Runner says BIPOC run group being stopped by police was a ‘dehumanizing experience’

Mohamad Bsat and two friends were winding down their weekly five-kilometre run when they spotted red dresses draped from trees outside Hamilton’s central police station.

They slowed down to take in the installation, meant to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, recording some video and taking a few pictures before jogging off.

That’s when Bsat says they were stopped by a shout from two police officers.

“Immediately, from behind we hear this huge, confrontational yell, from the officers yelling at us ‘Hey, stop right there, get back here,'” he said.

He was a ways ahead when the officers called out and had to run back to where his friends had stopped. He says the trio were told police were responding to reports of suspicious activity in front of the station and were asked what they had been doing.

Taken aback, Bsat recalled asking, “what suspicious activity, two brown people and a Black person taking photos?”

The officers continued to question them, at which point Bsat said he asked whether they were being detained and, when he was told no, informed the police they would be leaving.

A spokesperson for Hamilton police said the interaction happened after two officers were flagged down by a “concerned citizen who reported the group for suspicious activity” outside the central station.

“The officers briefly spoke to the group near King Street before they continued on their run,” Jackie Penman wrote in an email to CBC.

Bsat said the runners are all part of The Air Up There Run Crew, a group specifically set up for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of colour) runners.

They meet every Wednesday.

“It’s kind of a place of healing for us, a place to discuss issues of systemic racism and oppression,” Bsat said.

He later posted about the interaction with police on Twitter, describing it as “the reality of running in Hamilton,” and asked for an apology.

Police take concerns ‘extremely seriously’

Penman said police are aware of Bsat’s posts online and have been in contact with him.

“We take these concerns extremely seriously and reached out and spoke with the complainant,” she said.

Penman said the service is “committed to continuing the conversation” with Bsat, but did not directly respond to a question asking about his request for an apology.

The red dresses are part of an installation in front of Hamilton’s central police station meant to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Bsat said he has since spoken with a police representative who told him the service would not issue an apology, instead directed him to file a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which handles complaints about police in Ontario, or ask for the officer’s supervisor to speak with them about the interaction.

Group shaken by incident

Bsat, who works as a lawyer with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said he has filed a complaint with the OIPRD.

The running group was shaken up after the incident, he said.

“It was a really dehumanizing experience because we put that run on as a way to take back our space, to empower us in a city where we experience a lot of systemic racism and oppression,” said Bsat.

“It kind of felt like our bubble of safety was infiltrated and stained.”

He added the runners feel they were racially-profiled and want police to realize that systemic racism does exist.

“The three of us who were stopped were all really big contributors to our community and in that moment it didn’t matter, we were still stopped because of the colour of our skin,” he said.

Despite what happened, the Air Up There crew is planning to continue its regular run Wednesday and is asking other BIPOC runners to join them.

“These streets are as much ours as any resident,” tweeted Bsat.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.