Ahmaud Arbery will not be erased

But will his death finally force America to see the truth?

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Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
—James Baldwin

Black people disappear in America. This fact is woven into the fabric of our country. Parents are separated from their children at slave auctions, never to be seen by them again. A loved one is here one day and turns up in the Jim Crow woods the next, dangling from trees under the cover of nightfall and inhumanity. I grew up with my father telling me stories of the 1964 Freedom Summer in which three activists­—Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney, the sole African American in the group—went missing for 44 days after driving down a dark road in Neshoba County, Mississippi. My father, at the time a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality, assigned those men to that tragic mission and would have been in the car with them if not for a bout of bronchitis that had left him bedridden. The three men were lynched by a mob of Klansmen and police officers. Knowing my father could have been their fourth victim kept me up countless nights as a child.

The part of the story that most haunts my father, though, is that during all those weeks of looking for the three men, search parties discovered so many forgotten Black bodies in Mississippi ditches and swamps. “Nobody was even looking for them anymore,” my dad would say. The echoes of those silenced Black voices reverberate through my family’s bones.

Ahmaud Arbery
The burned station wagon driven by James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner was found shortly after their disappearance, near a swamp 10 miles north of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi.

AP Photo/State of Mississippi, Attorney General's Office

Georgia, of course, has its own history of disappearing Black bodies. From 1877 to 1950, there were 589 lynchings in the state, according to the Equal Justice Initiative—the second most in America. These killings sometimes happened in front of audiences, white children watching with their parents, or with police cooperation. In 1946, a crime considered to be “the last mass lynching in America” was carried out an hour east of Atlanta in Walton County. Near Moore’s Ford Bridge, a mob of white men blocked the car of Roger Malcom, his pregnant wife, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, her brother, George Dorsey, and his wife, Mae Murray Dorsey. They were shot 60 times. No one was charged.

A little more than three decades later, at least 29 Black children and young adults went missing from 1979 to 1981 in what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Some of those bodies were discarded like trash. In the investigation’s early days, the police response was sluggish—nothing like the immediate mania that would have ensued if the bodies of white children had been discarded that way. Each child’s death further terrorized and traumatized Georgia’s Black community. In 1982, James Baldwin flew from Paris to Atlanta to write about the trial of Wayne Williams, the man believed to have been responsible for those murders. His reporting eventually became the 1985 book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, about America, race, and how a country allowed Black bodies to continue to disappear.

“Black death has never before elicited so much attention,” Baldwin wrote, noting that “this is not the first time such a devastation has occurred: It is the first time that Authority has been forced to recognize the devastation as crucial.”

Another three decades have gone by, and Black death continues. Authority, meanwhile, still has a hard time recognizing the truth of the devastation: Black bodies in America remain disposable.

Ahmaud Arbery left his house on February 23 to go for a run, as the 25-year-old former high school football star was known to do. In the middle of that run, he became one of those bodies. Ahmaud was in the middle-class Satilla Shores neighborhood, on a winding road under the cover of Spanish moss that hung from trees like history. It’s the type of road Black bodies disappear into.

Ahmaud’s body wasn’t lost or missing like the victims in the Atlanta Child Murders or the civil rights workers in Mississippi. But he was violently, needlessly erased nonetheless. He was buried under a shroud of misinformation, political nepotism, and the spoils of white privilege. The truth of Ahmaud Arbery’s execution was hidden for months.

Ahmaud Arbery
The Brunswick road where Arbery was killed.

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

On the night of Ahmaud’s murder, Glynn County police called his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and said her son had committed a burglary and was shot dead. For days, that was the only explanation she could get, but she refused to believe it. It wasn’t until an article in the Brunswick News revealed more details of his killing that she learned the names of her son’s killers: Gregory McMichael, 64, and his 34-year-old son, Travis. It’s also where she learned that Ahmaud had not been involved in a burglary. (In fact, there had there been no burglaries in the neighborhood in recent weeks.) “The lies started from the very beginning,” says Ahmaud’s aunt, Theawanza Brooks. “We knew immediately that when they said it was a burglary that it was a lie. That is not Ahmaud, and nobody could make me believe that is true.”

