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The February 23 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery, by two white men, Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, has sparked outrage across the United States.
This outrage exploded across social media when video of the incident was released online, leading to the arrests of the two men more than two months after the shooting occurred.
Prosecutors in Brunswick, Georgia, where the shooting took place, had initially refused to press charges against the McMichaels men. Arbery’s mother and black civil rights groups had fought for justice, but largely failed to break into a news cycle dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.
It was only when the video was released online that the killing of Arbery garnered national attention.
Many have called the shooting of Arbery, who was unarmed and shot while jogging, a “modern-day lynching.” Anger has coalesced around the fact that prosecutors in the state only brought charges after the video of Arbery’s death was released to the public.
The slowly emerging details of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder
On April 26, the unprovoked murder of Ahmaud Arbery first gained greater national attention after a report on the crime appeared in The New York Times. The report noted that the two men had chased after Arbery, who was out for a run, in their truck. They had “a .357 magnum revolver and a shotgun” and, after a brief struggle, Arbery was “shot at least twice.”
Before the death of Arbery became national news – with politicians, civil rights activists and celebrities calling for “Justice for Ahmaud Arbery” – a local Georgia newspaper, The Brunswick News, had been keeping abreast of the story.
On February 24, The Brunswick News reported on the shooting death of Arbery by stating simply that “Police are investigating the shooting death of a 25-year-old Brunswick man Sunday afternoon in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in southern Glynn County.”
The six-sentence bulletin was short on details, other than providing the victim’s name, the time of the shooting (1:08 pm) and the block where the shooting occurred. Neither of the perpetrators were named in the account, nor was it detailed that there were two men involved in the shooting.
On February 27, The Brunswick News again reported on the story, stating that a “conflict of interest for the local District Attorney’s office” was leading to the case being referred to George Barnhill, the district attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit.
No suspects were named in that report.
A day later, the same local paper reported the reason for the conflict of interest. Gregory McMichael, who along with his son Travis had chased down and shot the 25-year-old Arbery, was a retired “investigator with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.”
More details of the shooting wouldn’t come out for more than a month. On April 2, The Brunswick News again reported on the story, now able to give a fuller picture. The two men claimed that they had suspected Arbery of burglary and had, as a result, chased him. With Travis in the driver’s seat and his father in the bed of the pick-up, they attempted multiple times to cut off Arbery who was jogging.
Eventually, the truck pulled in front of Arbery and Travis McMichael, brandishing a shotgun, got out to confront the 25-year-old African American man. In the video, the two are then seen struggling over the gun and the sound of a gun going off is heard. At the time, the elder McMichael claimed that Arbery had “violently” attacked his son and that he had fired in self-defense.
The prosecution of Gregory and Travis McMichael
As reported in The New York Times’ April 26 story, by the end of April, District Attorney Barnhill had decided not to press charges against the McMichaels. The reason given was Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute and the prosecutor’s view that Travis had acted in self-defense.
Following this, it didn’t appear that anything new would come of the case until a video, which the prosecutors had previously seen, was leaked to the public.
On May 5, a 36-second cellphone video of the confrontation between Arbery and the McMichaels, recorded from inside a car, emerged. It shows Arbery running and attempting to go around the McMichaels’ white truck. A brief confrontation occurs, followed by the sounds of three gunshots before Arbery attempts to run away once again, falling instead to the ground after being fatally shot.
The video rapidly went viral, with outraged viewers calling it a “modern-day lynching” and demanding that the two men be prosecuted. The story was quickly taken up by celebrities and politicians, with memes and the #JusticeForAhmaudArbery hashtag spreading across social media accounts. Protests also took place in Brunswick.
The public outrage apparently had an effect. On Friday, May 8, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that both McMichaels had been arrested on Thursday and were being charged with murder and aggravated assault.
The arrest was celebrated online, but for Arbery’s mother and many in the black community, the failure of law enforcement to act until their hand was forced by the public outrage stings, regardless of whether the McMichaels are ultimately punished.
The echoes of history
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, has been working to get justice for her son since the murder first happened.
Alongside Cooper were prominent civil rights groups and activists, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Georgia’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These groups and individuals had called for criminal charges to be brought against the McMichaels.
Many have made a connection to the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man, who was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was initially not arrested for the killing under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. After protests and a public outcry, Zimmerman was arrested and tried, but ultimately found to be innocent of murdering Martin.
Even with the arrests of the McMichaels, there are concerns that justice will not be served for the deceased Arbery.
Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University, responded to the news of the McMichaels’ arrest, tweeting, “It took 74 days, a smoking gun video, and a national campaign to get an arrest in the Ahmaud Arbery case. And many of us, quite reasonably, have no faith that a trial will produce justice. Yet another example of how little Black life is worth to this country.”
The repeated assertion that the death of Arbery is a “modern-day lynching” is in reference to a period when much of America was under Jim Crow laws. At that time, public lynchings, while not technically legal, were an extralegal method of punishment, frequently used to kill African Americans who had angered whites in some way. Of the 4,743 lynchings that took place in the US from 1882 to 1968, 3,446 of them – approximately 72.7% – were of black people.