How the Boston Marathon “Free Hugs” Guy Became an Activist
On Feb. 3, Ken Nwadike Jr., also known as the Hugs-Guy, told his story about how he went from growing up in a homeless shelter to being a well-known peace activist.
He also explained how he went viral on social media from offering free hugs at a marathon, and why he now “go[es] into riots and protests to deescalate” the situation. This event was presented by the Multicultural Affairs Department at Eastern New Mexico University as a part of the annual Black History Month observance.
Nwadike said he grew up in a community where there was a lot of distrust with law enforcement. His first experience with law enforcement took place as a child; he came home from school one day and saw several people in black uniforms surrounding his house. When he entered the home, they followed and immediately arrested his father.
After this, his mother moved him and his siblings to Los Angeles, where they lived in a homeless shelter while trying to get back on their feet. During his family’s time in the shelter, the area where they lived in Los Angeles was near the 1992 protests over the acquittals of Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been videotaped using excessive force to arrest Rodney King. He said there were people within the shelter who had returned after the protests with items that had been looted from stores. He said he asked his mother why they didn’t do that, so she explained to him the beliefs and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; after this, Nwadike became fascinated with King’s teachings.
Nwadike was able to build a future for himself after joining the track team in school, and he did well enough at a track meet that he able to get noticed by college scouts and Nike. While training for the Olympics with Nike, he decided he wanted to give back to the community, so he began working with a Los Angeles homeless shelter.
He planned a half marathon to motivate the children living in the shelter and show them that people cared about them; though he was initially denied a request to shut down thirteen miles of Hollywood Blvd. for the half marathon, he was able to raise over one million dollars with the help of the media and celebrities. This got him a meeting with police to pitch his idea for the half marathon; he said while he was in the room pitching his idea, being in a room with that many police officers took him back to when his father was arrested. However, this time he was able to team up with law enforcement to make the event a success, with more than 10 thousand runners during the first annual half marathon.
The day after the second annual half marathon was the day of the Boston Marathon bombing; he wanted to continue to inspire the children he worked with and didn’t want people to be afraid to run the marathon, so he trained to run in the marathon the following year because “running changed my life,” he said.
Although he didn’t meet the qualifications, he decided to go anyway and provide support and encouragement to the runners. He videoed himself standing at the edge of the runners’ path wearing a shirt that said, “free hugs.” Nwadike said he “wasn’t sure” if he would actually get any hugs.
By the end of the day, he received hundreds of hugs from the runners, and his video went viral. When he returned to the shelter, the kids wanted him to continue doing activities like this so others could see people “like them,” he said.
Since the 2014 death of Trayvon Martin, an African American high school student in Florida, he has gone to the frontlines of protests around the country to try and provide a solution to situations that are escalating. He said that he wants to “bring people together when there is division” and “help people understand one another.”
Nwadike’s new documentary “Called to the Frontlines” in now available on Amazon Prime Video; this is the first full length documentary film he has produced. His website is called freehugsproject.com.