Ahmaud’s mother persisted. She visited the police department and called prominent people in town, never relenting in demanding answers. The more she and others learned about the investigation, the more they realized how badly it had been botched. It took more than a month, but her outrage made its way to Brunswick community leaders who, led by Mayor Cornell Harvey, demanded a meeting with District Attorney Jackie Johnson, which took place on April 13. (Johnson had immediately recused herself because Gregory McMichael had previously worked for her.) “The first thing we asked was why the Georgia Bureau of Investigations hadn’t been called in,” Harvey told me. “The chief of police said he didn’t know.”

Johnson had passed the case on to George Barnhill, the district attorney for the neighboring Waycross Judicial Circuit. When police approached Barnhill the day after the killing with evidence to arrest the McMichaels, he told them he already had determined the McMichaels were justified in killing Ahmaud. As Barnhill later would write in a three-page letter to police: “It appears Travis McMichael [and] Greg McMichael . . . were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause. . . . Given the fact Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun [that Travis McMichael was holding], under Georgia law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.” Barnhill also ended up having to recuse himself, on April 3, because his son used to work with Gregory McMichael—but not before reiterating his stance that the McMichaels were innocent.

Then, on the morning of May 5, a video of the killing, filmed by a friend of the McMichaels, hit the internet like a plume of tear gas. The video lifted the shroud of invisibility from the case. It made it impossible for the world not to see Ahmaud.

The video had been shot by William Bryan Jr. from inside his truck as he followed the McMichaels in theirs. It shows Ahmaud jogging along a bend in the road toward the McMichaels’ stopped pickup, Travis standing alongside the cab with a shotgun and his father in the truck’s bed with a .357 Magnum. Ahmaud runs around the truck and is blocked from the camera’s view when the first shot rings out. Travis wrestles with Ahmaud, both men stumbling off screen. Another shot rings out. They stumble back into view, and there’s a third shot. As Ahmaud starts to run away, first his arms go limp. Then, three steps later, the rest of him follows, slumping to the ground.

“My whole body tensed up when I saw the video,” Brooks, his aunt, says. She watched it the day it leaked. “I didn’t know if I should be hurt or angry. I was just confused. The person in this car is just recording. How do you not have any emotion?”

“I can’t get it out of my head,” says Mayor Harvey. Like Brooks, he can hardly get the words out. He sounds haunted. “It was . . . terrible. There’s nothing I can say to make it right.”

The video and the ensuing national outrage prompted the GBI to intervene, and they arrested the McMichaels on murder charges two days after its release. Two weeks later, their friend Bryan, who shot the video, was arrested as an accomplice and also was charged with murder. At a preliminary hearing in May, GBI investigators revealed what the video didn’t: Bryan and the McMichaels had worked in tandem to hunt Ahmaud like game. The men used their two trucks to trap Ahmaud, refusing to let him escape. Before Bryan started filming, his truck even struck Ahmaud, according to testimony and forensic evidence.

According to a GBI agent who testified at the hearing, Travis McMichael stood over Ahmaud after shooting him and uttered the last two words the young Black man would ever hear:

Fucking nigger.

As I write this, it has been more than three months since Ahmaud was killed and four weeks since the video of the murder was released. As you read this, even more time will have passed. And with each passing month, you might hear Ahmaud’s name and squint and snap your fingers to recall which dead Black person he is. Is that the healthcare worker gunned down while asleep in their home? No, that was Breonna Taylor, whom Louisville police shot eight times on March 13. Was that the gospel singer? No, that was Adrian Medearis, an unarmed Black man who was pulled over in Houston for a suspected DUI and killed when police say he reached for a taser during a scuffle. No, he’s not the one who died after an officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. That’s George Floyd, the Minnesota man who appeared in another viral video three weeks after Arbery’s was released, sparking protests that set the country on fire.

In Atlanta, the fire intensified on June 12, when, 18 days after police killed Floyd, Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru in south Atlanta. Brooks ran from police who had roused and tried to arrest him for drunk driving—and who shot him in the back, killing him, too.

That’s another way Black bodies get erased; they disappear under a pile of corpses that grow by the day until they’re not people anymore. They’re political abstractions. They’re simply less than.

Ahmaud Arbery
Carla Arbery, left, and Thea Brooks, two of Ahmaud Arbery’s aunts, stand down the street from where he was gunned down in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia.

