More than two months after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Georgia man who was shot and killed while out for a run in February, Georgia police arrested two suspects, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael. Arbery’s story, and public outcry for an arrest, have gone viral in the past week after video footage of the murder was made public, sparking demand for justice across the internet.
High-profile figures ranging from Joe Biden, to Lebron James, to Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, weighed in on the matter, demanding that the suspects, who had been questioned by police, but were never arrested, be held to account.
Prior to the arrests, the local chapter of the NAACP had scheduled a rally for Friday morning outside the courthouse in Brunswick, GA. It would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday. The chapter’s vice-president, Gerald Griggs, said the rally will continue as planned.
“We are going to send a message,” Griggs said, “and the message is this: We will not allow unarmed African-Americans to be killed in this state with impunity. We will demand punishment within the fullest extent of the law.”
The Incriminating Video
Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23, 2020 while out for a jog in Satilla Shores, a quiet middle-class enclave about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick.
Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old former police officer, and his son Travis, 34, both white residents of Satilla Shores, started tailing Arbery in their pickup truck. They were armed with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum handgun. The elder McMichael later told police that Arbery looked like a man who was wanted for several break-ins in the area, which is why they pursued him that day.
A video of the confrontation between the McMichaels and Arbery, taken from some distance behind by a fourth person, depicts Arbery running along a two-lane road when he comes upon the pickup truck. After disappearing behind the truck momentarily, muffled yelling can be heard, before Arbery remerges, physically struggling with one of the two men. Three shotgun blasts echo and Arbery falls dead.
Slow Road to Justice
Many view the case of Ahmaud Arbery, which his parents have called a “modern lynching,” as a single instance in a much longer history of racial violence in the American South. The delayed legal response to the murder has drawn outrage, especially in light of the video evidence, which unambiguously shows that Arbery was shot dead in public.
Documents reported on by The New York Times show that George E. Barnhill, a Georgia prosecutor, who was assigned the case weeks before and ultimately recused himself for a conflict of interest, had discouraged Glynn County Police from issuing warrants against the McMichaels, claiming “insufficient probably cause.”
Barnhill insisted that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons legally under Georgia law and that Travis McMichael was legally “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself” against the unarmed Arbery, because it looked as though Arbery had initiated the skirmish.
The case has since been reassigned to District Attorney Tom Durden, who announced, amid this week’s outrage and media attention, that he would ask a Glynn County grand jury to determine whether warrants ought to be issued. He also called upon the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to get involved. Late Thursday, both Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged for the murder.
Voices from across the political spectrum arose in outrage over the mismanaged case. Both Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, and his former Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, called for deeper investigation in the matter, with Kemp tweeting that “Georgians deserve better,” and Abrams writing, “our systems of law enforcement and justice must be held to the highest standards.”
Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Thursday that Arbery had been “lynched before our very eyes,” and that the events “call to mind the darkest chapters of our history.” President Trump agreed, calling the video “very disturbing.”
Still, despite broad consensus that Arbery’s death was tragic, the case reveals the failure of deeper systems to uphold justice in Georgia. The delayed response of prosecutors to release the video evidence, to remove DA Barnhill from a case, and to issue arrests against the McMichaels, reflect a general lack of urgency to bring perpetrators to justice.
Moreover, the laws that have thus protected the McMichaels from scrutiny, including open-carry laws and stand-your-ground protections, have made it harder for the suspects to be held to account for murdering an innocent jogger.
Finally, while it’s impossible to quantify the role that race played in this specific case, Arbery’s death did not occur in a vacuum. Countless lynchings that killed black men and women over centuries in the American South were never investigated. And while Ahmaud Arbery’s family may yet see justice for their son, those lost to the annuls of history never will.