Before he was Power Malu, he was Michael Angel Viera, a Nuyorican born and raised on the Lower East Side in the late ‘70s to Puerto Rican immigrants. His father, Luis Angel Viera, was a boxer who was part of the Empire Sporting Club, a gym opened by Cus D’Amato, a legendary boxing manager and trainer who managed Floyd Patterson and discovered a promising 12-year-old named Mike Tyson.
When he was 7, Malu would join his father on runs around the East River track and during his training at the gym, instilling in him the love for running and boxing he has today.
The Lower East Side of Malu’s childhood was infested with drugs and crime, but Malu says he felt nothing but love from his community. Injustice was everywhere—racism, food insecurity, redlining, to name a few issues—yet, everyone looked out for each other and found ways to survive. The Lower East Side burned, much like the way the Bronx burned in the ‘70s, with many residents believing that landlords were setting fire to their own buildings to collect insurance money rather than pay to fix and maintain their neglected property.
“My uncle was a victim of being in one of these buildings that were being burned,” Malu says. “Forty-five percent of his body was burned. That’s what was happening in our communities.”
Malu saw the problems in his own neighborhood and felt a calling to be part of the solution. He attended rallies as a teen and eventually got an internship with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, where he learned how to organize and help people.
He took what he learned and brought it to his own community, becoming someone who could mediate issues and build bridges between strangers. That’s Power Refinement, his uncle told him, referring to a set of principles by a Black nationalist movement influenced by Islam. You are Power. The name stuck. Later, when he became involved in hip-hop and MTV, Babee Power was his stage name. In his 20s, Power added Malu, after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Troy Polamalu, who has a foundation dedicated to humanitarian efforts. And that’s how Power Malu, the unofficial mayor of the Lower East Side, got his name.
Liz Rock doesn’t remember the first time she heard of Power Malu, but it feels as if he’s always been a part of her life as a runner.
“He’s a powerhouse in the running community,” says Rock, a cofounder of TrailblazHers, an all-female run crew based in Boston. “If you haven’t met Power in person, it’s like, you already know Power because of the influence he has in the running scene.”
Malu is one of the original captains of Bridge Runners, an urban running crew founded 19 years ago in New York by Mike Saes and Cedric Hernandez that’s widely recognized as being the first crew ever formed. He’s also the founder of Artists Athletes Activists, a nonprofit focused on health and social justice in underserved communities and is the “Community Bridge” at Overthrow Boxing Club, the original headquarters for Bridge Runners and a community space for activations like the “Bra Run” Rock organized there last summer.
Rock finally met Malu in person while visiting Overthrow in January of 2021. She told him about the “Bra Run,” an event she co-created to empower women of all shapes and colors and raise money for grassroots organizations. Later, when Rock mentioned she wanted to bring the event to New York, Malu offered to host the event at Overthrow and spread the word about it.
“He was so instrumental because we’re from Boston, we’re not from New York,” Rock says. “He helped us get connected with a DJ and who we should have for food. He was just that person who connected us with other people in the community. He ran with us and he was even kind of like our bodyguard. He was there from the beginning to the end.”
Malu also gave Rock some advice that she’ll always remember.
“One thing he told us to really think about when we’re doing these activations is to ‘make sure it’s about the ecosystem and not the ego-system,’” she says. “It’s not about us. It’s about the greater good.”
Running for Good
“My whole purpose in life is to connect people,” Malu says, standing near the entryway of Overthrow, under the glow of red neon lights. Over the course of our interview, Malu introduces me to Joey Goodwin, who founded Overthrow in 2014 after passing a “for rent” sign, to welterweight boxer Edgar “El Chamaco” Santana, a.k.a. The Pride of Spanish Harlem, and to long-time friends who happen to be visiting the city.
“How can I bring different people together and help us understand that our purpose is bigger?” he asks. “How can I create change so people can suffer less?”
In a lot of ways, Overthrow and Malu were made for one another, not just because of the connection to boxing and his late father, but because of the location’s rich countercultural history, evidence of which is shown all over the boxing gym’s walls in old newspaper clippings.
Activism has been a rich part of Overthrow's bones for decades. In the ‘60s, the location was the headquarters for Abbie Hoffman’s Youth International Party, which protested the Vietnam War, consumerism, and the U.S. political system as a whole. They published an anti-establishment journal called The Yipster Times, which was later changed to Overthrow after a yippie named Tom Forcade started High Times magazine in the building to champion legalized marijuana.
Overthrow’s boxing ring is also used as a stage for events, and the space has hosted runs for a variety of issues throughout the years. In 2017, Malu held a “Running for Justice” event at Overthrow to bring awareness to the fear-mongering that was occurring around immigration. He invited immigration lawyers and undocumented people in the running community and made connections between them.
In 2020, Malu joined forces with Coffey, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, writer, actor, and activist to create “Running to Protest” as a response to the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing racial violence against Black people. Nearly a thousand runners showed up, all wearing white T-shirts in a show of solidarity.
Participation numbers for recent runs are much lower compared to those first few runs when there was so much outrage and momentum to get people out the door. Still, people continue to show up because there are a barrage of issues that need our attention, whether it’s gun violence or reproductive rights or food insecurity or all kinds of discrimination.
“It’s a way of life,” Malu says. “It’s less about being reactive and more about being proactive. It’s every day. My job is to share what I know and what I’ve learned.”
This is why he’s happy to take the time to help out crews like Kim Rock’s TrailblazHers or Vics Lo’s Chinatown Runners—it’s not about him, not about the “ego-system, but the ecosystem.”
“That’s the beauty of having a bunch of running crews,” he says. “We can share the duty of bringing awareness to all these issues and show that they’re all interconnected.”
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