Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23 while running in the predominantly white Satilla Shores neighborhood of Glynn County, Georgia. He was black and 25 years old.
A video captured his last moments. In it, two white men with weapons take him into the corner as he runs near their parked pickup. He is shot three times, twice in the chest. The other man is a former officer of the local police. Both men, a father and his son, were free until that video went viral on May 5. It took 74 days after Arbery’s death for the men to be jailed and charged with murder; they are now facing possible federal hate crime charges.
The video drew attention to the murder of Arbery that he had not previously attracted. It also caused national anger: people were – and are – furious that an arrest lasted so long that the police seem to have authorized one of the suspects to act as a vigilante, that a small and interconnected local criminal justice community seemed disinterested in a full investigation, and especially that another young, unarmed black man had been killed for nothing.
That anger has sparked protests that called for the removal of the first two prosecutors placed on the case – in particular, one that suggested Arbery was a mentally unstable criminal. And it has led to calls from Arbery’s family that one number of commentators have noted: while the families of some victims of similar murders have called on the public to forgive, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said, “Ahmaud didn’t get a chance, he didn’t get a chance to live. … So I think they should get what Ahmaud got.”
His father, Marcus Arbery Sr., succinctly explained the cause of this anger: “My son was lynched”, Arbery said. “Lynch by a racist lynching gang.”
Arbery was indeed lynched.
That’s why the video caused so much outrage: It appears to exhibit a particularly violent lynching – the video itself serving as a memento or vehicle for spectacle – encompassing the darkest parts of the black American experience. When watching that video, we don’t just see Arbery’s last moments; we are also reminded of the ugly, racist history that has left the US with a sinister legacy it has not been able to take into account. For many, this legacy is a matter of life and death, but it is also a constant source of fear and pain for color communities.
Georgia has a long history of lynchings
Lynchings in America are lawless murders generally committed by groups of whites, mostly targeting their fellow Americans of different races. NAACP Research has shown that 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968; the vast majority – 3,446 – were lynchings of black Americans. However, many minority groups have experienced lynching; for example, 15 Latin Americans were lynched in Texas one night in 1918 after being accused of being thieves. And a night of lynching in Los Angeles in 1871, 10 percent of the city’s then Chinese population was killed. Historically, lynchings have been used to strengthen a control system and to prevent minorities from even thinking of enjoying their rights as American citizens.
Unfortunately, Lynchingen is not a thing of the past. In fact, there has been a push led by black lawmakers in recent years to make lynching a federal hate crime.
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, sponsored by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC), defined lynching as “wanton” [causing] bodily injury to another person, due to a person’s actual or alleged race, color, religion or national origin. “The House has never approved this bill, but has a more recent own version, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), which has not yet been passed by the Senate.
Minorities have been lynched in American history for a variety of reasons. Charles Lewis was lynched in 1918 for refusing to empty the pockets of his army uniform. Richard Wilkerson was lynched in 1934 for defending a black woman attacked by a white man during a dance. Sam Gates was lynched in 1917 because it was ‘annoying’.
The terror inherent in this uncertainty was exacerbated by lynching as a public spectacle; some have encouraged white citizens to participate directly in torture. For example, during Luther Holbert and his wife’s lynching in 1904, a crowd cut off pieces of their ‘quivering flesh’ while they were alive, while spectators drank lemonade and whiskey and bought snacks.
Pieces of lynched black bodies were also used as souvenirs. In Arbery’s home state of Georgia, Sam Hose – lynched in Newnan in 1899 – had his heart, liver, and bones sold to spectators.
Overall, Georgia has had a particularly high number of lynchings – it ranks second after Mississippi in terms of the number of lynchies committed between 1880 and 1940, according to an analysis of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Three of the 589 known lynchings that occurred during that period were committed in Glynn County, an investigation by the University of Georgia Found: In 1891, two black men accused of murdering a shopkeeper, Henry Jackson and Wesley Lewis, were jailed and lynched by a group of 300 men. Three years later, 100 men robbed and lynched Robert Evarts, a black man accused of rape.
These cases reflect something that is true in many lynchings: an impotence or even apathy on the part of law enforcement – and an eagerness of individuals to do with their own hands what they believe to be justice.
None of these Glynn County lynchings represents the kind of terrorism inherent in the lynchings of people like the Holberts. But they took place at a time when terror lynchings were a constant backdrop, persecuting black people for existing and creating an atmosphere of terror for black Americans who are just trying to live their daily lives.