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

“Maud” is the nickname Ahmaud became known by in death; #IRunWithMaud trended on social media on his birthday, May 8, as mourners around the world ran or walked 2.23 miles to draw more attention to the circumstances surrounding his death. (The number alludes to the date of the killing, February 23.) It also was the name he went by back in high school, when he was celebrated in certain Brunswick circles as a gutsy linebacker. Despite being small for his position, just 160 pounds, Ahmaud was swift on his feet and efficient in taking out the competition.

But to his family, he is “Quez,” short for his middle name, Marquez.

“Anything that came out of his mouth was wise,” his aunt says. “He’d make everything plain. He didn’t speak a lot, but when he spoke, it was clever and optimistic. He just had his own style about things.”

Ahmaud continued working out in the years after high school and running whenever he could. He dreamed of opening up a karate dojo with his father, Marcus Arbery Sr.; of rapping with his cousins; of training to be an electrician like his uncles. He had enrolled in South Georgia Technical College to start his electrician training this fall.

He spent a lot of time at his aunt Carla’s house, where he’d stop over with his father between trips mowing lawns in Brunswick. “He always had a warm smile,” Carla Arbery says. “He was just so quiet, but he’d always say ‘yes ma’am’ and come back and ask to clean up after I cooked. I miss his smile.”

Carla Arbery has four sons, ages 16 to 27, who were all extremely close to Ahmaud. They’d ride go-karts or swim or freestyle together. Her sons are struggling to come to terms with what’s happening. “They feel like their brother is gone,” she says. “They’re just now starting to talk about it. I’m trying to hold it together because I want the boys to see my strength.”

When I talked to his aunt Brooks, Ahmaud’s mother had just been on an episode of Dr. Phil, which made Brooks’s 17-year-old son emotional. “He just keeps saying, Mom, we have to keep fighting for Quez.”

In the years after he was recognized for his speed on the football field, Ahmaud was recognized while jogging along Brunswick’s streets. He ran from his mother’s house near Satilla Shores to his father’s house in the central part of town to Carla’s house on the north side. Sometimes, he ran from his mother’s house to the College of Coastal Georgia, an 11-mile route. “People would tell me they just saw Quez running and asked if he wanted a ride, and he’d say no,” Carla recalls. “Everyone knew him for running.”

His life veered off course several times in the years after high school, sometimes because of his own actions and sometimes because that’s just what happens to people who look like him. In 2013, a year after he graduated, Ahmaud carried a gun onto the high school campus, for which he received probation. In 2017, he was charged with trying to steal a TV from a Walmart and later got probation for that, too.

The month before the Walmart incident, Ahmaud was sitting in his parked car at Brunswick’s Townsend Park when a cop approached him. The Guardian obtained video of the incident days after the video of his killing surfaced. It showed Ahmaud as he stepped out of his gold Camry, black sweatpants sagging below red gym shorts, a hooded coat lined with fur covering his bare torso.

After the officer took his license and stepped away for a few moments, Ahmaud asked for it back. “What the fuck did you come over here and fuck with me for?” Ahmaud said. The officer called for backup after Ahmaud got agitated, and the second cop swiftly pulled his Taser and ordered Ahmaud to get on the ground.

The first officer tried to defuse the situation and reminded Ahmaud the area is known for criminal activity. “Criminal activity?” Ahmaud said. “I’m in a fucking park.”

“Listen, man. I’m not here to mess with you, okay?” the officer said. “I’ve been cool with you the entire time.”

“I’m rapping in the park trying to ease my mind,” Ahmaud tried to explain, saying a moment later: “You’re aggravating my day. I’ve got one day off of work a week—one day. I’m trying to chill on my day off, bro.”

“I get wanting to chill,” the officer said. “But we get a lot of bad stuff that happens out here. We get gang and drug activity.”

“Is my name tied up in any of that?” Ahmaud asked.

“No,” the officer said before letting Ahmaud leave. “It is not.”

This is the life of a twentysomething Black man in America.

Of course, the McMichaels didn’t know about the misdemeanors or probation when they chased down Ahmaud on his jog. Gregory McMichael later would say that he only had a “gut feeling” Ahmaud had committed a crime. Gregory and his son didn’t know anything at all about Ahmaud. They only saw the Black skin that two rounds of buckshot tore into before Ahmaud fell to the ground, gasping.

