Ahmaud Arbery and the Continued Pursuit for Justice

This blog post was written by Dion McGill, SCY Manager of Communications and Community Outreach. 

On the morning of February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery set out for a run. His route that morning would take him to Satilla Shores, a cozy subdivision just outside of Brunswick, Ga. Arbery’s aunt, Theawanza Brooks, would later tell authorities that the subdivision was a regular location for Ahmaud to run because he could stay off the nearby highway.

However, Ahmaud’s mere presence had raised eyebrows in the subdivision. His interest in a new home construction site had caught the attention of neighbors. He’d been seen entering the construction site on several occasions, and residents suspected Ahmaud of several break-ins in the community, although there was no evidence linking him to any wrongdoing.

On that fateful morning, Travis McMichael called 911, reporting that there was a guy in a house under construction.

““There he goes right now,” he says on the recording. “Running down the street.”

The dispatcher says she’ll send police but asks “I just need to know what he was doing wrong?”

That question lie at the crux of the Ahmaud Arbery murder. What had he done wrong that warranted three armed men chasing him down, eventually ending in the shooting death of Arbery.

The defendents in the Arbery case would go on to say that they followed Ahmaud because they suspected him of theft, and had every intention of executing a legal citizens arrest (then legal in Georgia under certain circumstances. The citizen’s arrest law was overturned after Arbery’s murder) and detaining Ahmaud for the police. They would go on to claim that this plan went sideways when Ahmaud fought back, resulting in the need to shoot him in self-defense.

It’s of interest to note that Georgia’s law dated back to 1863, and according to Cornell University criminal law expert Joseph Margulies, “was basically a catching-fleeing-slave law.” (Source)

Now two weeks removed from the guilty verdict for the three defendants, we have all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  However, there is so much that resides inside of the particulars of this case that reminds us that we have so much work left to do concerning issues of justice and race.

One of the key points of interest and ire in this case rests in what some have described as relationships of privilege.

When law enforcement arrived on the scene, bodycam footage showed that the defendents were treated courteously, one of them literally with blood on his hands, while Arbery lie in the street.

We’d come to find that Greg McMichael was a former police officer who had worked as an investigator in the DA’s office.

It would go on to take nearly three months before arrests were made, primarily due to mounting and ongoing public pressure, as well as the case being take from Glynn County police into the hands of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

If you were to ask members of the BIPOC community, many would tell you that this is treatment that they themselves would never expect to receive.

“They were given a courtesy that the normal citizen would not have received,” says Pastor John Perry who was president of the local NAACP when Arbery was killed.

“Particularly in the Black community if you were found to have killed someone,” he says. “You’re getting handcuffed and you’re getting booked.” (Source)

And with that sentiment, we uncover a primary issue that many black and brown folks see in the judicial system: lack of equal protection under the law.

The problem with the investigation and trial in the Ahmaud Arbery murder is that many sat with bated breath.

We did not know how the trial would end.
We didn’t know that justice would be served.
We did not know that a jury would say that you cannot literally chase down a black man in the streets simply due to “suspicion” without repercussions.

While we currently feel a small amount of respite and hope in the wake of the Ahmaud Arbery case, we also know that there is an immense amount of work that still needs to be done.

We must eliminate relationships of privilege, and realign our justice system to reflect the ideals that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is arguable and debatable whether the three defendants in the Ahmaud Arbery murder saw Ahmaud as an equal. Under scrutiny, it would appear that they did not. Rather, it would appear that they saw him simply as a homogenous being of a particular skin color. It would appear that these men allowed some modicum of racism to drive them into a series of actions that would go on to destroy countless lives.

We must do better.

It is arguable and debatable whether the police would have treated the assailants the same if the racial lines were reversed. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are well documented. When BIPOC persons say that they feel they receive swifter and harsher treatment in the judicial system, that opinion is backed by data gathered from research from a variety of organizations.

It also cannot be overstated how integral the activism of friends, family and supporters of Ahmaud Arbery were to seeing justice in this case. Without strong and steady advocacy and activism, this case could have simply disappeared into the annals of history. We also have to ask ourselves if there were no video of the incident if the case would have gotten the attention it deserved, let alone judicial action.

We must do better.

More work must be done to level the playing field for all involved. Strengthening Chicago’s Youth will continue to play our part in extending access and equity across Chicago, whether it’s through our collaborative PAR research focused on mental health and trauma in boys and young men of color, or working with a community of partners to provide care-coordinated services to justice-involved youth through the Juvenile Justice Collaborative.

We applaud the work of countless advocates, family and friends of Mr. Arbery, ensuring the release of video footage and the launching of an investigation into his death and the ensuing trial and convictions. However, this case still stands as a heartbreaking reminder of racial injustices of both the past and present and the countless number of other victims whose cases have not been investigated or heard in court.

We encourage you to all find your place in these pursuits to help bring our city, and our nation, to truly be a place welcoming and protecting of all people, regardless of demographic designation.


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