They Lynched Ahmaud Arbery In Georgia. A Prosecutor Convicted *Him*.
Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia. This was February, before the world ended, but as we know, the “good old days" weren't always pleasant for black folks. Arbery caught the attention of Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis. He looked free and happy, which they felt was suspicious. Gregory McMichael believed Arbery fit the description of a man suspected of some area break-ins. The McMichaels, armed with a .357 magnum and a shotgun, pursued Arbery in a pickup truck.
Armed white men chasing down black people usually aren't autograph seekers. The acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer, however, has demonstrated there's no downside for white men who play vigilante.
According to Gregory McMichael's own account in the police report, he and his son shouted, "Stop, stop, we want to talk to you!" Arbery was minding his own business and under no obligation to give them the time of day. They pulled up in front of Arbery, and Travis McMichael got out the truck with the shotgun. Arbery was just 25 but he likely possessed the ancestral memory to realize that white guys jumping out of pickup trucks with shotguns rarely ended well for black men in Georgia.
Here's the part of the police report that makes you want to scream and throw large objects. You see, the McMichaels thought their lives were in danger because a terrified Arbery tried to defend himself. Like George Zimmerman, this was a confrontation they created themselves, and like that moldering sack of crap, they were the only ones to walk away alive.
From the New York Times:
"[Gregory] McMichael stated the unidentified male began to violently attack Travis and the two men then started fighting over the shotgun at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot," the report states.
Those two shots ended Arbery's life. Neither of the McMichaels were arrested or charged. Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County, Georgia, police officer who retired last May. He'd also worked in Brunswick prosecutor Jackie Johnson's office. This might explain why he and his son didn't receive so much as a ticket for killing Arbery, but let's be honest: He didn't need any fancy connections to escape justice. Chief Justice Roger Taney's words from the Dred Scott decision continue to haunt us: "[Black people] are regarded as beings of an inferior order ...; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
The guy shot in cold blood needs “defenders"? Way to “both sides," New York TimesNew York Times
When prosecutor Johnson recused herself from the case, it was passed on to Ware County prosecutor George E. Barnhill, who also had to recuse himself because his son worked for the Brunswick district attorney. It's all one big family. However, before he left the case, Barnhill argued the shooting was justified under a bizarre interpretation of the state's self-defense and citizen's arrest laws.
It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and Bryan William were following, in hot pursuit, a burglary suspect with solid first hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/ telling him to stop. It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.
Arbery was a black man out for a jog. That doesn't make him a “suspect" in a burglary that happened days earlier and neither of the men chasing him actually witnessed firsthand. (Although even the New York Times refers to Arbery's “defenders," as if he himself is on trial.) It's grotesque that Barnhill considers this “probable cause" to detain a citizen. He also doesn't consider that Arbery would have any reason or right to fear for his life. Barnhill contends that the Michaels were free, white, and over 21 so could hunt Arbery like they were on safari. Barnhill grossly accuses Arbery of starting the altercation that led to his death.
The video — which we will, unhappily, link to below — does not show the first shot, but it's simultaneous with Arbery trying to pass the pickup on the right. Barnhill's "fact" that Arbery "initiated the fight" is so baldly unsupported by the available evidence, we don't even know how to respond. But we know Barnhill pissed on Arbery's grave with the typical character assassination we see when an unarmed black man is killed. None of it is relevant, but Barnhill contends that it explains Arbery's “apparent aggressive nature." The young man was fighting for his life. I'll keep repeating this until it sticks, but the armed white men chasing a guy through a neighborhood, and who shot him one second before we see him on video struggling to grab their long gun, are the “aggressive" ones.
Atlanta lawyer Michael J. Moore, who once served as a US attorney in Georgia, reviewed the police report and Barnhill's letter at the request of the Times. He politely called out the nonsense in Barnhill's opinion.
"The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime," Mr. Moore wrote.
This is what too many black people fear whenever we leave the house and dare exist in the world. Racism is more pernicious than the coronavirus, because we can't just wear a mask and keep six feet away from men like Greg and Travis McMichael.
The COVID-19 outbreak had prevented mass protests over the shooting and Jim Crow approach to “justice." It's depressing that you even have to protest this shit. Arbery's killers should be preparing for their trial rather than enjoying the freedom they callously denied him.
A third prosecutor, Tom Durden, based in Hinesville, Georgia, is now on the case. Courts are prohibited from empaneling a grand jury right now, because of the coronavirus, so it's uncertain when the next step will occur. Durden promises to look at Arbery's execution with “fresh eyes."
"We don't know anything about the case," he said. "We don't have any preconceived idea about it."
So, here we are again, holding our breath, and hoping for the barest sliver of justice, but regardless, Arbery remains dead for no good reason. His mother, Wanda Cooper, told CNN that the police, when notifying her of her son's death, claimed Arbery was "involved in a burglary." They'd already convicted him.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).