This editorial was originally published in the Dallas Morning News.
The implications of Ahmaud Arbery’s death go beyond Wednesday’s jury verdict and once again challenge us as a nation to confront how fragile obtaining justice can be when race is a subtext.
On Wednesday, a nearly all-white jury found the three white men accused in Arbery’s death guilty of murder and several related charges. It was a just verdict based on the evidence, and helps provide some measure of faith in our justice system. But the circuitous route to this verdict remains alarming.
Arbery was shot and killed in February 2020 as he jogged through Satilla Shores, a mostly white community a few miles from his home. Greg McMichael and his son Travis confronted and chased Arbery around the neighborhood, and after the shooting, told police that they suspected Arbery of burglaries in the area, and that he fought when they cornered him. William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined in the chase, used his vehicle to block Arbery from fleeing and recorded cellphone video of the fatal confrontation.
The pursuit of justice in this case got off to a start that seemed tailored to deny justice and truth around this killing. The three men were initially not arrested when police first arrived at the scene, and not until Bryan’s video appeared online months later did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation enter the case. One local prosecutor recused herself due to a prior professional relationship with the older McMichael, another said the case lacked evidence to charge the men and only later did a serious probe produce criminal charges.
Later, it was demonstrated in court that none of the three men charged with Arbery’s death had knowledge of Arbery committing a crime, and therefore had no valid reason to attempt a citizen’s arrest under Georgia law at the time.
That underscores the dangers of assumptions and narratives about race — that a Black man driving, jogging or even sitting in the wrong place can be detained or attacked based on rumor, speculation or a whim. Some sociologists and historians say this assumption has roots in the “slave patrol” that returned runaway enslaved people in the 1800s, and that Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that the three men say they were attempting to enforce is a vestige of that grotesque time in our nation’s history.
And it is that double standard that permeated this case, including in the defense’s ugly, racially charged suggestions that Arbery brought this upon himself. A security camera, for example, filmed Arbery entering a home construction site on several occasions. But the same camera captured other people coming in and out of the construction site at other times, too. Moreover, the property owner said nothing appeared to have been stolen from the site and no evidence was presented in court that Arbery stole anything or even committed a crime.
Yet both father and son acted on their assumption that the jogging Arbery might have been involved in this or other crimes in the area and took it upon themselves to menace and physically detain him for questioning. When he acted in his own defense, as any person would, they killed him. In essence, their assumptions about Arbery led to the confrontation that claimed his life.
The incontrovertible facts are that Arbery did not provoke the encounter, was unarmed, chased by armed men who trapped him, and shot in a struggle with the younger McMichael. However, without video of the attack, the self-defense story that the three men had spun probably would have stood up, no charges would have been filed and justice would have been swept under the rug and denied.
This case goes to the heart of who we are as a nation. We can only be grateful that the jury got it right this time.