As the Virus Spreads, So Does Racism in America by Channing Jaye-Scott

As most of the world is frightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the family and friends of Ahmaud Arbery are grieving the loss of their innocent son, brother, and friend. Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man in the process of becoming an electrician, was shot and killed in Brunswick, Georgia by white father and son, Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34. 

According to CNN, the McMichaels were arrested during the evening of May 7th and face charges of both murder and aggravated assault. However, these charges have been brought  74 days after Arbery’s death, which took place on February 23rd. The primary reason for McMichaels’ arrest was a leaked 28 second cell phone video, released on May 5th by William Bryan, who was also a part of what he called the “hot pursuit of a burglary suspect.” The video shows Arbery jogging toward a parked white truck where Gregory McMichael is allegedly in the flatbed, armed with a .357 magnum handgun. The video also shows Arbery running around the truck from the passenger side, but when he emerges, he and Travis McMichael are seen wrestling while Travis holds a shotgun, which goes off three times, shooting Arbery in the abdomen. Shortly thereafter, Arbery is seen stumbling in front of the car before collapsing to the ground as the video ends. The video has gone viral, enraging millions, especially African Americans.  

However, the most important events are the ones leading up to Arbery’s murder. According to ABC News and Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery Sr., their son went for routine afternoon jogs through Satilla Shores, Georgia, a neighborhood located near Brunswick. Only one thing was different on February 23rd when Ahmaud Arbery went on his run. According to ABC News, officers had been called to the Satilla Shores neighborhood several times since October 2019, on the basis of a trespasser on a construction site of a new home being built near the McMichaels’ house. On February 11th, the owner of the construction site told the police that the same “unknown black male” had continued trespassing and was caught on surveillance cameras on the site. In the police report, the owner later described the suspect to be a “lighter skinned black male” with a “slender build” who was between 5 feet 10 inches tall and 6 feet, who had a 3- to 4-inch “twists/dreads hairstyle”, and whose arms may have been covered in tattoos. This report of the suspect is allegedly what preempted the McMichaels to later chase and kill Ahmaud Arbery. However, Ahmaud Arbery did not match the profile of the reported suspect: he was 6 feet tall with a darker complexion, and instead of a twist or lock hairstyle, he kept a low cut fade, even up until his death. 

Another event that raises suspicion surrounding Arbery’s case was how the police notified his mother of his death on February 23rd. As the video shows, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in the street. However, when the police came to the home of Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, she was told that her son had been shot and killed inside of a house during the commission of a burglary. Additionally, in the police report regarding Arbery’s death, published in an article from the New York Times, it was stated that Arbery’s death was the result of him being guilty of “criminal trespass,” demonstrating the authorities’ misrepresentation of the basic facts of the case from the beginning. 

An investigation was opened with the Brunswick County Police and District Attorney’s Office by Cooper-Jones, upon which District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the investigation, citing a conflict of interest, as she knew Gregory McMichael, who retired from being an investigator with the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, and was previously employed as a police officer for Glynn County. The case was then referred to George E. Barnhill of the Waycross District Attorney’s office, who, Cooper- Jones discovered, had a personal connection to Gregory McMichael as well. According to the New York Times, Barnhill later wrote a letter that stated that he was also recusing himself from the case, additionally explaining that there was not enough probable cause to arrest the McMichaels, despite the coroner’s report from the Glenn County Coroner’s Office stating that the 11 shotgun pellets removed from Arbery’s chest were the reason for his death. Furthermore, Barnhill stated that the McMichaels had intended to stop and hold Arbery, a “criminal suspect”, until law enforcement arrived, which is supposedly legal under Georgia’s citizen arrest laws. Finally, Barnhill finished his letter by stating that Arbery initiated the fight, as he “grabbed the shotgun” and under “Georgia Law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force” in order to protect himself. In this way, the McMichaels were not immediately charged with Arbery’s murder as it was considered an act of self defense, despite the fact that the McMichaels were in pursuit of Arbery by car after racially profiling him as a criminal suspect and pointing shotguns in his direction while he jogged.

Finally, Arbery’s case was assigned to District Attorney Tom Durden of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, who stated that he had no knowledge of the case and did not “know any of the witnesses or investigators involved,” according to ABC News. Following the case assignment to Durden, on April 28th, community leaders, along with the NAACP, called for Durden to arrest the McMichaels for Arbery’s murder. Outraged by the situation, online petitions launched the hashtags “#JusticeForAhmaudArbery” and “#RunWithMaud” to mark what would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday, May 10th and Mother’s Day. 

Thankfully, Durden agreed with many that Ahmaud Arbery’s case should be presented in front of a grand jury to prove if the McMichaels should be arrested and charged with murder, but as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts will not be open until June 12th in Georgia. However, the family attorneys of Arbery’s family have still called for the McMichaels to be arrested, regardless of the current situation. On the same day of Durden’s announcement of his intention to present the case in front of a grand jury, the infamous cellphone video of the attack was released, causing Durden to call on Georgia’s Bureau of Investigations to examine Arbery’s case. After the start of this investigation, Arbery’s family attorneys held a press conference calling for the Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate his case and determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate. While the state of Georgia does not have its own hate crime laws, the McMichaels were nevertheless finally arrested on May 7th. 

74 days. Ahmaud Arbery’s alleged murderers were free for 74 days, while Arbery’s family grieved the dear loss of their son, brother, cousin, nephew, uncle, and friend. Arbery was laid to rest on February 29th, with his obituary reading, “He had a smile that would light up a room. He loved to tell jokes, to elicit laughter and had a beautiful personality.” However, Arbery will not fully be laid to rest until justice is given to his friends and family. 

More importantly, many questions remain concerning Arbery’s case: why did it take 74 days for the McMichaels to be arrested? Why doesn’t Georgia have hate crime laws? Why did it take 72 days for the video of the attack to be released?  Finally, why didn’t Ahmaud Arbery receive justice until after the video was released? All of these unanswered questions led to a widespread social movement, with the phrase, “Running While Black Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence” being the focal point on many social media posts. Even California Senator Kamala Harris tweeted this basic but nonetheless powerful statement. Leading up to Mother’s Day, many activists spread the word and pledged to participate in a walk, jog, and walk of 2.23 miles on Friday, May 8th to signify the distance Arbery ran the day of his death. 

Despite all of the social media posts proclaiming that exercising while black shouldn’t be a death sentence, Ahmaud Arbery’s jog still led to his horrific murder.  Black people relaxing in their respectful homes shouldn’t be a death sentence, yet Botham Jean was still murdered. Walking home with Skittles while wearing a hood and being black shouldn’t be a death sentence,  yet Trayvon Martin was still murdered. Walking back from the corner store while black shouldn’t be a death sentence, yet Michael Brown was still murdered. Being a black kid playing cops and robbers shouldn’t be a death sentence, yet Tamir Rice was still murdered. Hashtags, social media posts, and poster boards shouldn’t still have to be used to “prove” that black lives matter, too. Living while black should not be a death sentence, yet somehow, that is a conversation that still needs to be had in America, and  despite the current pandemic, Americans shouldn’t be complacent in this important conversation, of giving basic human rights and respect to African-Americans.

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