An unarmed black man is pursued down a Southern street by two white men in a pick-up truck. One stands in the bed of the truck brandishing a handgun, the other drives with his shotgun by his side. They block the road, and with guns pulled they demand the man stop. When he doesn’t stop, they shoot him twice and watch as his blood spills out onto the road. It’s a scene out of a Jim Crow fever dream, but it took place in Brunswick, Georgia just two months ago. On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery went out for his daily run and never came home. The men who shot him were released without charges.
They said the man they were hunting looked like a suspect in a string of recent robberies. What part of what they saw about a man jogging down the street looked like the suspect? How close were they? How clearly could they see his face? Surely they could see that he was a man, a black man. Apparently, that was all they needed to turn in from a jogger into a suspect.
In almost every news story, the point is made again and again, “They demanded that Ahmaud Arbery stop.” As though this young man is somehow culpable in his own death because he did not follow the orders of white men wielding guns. What authority gave them the right to demand at gunpoint that a private citizen acquiesce to their demands? The idea that an unarmed black man must stop when pursued by white men with guns in a truck is the root of racism; it’s the very foundation upon which lays the idea that one race has an inherent privilege to act according to their desire at the expense of others. White men can storm a capital building armed for battle, but an unarmed black man can not run in broad daylight in his own neighborhood without becoming a suspect.
A memorial page has been set up on Facebook, I Run With Maud. It features several videos of Arbery’s friends talking about Ahmaud, news stories with his mother begging for justice, and family pictures full of smiles and laughter. It is only in the most recent posts that there has been talk of movement in the case. A video of the murder has surfaced and a third DA has been assigned to the case after the first two had to recuse themselves because they had worked with one of the suspects. For months, as we sheltered in place, Ahmaud Arbery’s friends and family have kept working to bring attention to his murder. It was as though they were expected to justify that his life was worthy of justice, that he wasn’t the kind of black man who deserved to die. It is as though America is demanding that all black men stop and justify that their lives are worth sparing.
The thing that seems to have changed the course of this case, like so many before it, was the discovery of video evidence. Suddenly the public could see Ahmaud on his daily run, they could see the truck, the confrontation, and the death. The truth had come out. There was something to talk about on the news, as though his death had not been worthy before there was the right thing to justify its defense. Do black men have to hope that someone happens to be taping them in order to posthumously defend themselves?
My heart is heavy after reading about this case. I can't help picturing my own son. Hearing from his neighbor who said that her security camera would ping on her phone every day as he ran by and his friend who talked about Ahmaud wasn’t afraid to tell his friends he loved them, tells the story of a community whose heart has been broken. The fear is that they will not get justice. Even though the new DA has promised to bring the case before a grand jury, the Coronavirus has made that impossible until the courts open up again.