Not long after the killing, Lindsay McMichael—Gregory’s daughter and Travis’s sister—posted a photo of Ahmaud’s blood-soaked body on Snapchat, for which she later apologized. She said, by way of explanation: “I’m a true-crime fan.”

Ahmaud Arbery
Members of Arbery’s family embrace at the Glynn County Courthouse during a May 8 protest.

Photograph by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

It’s impossible to talk about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery without talking about its intersection with the uniquely terrifying time we are living in. On the surface, there shouldn’t be much of a connection between a Black man gunned down on the street and a global pandemic. Unlike humans, viruses don’t discriminate based on race. But a pandemic can exacerbate society’s underlying ills—and this one has overwhelmingly targeted Black people.

As it first began to spread across America, the pandemic actually helped obscure the crime committed against Ahmaud. It helped him further disappear. As his mother and the community tried to find answers, they also had to contend with the sudden complication of sheltering in place. And they had to push harder to discover the truth in a country that seemed under too much duress to care about one Black death in Georgia.

“As a community, we were shocked by coronavirus, just like the rest of the world,” says Reverend John D. Perry II, one of the Brunswick community leaders who’s been active in seeking justice for Ahmaud. His frustration grew as weeks were lost to the pandemic—weeks that could have been spent focusing on Ahmaud’s case. “After some time, we were able to come back and really ask questions as a city.”

The virus soon bore certain similarities to the injustice and inequity Black people have faced for centuries. Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and among a study sample of 305 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia, a disproportionate 80 percent of them were Black. The disparity is the result of a host of systemic issues. If you’re Black, you’re more likely to be a low-wage “essential” front-line worker, more likely to be uninsured, and more likely to face educational, economic, and healthcare disadvantages that lead to conditions like diabetes and hypertension, which make the virus more lethal.

At the time the video of Ahmaud’s killing came out in early May, COVID-19 was just a few weeks shy of claiming its 100,000th life in the U.S. Georgia’s shelter-in-place order recently had ended, but there was still widespread wariness about gathering in public. That didn’t stop Travis “Slim” Riddle—a Brunswick native who was well-known in the community for being a rapper in the early 2000s—from doing what, at the time, was practically unthinkable: organizing a rally. Ahmaud’s family contacted him shortly before the video leaked, asking for his help in drawing more attention to the case, and so, he headed back to Brunswick from his home in Atlanta, calling on his friends and Facebook followers to join him in publicly seeking justice for Ahmaud. As soon as the video was released, Brunswick was in the national spotlight as small gatherings—organized by Riddle, along with the NAACP and the Atlanta chapter of the Black Panther Party—marched across the city, from the Satilla Shores neighborhood to downtown. The next weekend brought out bigger crowds. On May 16, there was a rally in front of the Glynn County courthouse, followed hours later by hundreds of activists marching. They made their demands known: the removal of Jackie Johnson from her position as District Attorney and the passage of hate-crime legislation. At the time of Ahmaud’s death, Georgia was one of only four states without a hate-crime law. The month after the video of his death surfaced, the Georgia legislature passed a hate-crime statute, which the governor signed into law on June 26.

“You weren’t worried about the coronavirus?” I asked Little.

His response was matter-of-fact: “Look, man. Some stuff is just more important than other stuff,” he said. “I’d rather fight the corona than have someone kill my son for no reason.”

The Brunswick protests—and the exponentially larger ones that followed across the country—further revealed the perilousness of Blackness in America. Black protesters are trying to survive two threats of execution: one by a disease of nature, the other by the disease of racism—each tearing through their communities. In Brunswick, I watched hundreds of people wearing masks and trying to socially distance in front of the courthouse before abandoning the CDC recommendations for safe gathering and locking arms in solidarity. Weeks later, I watched the news feeds of bigger and bigger protests across the country. In front of Barclays in Brooklyn. At the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. On the streets of Louisville. Across the Stone Arch bridge in Minneapolis. In the parking lot of the Wendy’s on Atlanta’s University Avenue, spilling over to the Downtown Connector and halting traffic for two hours. It was at once inspiring and frightening. How many of these people are going to end up in the emergency room, or worse?