Arbery’s murder took place in a similar atmosphere, as recently released details remind us. And the passivity of its local law enforcement officers is in many ways reminiscent of the fact that the Glynn County officers did not control the lynch mobs at the turn of the century.
What happened to Ahmaud Arbery is a repetition of the past
Arbery – known to his family and friends as a great athlete and a former high school football star – went for a run on February 23, one that took him through a predominantly white neighborhood near his home, Satilla Shores.
He reportedly stopped en route to look at a house under construction owned by a man named Larry English, and was caught – like a number of men, women and children had been for him – on a surveillance camera.
Engels has said that he usually used a non-emergency number to report entrances to the police. However, on the day Arbery was murdered, 911 received multiple calls about a Negro man at the house who also ran through the neighborhood.
While these calls were being made, the two men now arrested in connection with the murder of Arbery – Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and prosecutor who had been robbed of his law enforcement certification after repeatedly failing to complete the required training – saw Arbery running down his street. Gregory McMichael later told police that he believed Arbery was the person behind some burglaries, and yelled at his son, “Travis, the man is running down the street, let’s go.”
Travis McMichael says he was the victim of one of those burglaries, and Gregory McMichael is reportedly interested in the ongoing banned event in the English language field. So much so that according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, member of the Glynn County police told English in December to contact the older McMichael, not the police, when his security system caught people on his property.
“Greg is a retired law enforcement officer and also a retired detective of the prosecutor’s office,” texted agent Robert Rash English, along with McMichael’s phone number. “He said that if you get action on your camera, please call him day and night.”
The English lawyer has said that her client did not contact McMichael on the day of Arbery’s death – or any other day. McMichael later told police that he linked Arbery to thefts based on a description of the person who had broken in his son.
It’s hard to imagine that that description doesn’t pertain to ethnicity – a reality that has prompted many, including Arbery’s family attorneys, to suggest that a series of 911 phone calls provide the real impetus for McMichael’s assessment. In one case, the caller does not explain why he called, but notes, “A black man is running down the street.”
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in their truck; they were assisted by William “Roddie” Bryant, a neighbor now under investigation for his role in the murder of Arbery. It was Bryant who made the viral video of Arbery’s murder. (According to civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, there is another version of the video that shows the men chasing Arbery with their vehicles longer than four minutes.)
The shorter, publicly available version – that WSB-TV station in Atlanta reports that Gregory has requested McMichaels to be leaked, believing it is exculpatory – shows Arbery running away from Bryant’s vehicle to a white truck blocking part of the road. Travis McMichael is standing at the driver’s door with a shotgun, his father in the truck’s flatbed.
You watch Arbery try to escape and then struggle with Travis McMichael as two shots are fired. After a third shot, Arbery falls to the floor, his white shirt red with blood. When the police arrived, Arbery was dead; they took a statement from Gregory McMichaels, watched Bryant’s video, and then everyone went home. Ultimately, the video was broadcast all over the world and watched millions of times online, promoting a modern version of those earlier lynching where the audience took part in the spectacle.
Until May, the investigation into what happened was limited. The first prosecutor assigned to the case dismissed herself because Gregory McMichaels worked for her. In a letterthe second prosecutor, George Barnhill, suggested Arbery had mental health issues, emphasized Arbery’s previous interactions with law enforcement officers, and argued that the McMichaels had the right to kill Arbery under Georgia’s open carry and standby laws . He also claimed, without evidence, that Arbery “initiated the battle” and had an “apparently aggressive character.”
Barnhill rejected himself after Arbery’s mother pointed out that his son was working next to Gregory McMichaels in the First Prosecutor’s office. When he retired, Barnhill noted that his son and Gregory had also participated in an earlier prosecution of Arbery.
The day the video about Arbery’s murder went viral, the state of Georgia took over and the McMichaels were arrested two days later. The Department of Justice then began assessing the delay of local authorities in arresting and weighing hate crime charges. A fourth prosecutor has been appointed to say she plans to demand the death penalty. A fifth judge was put in charge of the case after four judges with ties to Glynn County reused themselves, and an association hearing is expected soon; the latest prosecutor has said she plans not to offer a bond.
Amid these rapid developments, there have been a number of protests – many of which called for the removal of the first two prosecutors, a call that was repeated by various state legislators.
