Exclusive Interview: After The Fallout – Dirty Kanza Founder Jim Cummins
Delving into the firestorm of controversy
Last month the world of gravel riding enthusiasts was rocked when word spread that due to the pandemic, Dirty Kanza – the world’s most notable gravel bike event – would not be held on its scheduled date (May 30) and instead be postponed until September.
Unfortunately, within weeks of the original date coming and going, the gravel world was forced to contend an even bigger storm of controversy when DK co-founder Jim Cummins went to his personal Facebook page to make a comment regarding the uproar over the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, GA. In posting a two-year old video that showed two cops coming under fire by a fleeing suspect, Cummins sought to make a parallel argument about the police’s use of force in the Brook’s shooting, and, that the latter shooting (where the officers were later fired and charged) was justified.
In equating the two events as evidence of the life and death consequences of working that come with working in law enforcement, Cummins took the added (and needlessly provocative) step of telling anyone who didn’t agree with his assessment that they could unfriend him on the page.
IN THE SHADOW OF JUDGEMENT
In addition to the raw emotions that exist about the enduring legacy of America’s treatment of African-Americans, and owing to the current headlines of abusive police practices and the unjustifiable killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Jim’s FB post created both a predictable and understandable firestorm of angry response.
Like so many others, I read with interest the long trail of posted comments that followed. And as much as anyone (including Jim) could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve seen it coming, I was nonetheless taken aback at what some people were saying about him. While I did not agree with his initial post, that many people were using it as a springboard to accuse him of being a “white supremacist” unnerved me.
I’ve known Jim ever since I first stepped foot in his hometown of Emporia, Kansas in 2015 to compete in my first Dirty Kanza gravel race. And, as much as some might think it’s the wrong thing to say, I am proud to consider him a friend.
Jim Cummins is one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever met. He is good people. Luckily, throughout the furor and ruckus he initiated – which included his being let go from his position as gravel overlord for the Life Time company that purchased Dirty Kanza from him last year – I’ve read the comments of countless others who agree with me. I’m inclined to think that a majority of these positive comments are coming from those who, like me, know Jim personally. They are from those who’ve ridden with him, those who’ve been on the receiving end of his charitable ways, and those who’ve witnessed him standing at the finish line of the DK embracing finishers at 2:00 in the morning.
Following his dismissal from Life Time, Jim issued a statement to explain his side of the situation. It was brief. And it was in the context of knowing the man who I didn’t think was that man that many were painting him out to be that I decided to track him down and talk about the fall-out as well as give him the opportunity to clear a few things up.
WHAT JIM HAS TO SAY
Hey Jim, care to jump in on all the latest goings-on?
“Let me first say that I made a mistake. There were a lot of lessons here; one was that a whisper can often be understood better than a shout. My Facebook post was a shout that came from a place of anger and frustration. What I was reacting to was seeing brave men and women being depicted unfairly – all the time recognizing that all of law enforcement are not good, but that most are.
What my post was intended to convey was that 1. It is not okay to conduct criminal activity. 2. It is not okay to resist arrest. 3. It is not okay to steal an officer’s weapon and use it against them. Not once did I make a reference to the race of either the police or the offender. Still, I was over-the-line in making any reference to someone’s guilt – that is always for the courts to decide. I remain a believer in the integrity of a police officer until time proves otherwise.
What does it say that the officer involved with Reshard Brooks has been charged in his killing?
I don’t know if I can speak to that…all I will say is that I will let the courts decide.
Some people have said that you’re taking this stand because you come from a law enforcement background.
“No. My parents were both educators and they raised me to believe in the rule of law to preserve the integrity of society. My father taught me many good lessons; chiefly that you always do the right thing, not because it’s easy, popular or expedient because they often aren’t.
“People will look at what I posted and say I didn’t do that – and I admit to that. My post was short – grossly so – on sensitivity and not reflective of having an open mind. In coming from that place of anger and frustration, it lacked any thoughtfulness. I’ve since spent a great deal of time reflecting and trying to learn. Again, I deeply regret what I said.
Earlier this year Dirty Kanza was already embroiled in controversy surrounding the name which some people saw as insult to the indigenous Kaw Nation Indian tribe. And some have even been ascribing that to you and your FB post on police conduct.
