Ahmaud Arbery: The Aftermath
The year 2020 will go down in infamy for many reasons — the deadly coronavirus pandemic and madcap presidential election especially come to mind. But perhaps the most lasting memory of 2020 will be the racial reckoning that took place, a culmination of decades of racial tension and struggles in the United States and the world, at large.
The global uprisings were unprecedented, with millions of people protesting daily in summer 2020. The wave of protests was spurred primarily by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was suffocated to death by a police officer in Minneapolis. But protestors soon added dozens of names to their resounding cries and chants, like Breonna Taylor (an unarmed Black woman shot by police in her own home), Elijah McClain (an unarmed Black man killed by police while on a walk), and Ahmaud Arbery.
Arbery’s story differs slightly from Floyd, Taylor, and McClain's, as he was murdered by white civilians — not police officers — in his hometown of Brunswick, Georgia. Arbery, an avid jogger, was running along a tree-lined street on a sunny February day when Travis McMichaels, Gregory McMichaels, and William Bryan approached him in their pickup truck. The three white men purportedly believed he was robbing an empty home and was possibly the culprit of a string of local burglaries. However, it is crucial to note that Arbery simply walked up to the home and left visibly empty-handed, and the “string of local burglaries” consisted of one reported car break-in during the previous two months. The men began chasing Arbery as he frantically fled from the vehicle and then shot him point-blank in the chest. Bryan recorded the entire murder on his cellphone.
After a protracted and controversial legal battle, all three of the men were convicted of murder. The men were charged with murder after Greg McMichaels released the recording, reportedly in an attempt to prove his innocence; before the video went viral in May 2020, the men managed to escape any charges.
Georgian prosecutors initially claimed that McMichaels and Bryan were within their rights to utilize deadly force because Arbery grabbed the shotgun during his fight with Travis McMichaels. According to Georgian law at the time, they were also within their rights to conduct a “citizen’s arrest” due to their suspicions about Arbery. However, once the video — which showed the men wantonly chasing an unarmed Arbery, physically attacking him, and then shooting him as he desperately tried to save his own life — was released to the world, the three men were swiftly brought before a grand jury and arrested.
Outrage and horror were rampant in the American public upon publicization of the murder — both at the lynching itself and also at the initial judicial handling of the case. Gregory McMichaels was a former police officer in Glynn County, meaning he was once a direct subordinate to then-District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Johnson, who directly instructed officers not to arrest either Gregory McMichaels or his son, Travis, for the murder of Arbery, was indicted on counts of obstruction and violations of oath by a public officer in September 2021.
The McMichaels and Bryan, who were known to use racist slurs and epithets, lived as free men for nearly three months after lynching 25-year-old Arbery, and it is doubtful whether they would have been charged at all if Gregory McMichaels had not shared the video. As such, this case became almost immediately notable for its similarity to Southern lynchings of the past, in which innocent Black men were baselessly accused of imagined crimes and then murdered, with little to no consequences for their murderers.
However, while it did initially call to mind lynchings of old, for many, this case is proof that the arc of the universe is indeed bending, albeit slowly, towards justice.
The McMichaels and Bryan will spend the rest of their lives in prison, and their time in court is not done yet — the jury is currently being selected for their federal hate-crime trials.
And in a move that creates a bittersweet but powerful legacy for Arbery, Georgia officially banned “citizens’ arrests” in May 2021, roughly 15 months after Arbery died. Georgia was the first state to do so, and the effort to repeal the law was profoundly bipartisan, as was the passing of a hate-crimes statute installed in Arbery’s name. It is perhaps testament to the truly appalling nature of Arbery’s murder that Gov. Brian Kemp, a staunch Southern conservative, proudly stated this regarding the ban: “we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse…with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward.”
As aforementioned, the uprisings against racial injustice in 2020 were beyond compare in terms of breadth and intensity, much of which was incited by the slaying of Arbery. But his death also had an impact on a smaller scale, leaving his quiet, coastal town of Brunswick flailing and exposed underneath the national spotlight.
The town had its share of racial animosity and division long before Arbery died. The neighborhood in which he was killed was almost exclusively white; statues of confederate soldiers stood, proud and gleaming, in Brunswick parks; elders in the community were still haunted by the bloody lynchings, attended by jeering white crowds, that once took place in the region. Change has taken place since then, torn-down statues and a Black mayor being proof of that, but it is slight and still marred by the horrific stain of Arbery’s death.
The owners of the empty house that Arbery was accused of robbing balk at moving in, horrified by the ghastly events of that February day; right across the street, a home is defiantly adorned with a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, commonly flown by far-right extremists. The Brunswick judicial system is slowly being filled by Black officials, hopefully, to provide less corrupt, more representative service to Brunswick inhabitants; at the same time, Black folks in the region live in more severe poverty than their white neighbors by a large margin. In Brunswick, it seems that for every mind opened by Arbery’s death, for every slight uptick in terms of accountability and justice, there are people still entrenched in the historic racism of the community, disparities that seem impossible to overcome. And perhaps the most haunting consequence of the event: Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, now lives with such profound grief that she can no longer bear to reside in the home that she and Arbery once shared, that he jogged away from that fateful morning.
For many in the community, it is difficult to be too grateful for the repeal of the citizens’ arrest laws or the indictment of Jackie Johnson when the trade-off was an innocent Black man dying alone in the street. As Ms. Cooper-Jones said, “I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction…Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change.” The political and social landscape of Brunswick might be slowly shifting towards racial equity and advancement, but Ahmaud Arbery is never coming back—nor are the many Black people who, due to both systemic and interpersonal racism, are still dying every day.