We can not stand by and be only witness to the cataclysm…we must be active participants. (Thomas Merton)
“We didn’t need a pandemic to remember how filthy America has been left by racism and the laws that uphold it.”
Ahmaud Arbery Should Be Alive
[Remember his name.]
Convicting his killers is the start. But the family of this modern lynching victim can’t have justice in a country with laws that protect white people who kill black people.
by Jamil Smith
Ahmaud Arbery was 25. A former high school football player who reportedly was passionate about staying in shape, Arbery was out for a run in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia. That’s a little more than an hour north of Jacksonville, Florida, if you need to get your bearings on a map. So that you can spare yourself the horror of actually watching the video, I’ll briefly describe what happened in broad daylight on the afternoon of Sunday, February 23rd.
I’m going to word this carefully, because I don’t necessarily believe any part of the story Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan are telling. Gregory, a retired investigator for the Brunswick County district attorney, told police that he first saw Arbery “hauling ass” that day down Satilla Drive, according to the police report. That is what a young, athletic man might be doing on a jog, first of all. But that sight provoked him to tell his son Travis that he suspected Arbery was involved in two recent burglaries in the area, even though neither of the alleged incidents had been reported to police and no official description was on record. Gregory made that assessment, despite the guy “hauling ass” past him. Was a black man running away in this predominantly white community all the probable cause that he needed?
The men loaded themselves up with a .357 Magnum and a shotgun before pursuing Arbery in a white pickup truck. Bryan joined them in the pursuit. Gregory told police that they were packing because “‘the other night’ he saw the same male and he stuck his hand down his pants which lead [sp] them to believe the male was armed.”
If we are to understand Gregory McMichael correctly, he claims he believed Arbery to be armed because — and this is his deduction, based upon his career as an investigator for the local district attorney — he saw a person who he thinks was Arbery the previous night stick his hand down his pants. Because heaven knows, no man in American history has ever done so for any reason other than procuring a handgun. (That he keeps there at all times. Even while supposedly “hauling ass.”)
That is the best story that he could devise for what appears on the video to be the deliberate stalking of a human being. Sure, there’s the audible, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” yelled by the McMichael boys, but what black man in America with a survival instinct stops when a bunch of white men with guns, without badges, hollers this at them?
The police report and full video, photographed by an as-yet unknown driver trailing the McMichaels’ truck, both detail what happens next. The McMichaels cut off Arbery’s path and then we see people getting out of the vehicle and hear yelling. As the car pulls up, per the police report account, the video depicts Arbery struggling over a firearm with Travis, the son. A man is perched in the bed of the truck overlooking. Shots are ringing out. By the end of it all, three shots are fired. At least two struck Arbery, who falls dead to the ground with a visibly bloody shirt. He was unarmed.
Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt, who last October secured a conviction of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger for the murder of Botham Jean, told me Thursday morning that Bryan was the person that recorded the video and that he believes Bryan coordinated with the McMichaels in committing the murder. “We are demanding that all three of these men be arrested immediately,” Merritt said to me via text.
(Update, 5/7: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced late Thursday evening, several hours after the publication of this article, that Gregory and Travis McMichael had been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.)
However, it is the video of this incident, emerging earlier this week, that has both seemingly secured the nation’s attention and an eventual grand jury in Brunswick County.
The killing happened more than two months ago, and a series of prosecutors have recused themselves from the case because they’re connected professionally to McMichael.
One prosecutor — Waycross, Georgia district attorney George Barnhill — wrote a letter that candidly stated why he felt that the McMichaels should escape accountability for the incident, citing Georgia’s open-carry and stand-your-ground laws, as well as its state code for grounds for arrest: “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
I want these men put away, but this is why the solution to incidents like this cannot be sought primarily through the courts. We need lawmakers to get busy. Open-carry must be abolished. Stand-your-ground has to go. State codes that allow citizens to arrest people? Those are golden tickets for lynchings. They should be relics of an America that should embarrass us.
Why should these be the priority? Given that racism has such permanence, it only makes sense that Americans must do away with any law or standard that empowers those who embrace that ideology. First, there is too much money in it. Those who seek to maintain power invest heavily in seeding it amongst the poorest, whitest Americans, and frankly, a lot of rich folks believe it themselves. So especially in this pandemic age, I’m even more about survival than ever. If black folks want to vent about the racism of the individuals involved here, I don’t begrudge them, especially if it helps assuage their anger and grief. But another reason why Arbery is dead today is that the laws of the land, along with those who enforce them, have long ensured that people like the McMichaels don’t have to think twice about picking up that .357 and that shotgun before running off to harass or even kill someone like Ahmaud Arbery.
With laws that made sense, at the worst we’re talking about a young man with some viral tweets about white guys who confronted him about burglaries while he was out for a jog. Maybe he even takes cellphone video of it, and laughs to keep from crying as he runs off. A lot of people will be doing the same as they run Friday in tribute of Arbery on what would have been his 26th birthday. I’ll join them. It will help sate the pain, for now, and demonstrate that we should be able to do what he was doing that Sunday afternoon without threat of losing our lives.
Arbery’s death didn’t get much media attention until now, in part because it happened right as COVID-19 began scaring us into submission. But even long before the coronavirus, there has always seemed to be some reason for us to look away from black death of this kind. The era that birthed Black Lives Matter is several years past, yet we keep needing to repeat those words to a largely white America that seems exhausted by them. The shock of Arbery’s limp body slumping to the ground after very real gunshots is here to once again wake up the “woke,” I guess. Saying their names over and over again to people who don’t hear them until we eventually lose our voices has to end. We cannot afford, as citizens, to continue propagating memes and other forms of online absolution without concrete action. Until there are severe and inescapable consequences for killing black people, anyone who isn’t fully antiracist will continue to do just that.
We didn’t need a pandemic to remember how filthy America has been left by racism and the laws that uphold it. However, we cannot baptize ourselves in the blood of the slain and leave feeling clean. We can no longer accept facsimiles. We must have actual justice.