“Yes, I thought we had addressed this in April when I received a letter from the chairperson of their Tribal Council – who was basically the President of the Kaw Nation – who very eloquently and respectfully was asking about the name because some were concerned about it and she didn’t know whether to be against it or not.
“So, we set up a meeting and I cannot stress the enough the graciousness and dignity that they conveyed to me over the two hours. We had an amazing conversation and although I went in fearing the worst, I was still hoping for the best. Sitting in the President’s presence was awe inspiring and I just sat there soaking it in. The council took a vote and it was unanimous in favor of us keeping the name.
“I’ve read where people say that I chose the name to be a racist. The fact is that not only did I not choose the name, but I was originally against using it. When (DK co-founder) Joel Dyke and I first had the idea for the race, it was inspired by the Trans-Iowa race so we originally called it the Trans Kansas. However, the promotions company (Heartland Sports Promotions) that had been asking me to put on an event for them came up with the Dirty Kanza name for the obvious connection to the gravel roads. I had actually raised the issue about what the response of the Kaw Nation would be, but at the time no one thought the event would ever get any bigger than the 30 or so riders were attracting.
Now, I hope people understand that I’m not saying this now to deflect blame, just to understand and that there was never any racist meaning behind the name.”
(For more on Dirty Kanza’s name controversy)
Between the date changes brought by Covid-19, the name controversy, and now the blowback to your post, where do you find yourself these days?
“I’ve been blessed to work in this community for 15 years and I just hope people will judge me on my body of work and not one Facebook post. My inadequacies were evident in that post, but it means the world to me to know that there are people who still support me with those inadequacies. In the end, I believe my God is bigger than this and he’s not going to abandon me.”
Lastly, any word about the future of Dirty Kanza?
No, I am completely staying away from having any conversations about that. I don’t want the burden of knowing and I haven’t asked anyone to tell me.
OUTTAKES OF OPINION: WHAT OTHERS HAD TO SAY
“Maybe this is a round about way to move the race out of Emporia…..”
“I’m very disappointed in Jim’s comments and divisive post! I’m surprised that he felt the post would be acceptable, given his position. I’m thankful Lifetime make the decision they did!”
“Good for Kanza and Lifetime! Some opinions should be only voiced at night, behind pillow cases and at klan rallies.”
“It’s sad they defended their race name more than they did their race founder.”
“What’s a shame is that his opinions were correct. That’s the sad state of our society. Even if you are correct, you can be fired because of the pervasive groupthink that has taken over our society.”
“Lifetime, I am parting ways with your event. 6 DK’s and 1 DKXL but never again. Jim Cummins, if you start another event I will support that.”
“He should be accountable for what he says and his actions, you can’t do things or say things like that.”
“People apparently don’t like this decision but his opinion was that shooting a black man in the back as he ran away, killing him, was justified. People wonder why cycling has race issues and this speaks to that. Lifetime made the right move here.”
“Don’t know Him personally but he and fellow founders of this race brought the world together for a day. A day filled with people from all walks of life with the same desire to challenge themselves. A day that we weren’t our skin color, our sexuality, our religion, our politics. It was a day of gravel riders that connected us all to the beauty of the Flint hills and then connected us as fellow humans for just a moment.”
“The tides are changing. If you are a public figure, it’s probably a bad idea to present something that can be seen as racist (whether you feel you are or not). You can support police officers in much more productive – and less controversial – ways.”
“What I hope happens is that Jim Cummins starts a new race for which I will try to enter. I believe in free speech as well as an organizations right to take action. Life Time can fire Jim if they want but I can also choose not to support their business.”
“So is Lifetime going to “cancel” the registration of any rider who shares the same opinion as Jim? Asking for a friend.”
“We commit to continuing to learn, listen and grow” too bad Jim wasn’t allowed to learn and grow… simply silencing doesn’t resolve anything only deepens the divide.”
“We commit to continuing to learn, listen and grow toward making our sport a more inclusive and progressive place where all feel welcome and represented.”
“Tens of thousands of people from around the world know Jim Cummins. Find two that would say anything bad about him, his character, or reputation. He’s the definition of the American dream. Envision something, put in the sweat equity, grow and develop it and make countless people and business better and more profitable in the process. I support Jim and freedom of speech 100%. Inclusion, open mindedness, rejecting injustice etc.; unless of course it offends the mob, then destroy the man. No doubt this is the first step of renaming the race and relocating it to another town like Lawrence.”