How the case was originally handled reveals the limits of a legal system that is often willing to give some – whether they are members of a lynching gang, former law enforcement officers or both – the benefit of the doubt. It seemed almost impossible to conduct a serious and rigorous investigation into Arbery’s death by people linked to Gregory McMichael, especially given Barnhill’s attempt to jog a black man as “ aggressive. ” In such systems, it seems inevitable that black people will be unnecessarily harmed and arbitrarily criminalized.
Why Ahmaud Arbery’s death was lynching
There is no evidence that Arbery broke into the area. The McMichaels are said to have seen Arbery, armed themselves, chased, captured and shot. The police, like the officers in earlier lynchings, have not arrested them. In fact, they had empowered Gregory McMichael to take matters into their own hands, as the text messages show. The prosecutors initially assigned to the case knew the McMichaels and were part of their circles; the first employed Gregory, and the second defended the actions of father and son.
Lynchings don’t need proof. Debt is suspected based on appearance. It is important to observe that Gregory McMichaels claims he “would never have chased anyone because of their color.” But he also said Arbery matched the thief’s description; It is not clear whether Arbery was the same height or weight as the suspected burglar, but he was clearly a black man. There was something about his appearance – including the color of his skin – that led older McMichael to assume that Arbery was the suspect of the burglary.
One reason why lynchings do not require evidence is that they have traditionally been used to speed up the course of justice. Henry Jackson and Wesley Lewis – the two black men lynched in Glynn County – had both confessed to killing. They were in police custody and would likely have had legal consequences if convicted. But a lynching gang refused to wait for the criminal justice system to work.
In Arbery’s case, McMichael, although no longer a civil servant, volunteered and was charged with performing law enforcement work by the officer who shared his contact information with English. Violation is intended to be investigated by the police. But the lyrics of the Glynn County police officer seem to say English: the police are not needed – there is someone else who can take care of this for you. A concerned McMichael could have called the police to Arbery and waited for them to investigate. Instead, McMichael reportedly did what he did with English: he mediated in police cases.
Perhaps he felt empowered to do so because he had been promoted as an alternative to real, active law enforcement officers. Lynch mobs were treated the same way – they were often seen by authorities as not only above the law, but also the law itself.
This is why lynching people of color rarely bought consequences – and was sometimes even considered a reason for celebration: a lynch mob’s judgment was usually considered final. Its members have rarely been investigated or prosecuted. This created a supposed impunity that allowed people to lynch others with certainty. Their decision to murder a fellow citizen was as good as the verdict of a court: after they finished, a criminal was dead and the case closed.
And until the third prosecutor joined the case, this seemed to be how Arbery’s murder would take place. After Arbery was murdered, Bryan and the McMichaels returned to their families, their actions were sanctioned by a criminal judge, and it turned out to be that.
The McMichaels have now been arrested, but even if they have legal consequences, that doesn’t change the fact that Arbery – a black man – was chased, shot and murdered by armed white men through the streets. That, in its simplest form, is lynching.
And regardless of the final outcome of the McMichaels research, it’s important to remember that lynchings were often used as a control method and to protect a certain way of life. Looking closely, killing immediately reduced the already small number of black people in Satilla Shores by one; but in general, it also exacerbated the existential fears in the environment that have haunted black Americans since the early lynchings after emancipation.
February 23 was not even the first time Arbery had to face these fears. 2017 body cam footage, recently released by the Guardian shows that Arbery is questioned by police officers about why he was in a car near a park. He tells them that he was in nature, rapping into himself, enjoying a rare free time. But they tell him that he is suspicious, that he is in an area known for his drug trafficking, and the officers become aggressive when they all say they are afraid of him.
While Arbery protests, an officer places him against his car and says, “I’m not looking for you, I’m checking you for weapons,” and continues to search. No weapons are found, but when Arbery moves his hands to his side, an officer runs towards him.
Nobody wants to be treated like that. Nobody wants to be chased and killed. Nobody wants to be lynched. But it all happened to Arbery and it feels like it could happen to any black American at any time and for any reason. It is always possible.
Again, part of the reason lynchings were so successful as controls was because of their apparent arbitrariness. So black people operated with care or they would cross an invisible arbitrary line. But no matter how hard you worked, no matter how fast you ran, there was still a chance they would be trapped, knocked over that line and killed for it. And that inevitability – that someone, maybe you – would be lynched, whatever you did, created an atmosphere of fear, one that echoes today.
Arbery’s fate reminds us that black people can be killed for not only having sweets or sitting or sleeping at home, but also running. Just like any new lynch action did decades ago, Arbery’s murder adds to the feeling that no place is safe.