When everyone around you thinks you’re crazy, you may be the most sane person in the room. Or, in the case of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell, the most sane person in the marathon. Skid Row Marathon, a feature documentary which screened at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival at the Paris Resort in Las Vegas July 11-14, explores Mitchell’s story.
We first see Judge Mitchell sentencing a young defendant to what will probably be a lifetime in prison. This is not something he enjoys.
One of the defendants that he had sentenced asked him to visit him when he was released. The judge went to see him at the Midnight Mission homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ skid row, located in the shadows of the courts and city offices. This visit inspired him to act.
He thought that if he started a running club for the men and women there, the discipline needed to run would cross over into their personal lives and they could get and stay clean. As a motivation, he promised to take them to international marathons.
Now, you, too, might think he was crazy. But the club changed and continues to change lives for the better.
A Rare Documentary
Skid Row Marathon, created by filmmaking couple Mark and Gabriele Hayes, illustrates the impact the running club has on its members, including homeless drug addicts, a recovering single mom, a convicted murderer, and on the judge and his family. As the members of the club progress in their marathon training, they also progress in re-acquiring the ability to dream and to recapture their own dignity.
It is not often that documentaries, which tend to be the offspring of college lectures, move people emotionally. This one does. After watching it, you will never see homeless people the same way again.
Judges at Anthem were impressed, giving the Anthem/FreedomFest Grand Prize, the Best Original Score, and Best Feature Documentary awards.
A panel discussion, “Redeemed from the Streets: A New Approach to Re-entry and Rehabilitation”, followed the screening. Jo Ann Skousen, Anthem Film Festival director, moderated the panel which included Mark and Gabriele Hayes, Rafael Cabrera (a Skid Row marathoner), and Jay Holder, a former Sing Sing inmate.
Running for Trust
Mark Hays, who directed, explained that he and Gabriele used to live in downtown Los Angeles. They heard about the judge’s running club.
Gabriele said that after they decided that this would make a good documentary, it wasn’t easy to get started. “We ran with them for six weeks until we had their trust,” she recalled.
Mark said that when he first noticed panel participant Rafael Cabrera running with the group, he didn’t think he was a skid row type. “I thought Rafael was a sheriff’s deputy protecting the judge,” he said.
Cabrera admitted that at first, he wasn’t enthusiastic about the club. “If you ask anyone if they want to run they tell you ‘no’,” he said. “No one wants to run. The judge asked me, and it took a couple of years, but I got used to it and you get to know people. It’s like a big family.”
Skousen asked Cabrera if he counseled members of the group.
Cabrera replied, “I counsel them, and they counsel me. When we first started there was only five of us. Now there are fifty or sixty of us including ten cops from central division. I tell them I used to run away from you guys now I’m running with you.”
Cabrera did a lot of running in his past.
He talked about growing up in gang-controlled neighborhoods. “Sometimes in ten blocks there are three gangs. You can’t even get to school. You just worry about survival. Drinking and drugs, that’s the only lifestyle you know. When you end up in prison, you can listen to the guards or you listen to the gangs. The guards aren’t going to kill you, so you listen to the gangs. No one put a gun to my head and forced me to join a gang. That was my choice. I put myself in prison.”
Skousen Goes to Sing Sing
Cabrera was not the only panelist who “changed sides”. Jo Ann Skousen, besides running Anthem, is an educator and writer who teaches at Sing Sing prison. Jay Holder was one of her students at Sing Sing. He is now a Justice Ambassador for Columbia University.
Skousen asked him how he made the transition.
“How did I go from being incarcerated?”, he said. “It all started with the college courses Ms. Skousen was teaching. I’m just sitting there reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. He writes about how every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. And every morning a lion wakes up and knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running. When I left, I could run, not physically, but mentally.”
And for those who could run physically, crazy Judge Mitchell did get his runners to international marathons. To find out more about Judge Mitchell and his running club, and how to see Skid Row Marathon, check the films website. The trailer is linked, below.
(Pictures of panel by author)