In an ironic twist, the void and despair brought by the pandemic have accelerated protests across the country and propelled people to the streets. Black people now must work out a lethal calculus: We must weigh the odds of contracting a deadly virus against the opportunity of standing up to another terror that could continue ravaging us for generations.

Ahmaud Arbery
Protesters in downtown Atlanta march against police brutality and racism on May 29.

Photograph by Umcolisi Terrell

I don’t know what makes a sacrifice worthwhile. I don’t know what threshold of progress is worth the risks taken. But I know that the world is changing, and, for the first time in my life, the freedom of equality feels tangible. Movements to defund the police, which weren’t even on the fringe of the national conversation when Ahmaud was killed, have taken hold across the nation. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, is disbanding its police force and setting up a new system for ensuring public safety. Cities including New York and Los Angeles are reallocating law-enforcement funds to social services including housing support and mental healthcare. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned after one of her officers, Garrett Rolfe, killed Rayshard Brooks. At least eight Atlanta officers, believing that Rolfe had the right to kill, quit after Rolfe was charged with murder. Protesters are forcing the world to imagine an antiracist America, where neither cops nor vigilante civilians are allowed to fire their weapons with impunity. Where Ahmaud Arbery can run in peace.

Mere moments before he died, Ahmaud ventured into an unfinished eggshell-white home on Satilla Drive. The security footage will be shown ad nauseam until the trial is over, because nothing paints a picture of a Black man deserving to die like seeing him on a black-and-white surveillance video. The video will point to the fact that Ahmaud appears to be trespassing, which means he was a Black man who technically broke the law. Never mind that the security camera also captured instances when white children and a white couple ventured inside that house. Never mind that nothing was ever taken from that house. Never mind that the owner of that house himself said he figured Ahmaud was stopping by for water on his run.

But if you watch the video without being burdened by your own racial prejudices, you might see what I see: a young man looking at a future he thought he’d be alive to achieve.

When I first got my driver’s license, I used to drive to a nice neighborhood in a suburb just north of my mom’s house in Jackson, Mississippi. I used to just sit in the neighborhood and imagine my life in one of those homes that I thought were mansions. They were houses occupied by families I imagined were happier, with dreams I imagined I could achieve.

That’s what houses represent in America: happiness. They represent the culmination of dreams this country promises us are possible. For Black folks, houses are ownership. Wealth. Security. Things we’ve been denied either by government-mandated restrictions like redlining or similarly nefarious denials of loans or jobs. When I moved to Atlanta in 2014, my wife and I would go to open houses for homes we knew we could never afford. We’d walk around, critiquing the layout, imagining what the place would look like with a pool or a guest house. Then we’d drive to the other side of town and talk about our dreams.

After we finally bought a place later that year—a recently built house in a suburb north of town, in a neighborhood that was adding new homes by the day—my wife would get together with some of the other women in the cul-de-sac and venture into the homes in progress. They’d go look at the layouts purely out of curiosity. Once, a buyer walked in on the group of women in his unfinished house. They all laughed about it. These makeshift open houses became a pastime until the neighborhood was complete.

Ahmaud stopped by an in-progress house on his run across town. He planned to be an electrician, and that eggshell–white house was at the point in its construction—the frame built, the studs exposed—when electrical wiring is installed. It offered a diagram, of sorts, to someone interested in the craft. A blueprint of its future.

I wonder if Ahmaud paused there to dream, to conjure up an image of himself installing wiring in homes like that eggshell–white house and maybe earning enough to have an eggshell–white house of his own. I wonder if he stood in that house imagining it full of cousins and aunts, his mom and dad.

I wonder if he left that house and continued on his run to his mother’s, eager to tell her about his future.


Atlanta Magazine August 2020 cover Ahmaud Arbery Fahamu PecouOn the cover

Dr. Fahamu Pecou says of the painting he created for our August 2020 cover: “Ahmaud Arbery’s fateful last run has become an international rallying cry. Rather than his murder being a silencing act, Arbery’s death amplified the gross injustices towards Black people in American culture. His run has become a marathon. Not simply a pursuit of justice, but instead a revolution that will ultimately change laws and policing as we know it.”

 

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