By Maria Oswalt
On February 23, 2020, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by two men in a truck while he was going for a run in Brunswick, Georgia. The men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, accused him of having been involved in a recent string of robberies in their neighborhood. Then they shot him dead. No one has been arrested or charged for the shooting.
How can two men take it upon themselves to play the roles of judge, jury, and executioner and get away scot-free?
USA Today recounts their initial statements to police:
Gregory McMichael told police that he was in his front yard when he saw "the suspect from the break-ins 'hauling ass' down the street." McMichael told police that he and his adult son thought the man matched someone caught on a security camera committing a recent break-in in the neighborhood.
McMichael and his son, Travis, both grabbed guns because they "didn't know if the male was armed or not," according to the police report. He told officers they first tried to stop Arbery by shouting, "Stop, stop, we want to talk to you!"
McMichael said Travis got out of the truck with a shotgun and that Arbery "began to violently attack" him and "the two men then started fighting over the shotgun," the police report said. McMichael said his son fired two shots, according to the report.
The police report says Gregory McMichael turned Arbery onto his back to see if he was armed – but the report doesn’t say whether he had a weapon or not.
However, recently released footage that appears to show the incident tells a slightly different story. In the video — which was filmed from a moving vehicle driving up to the scene — Arbery is shown jogging down a neighborhood street, and the McMichaels’ truck is parked in the right lane. Their driver side door is open; one of the men is standing outside the vehicle, holding a shotgun, and another can be seen standing in the bed of the truck. Arbery attempts to get around them by jogging past on the passenger side — and then a gunshot is heard. The man holding the shotgun and Arbery get into a physical altercation, there are two more gunshots, and then Arbery collapses in the street.
It is a chilling scene. Watching it made me sick to my stomach. Whether or not Arbery was actually involved in the robberies, the McMichaels had no right to chase him down and kill him in cold blood. They looked like hunters chasing down prey. How did they get away scot free? How were they not arrested or charged, at the very least, with manslaughter?
An April 27 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), published before the release of the video evidence, gives some insight in this regard:
Greg McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer…[He] most recently worked as an investigator with the district attorney’s office. His former boss, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case. Waycross Judicial Circuit County’s top prosecutor, Roger Barnhill, took over but stepped aside a month later at the request of Arbery’s family. Barnhill’s son works as a prosecutor in Johnson’s office.
So is there a possibility that McMichael’s history with the police department and DA’s office may have influenced their decision to frame the shooting as an act of self defense? If it were not for the release of the gruesome footage and subsequent public outrage, the case would have closed there — with no one held accountable for Arbery’s death. Was this a cover up?
Unfortunately, it seems the Glynn County Police are no strangers to corruption and scandal. The AJC article goes on to mention the department’s recent mishaps:
In February, Glynn’s police chief and three former high-ranking officers were indicted on charges that they ignored evidence about a fellow officer accused of consorting with a drug dealer...One former officer was caught having sex with two confidential informants. There were also allegations of evidence suppression in a fatal police chase.
District Attorney Johnson, meanwhile, drew considerable criticism after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News found that she had assisted Glynn police officers in their defense against possible prosecution for the death of Caroline Small, shot and killed following a low-speed chase. The GBI’s lead supervisor on the case called it the worst police shooting he’d ever investigated.
With this knowledge, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that this was a deliberate suppression of justice. The racial dynamics at play in this scenario make it all the worse. The McMichaels are white. Arbery was a young black man. This, combined with the likelihood of corruption, has lead many to call his death a modern day lynching.
After seeing this, I did some searching online to learn more about the history of lynching in Georgia, and I made a sickening discovery: on February 22, 1891, almost exactly 129 years prior to Arbery’s killing in Brunswick, Georgia, two black men were lynched by a 150-person mob — in Brunswick, Georgia. Their names were Wesley Lewis and Henry Jackson. They were killed because they had been accused of the murder of a white man, C. Jordan. What a strange, sad parallel. Two black men get charged with the murder of a white man, and they are immediately, publicly executed. Nearly a century and a half later, two white men kill a black man in cold blood, and they have yet to even be arrested.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely not saying the McMichaels deserve death. I oppose capital punishment for anyone. I just want to see justice. Accountability. Transparency. I want to see an end to the "good ol' boy" system that allows racism and abuse to infect law enforcement. I want healing for Ahmaud Asbery’s family and friends. I want healing for all black Americans, who surely suffer collective trauma from having been wronged so many times by our justice system, since its inception. I want the results of this case, as it is revisited and brought to a grand jury, to reflect the fact that black lives matter.
If you are interested in taking action, you can contact the current district attorney on the case and call for justice at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomorrow, May 8th, would have been Ahmaud Arbery's 26th birthday. Many are planning #IRunWithMaud events on this day, during which supporters will run 2.23 miles (because Arbery was killed on 2-23-2020) in his honor.