list the movies that depict life across the city. It’s through cinema, of course, that culture is so easily exported to the rest of the world.
While palm trees and the bright lights of Hollywood are the common, glitzy understanding of L.A., the “animalistic violence” of films such as Blood In, Blood Out and Boyz n the Hood are the impression given of South Central - the specific name of this neighborhood that has slowly become a catch-all term for Black Los Angeles, including Compton and Crenshaw, Inglewood and Watts.
Having grown up in Watts and South Central proper before moving away for college, Zaakiyah was drawn back to this neighborhood when she returned to her home city.
“I started working for a non-profit, and every time I went for a run by myself, I would come this way. I feel like I was being led back here on a spiritual level.”
Zaakiyah on running
The first run she can remember was on a gym treadmill.
“I was 225 lbs (102 kg). I was like, ‘I'm gonna run for 25 minutes,’ and I was so proud of myself. That was the first time where I was really taking ownership of my own health.”
How do you stop running sucking for you?
“Running sucks for me when I’m feeling off - usually when I’m giving into the Standard American Diet. I'm not blessed with the fastest metabolism, so I pack on weight. When that combination comes together, I'm just waiting it out until the runner's high kicks in.”
“When I’m feeling really well or I’m more intentional about what I put in my body, I feel limber and fluid, and then it's the opposite of that when I’m not drinking enough water or eating enough fruit.”
Is that how to feel better and enjoy your runs more? Just by eating better?
Why South Central is a “wellness desert”
It’s another problem of South Central, of course. Good health is very closely associated with nutrition, as Zaakiyah explains when we walk past the former SoCal headquarters of the Black Panther Party at 4115 S. Central Avenue.
“The Black Panther party was a wellness organization that started out trying to figure out how to bring more food to this community, how to educate children, how to cure sickle cell, bussing people to school.”
“That was dismantled.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s commitment to obliterating what he called the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” resulted in the initial formation of SWAT teams, such was the force the LAPD required to stop the Black community’s leadership.
It was during the time when Zaakiyah landed back in South Central, when she was figuring out her life, and exercising and eating healthily that she asked:
“Where are the green spaces of South Central?”
”Where can you find urban farms?”
“This place is a food apartheid and a fitness apartheid. I use the language of ‘apartheid’ because that signals that this is by design, and it serves a purpose: that people can be exploited for their labor.”
“I grew up here. We had the corporate grocery stores that prioritize deals with Pepsi and FritoLay, so I'm growing up and I'm eating the stuff that's available to me. Then I go to other places, and they have grocery stores with health foods.”
“If we're told that we should be invested in this colonial project [America], and we should be voting and doing our part, when you see that difference, how could it not piss you off?”
South Central Run Club’s goals
This forced societal imbalance is a continued stain on this powerful country’s reputation, but it’s one that Brisker has tasked herself with remedying as much as she can.
“South Central Run Club came out of a need to bridge that gap. The onus is put on us to be well within a neighborhood that is the last of the affordable neighborhoods.”
She tells me how a goal of the run club is to cement traditional South Central culture.
Residents travel West for work and are slowly but surely migrating out of L.A. completely for a more affordable life. Building a community worth staying for and living in via a free wellness program is important work. Amplifying the stories and desires of that community, however, is essential.
With the ideas marinating in her head since 2017, the run club started to blossom in January 2020 with Thursday evening runs a regular on the calendar, and larger ad hoc events added in when required.
The figurehead improving social equity
I’ve met with Zaakiyah a few days after the third annual Fuck White Supremacy 5k - a major South Central Run Club event with a message that attracted around 150 runners this year. It’s a bold proclamation, isn’t it?
“I'm just saying what everybody's already thinking.”
While it shouldn’t need to be said that white supremacists can indeed get fucked, this is America. We don’t need to go back to 1776 or even 1976. This is a country where a right-wing militia and tens of thousands of American citizens - fueled by a racist, misogynistic, legally-very-questionable ex-president - tried to violently overthrow the sitting government just three years ago. They thought it was an ok thing to do.
Ironically, that was the kind of event America’s corporate military regime uses as proof that they must invade a country in order to instill Uncle Sam’s wholesome democratic values.
I suggest that Zaakiyah is the brave, outspoken figurehead required to organize those local thoughts and thinkers via the medium of running and this run club.
“There needs to be somebody who makes the call, but I do believe in the power of self-assembly.”
“Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter were doing fine before people identified a leader. In history, every time we seek out a leader the whole movement collapses, because people think that's all it takes.”
“I'm sticking my neck out just as much as everybody else. People show up. I just put out the calls. I’m just trying to have fun with my friends, and make sure that they feel comfortable where they live.”
Whether Zaakiyah agrees on her perceived position or not, being that figurehead takes its toll, regardless. It’s not likely that she’ll be taken out like Fred Hampton, but taking strong, public stances has certainly made people look at her in a certain way.
“Now, people perceive me as super radical and intimidating. Somebody was even talking to me about activist stuff in the middle of a party. I just wanted to dance!”
It’s fair and true. We’re having a serious talk about serious issues, but it’s not heavy or one-sided. Zaakiyah is approachable and sincere throughout. She speaks comfortably, with assured knowledge. She’s building something beautiful, rather than tearing any horrors down directly.
“I am very angry but I have a healthy outlet for my anger. I'm a Black member of society, so therapy and all the tools and resources people traditionally use were not afforded to me. My biggest wellness outlet was venting to my family and friends and so I feel like I can't not release it because the odds are stacked differently.”
It’s difficult to stand up and try to redress the balance. It takes a bold individual. It takes anger, but also control and purposefulness. It takes a deep understanding of both history and current affairs.
All of these criteria are present and correct in Zaakiyah Brisker and South Central Run Club.
In this American election year, you can be sure there will be a lot of people trying to gain power with fear and anger in their words and actions.
Identifying those who instead move with beauty and progress is crucial. I believe that taking an extra step by celebrating and elevating those people (as I try to do with this publication) is the best way. Fill your world and the worlds of those around you with positivity and we can have a brighter future.
It’s like when you’re eating healthily. If you’re hitting your protein, water, and fiber goals by consuming less-processed foods, there’s just going to be less space in your stomach for junk.
With a little effort, we can build a new Standard American Diet in our bodies, in our politics, and in our communities. I’m sure of it.
Ways to make running suck less covered this week
Wait for the runner’s high
Organize your community for the greater good
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
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Running and writing.
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Other LA run clubs
South Central’s gentrification [PBS]
About Black Panthers SoCal [WEB]
Other hood films [DAZED]
The Standard American Diet [WEB]
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