“It’s a lynch mob,” said Marcus Arbery, father of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed by white men in Glynn County, Georgia on February 23. On Thursday, 75 days after the shooting, two men—64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his 34-year-old son Travis McMichael—were arrested and are facing charges of aggravated assault and murder.
Arbery’s family says that Ahmaud, an avid jogger, was simply getting exercise in a nearby neighborhood when he was attacked. The McMichaels, however, told police that they believed Arbery resembled a suspect in a string of recent break-ins, and that they were apprehending a burglar. (There was no string of break-ins reported in the weeks before the shooting, according to a local lieutenant.)
Earlier this week, attorneys for the Arbery family released a video that appears to show Ahmaud running through a suburban street when a white pickup truck stops in front of him. Arbery runs around the vehicle and gets into a scuffle with a man holding a shotgun. Shots are fired, and Arbery falls to the ground.
Ahmaud Arbery’s father was right when he described, to PBS’s Yamice Alcindor, the attack as a lynch mob: A roving crew of armed white men harassing a lone black man, capturing the act via camera phone, the calling card of a modern-day lynching.
The footage was gut-churning, and it wasn’t long before the typical cycle of virality commenced. The video inundated Twitter and Facebook, paired with demands for the McMichaels’ arrest. Celebrities like Lebron James, Zoe Kravitz, and Michael B. Jordan expressed their disgust, as did politicians like Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. Hashtags emerged and reports on Arbery’s death were squeezed into cable news slots, a grim reprieve from covid-19 news and a harsh reminder that when it comes to racist attacks on black Americans, it’s business as usual.
Tom Durden, the District Attorney currently taking on the case, requested the help of Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI began an independent investigation of Arbery’s death Tuesday evening, and two days later, announced that the McMichaels were in police custody.
To a casual observer, it might seem as if the culmination of the damning video and mass outrage prompted the McMichaels’ arrest. And maybe—maybe—it helped. But a deeper dive into the Arbery case reveals that this is less a victory than a stroke of luck.
Durden is the third District Attorney to take on the Ahmaud Arbery case. Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson was the first, but recused herself because Greg McMichael is a retired detective who worked in Johnson’s office for over 30 years. Next up was Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill, the acting DA in the Arbery case as early as February 24 before he eventually recused himself in April. According to his letter of recusal, Barnhill’s son was a prosecutor in the Brunswick DA’s office and worked with Greg McMichael on a previous prosecution of Ahmaud Arbery. Barnhill insisted that this wasn’t a conflict of interest, but claimed that “a local ‘rabble rouser’ has taken up this cause and begun publishing wild and factually incorrect and legally wrong accusations on Facebook and other social media formats calling for marches and physical affronts be made against the McMichaels at their homes, and my son’s home in Brunswick...”
But none of this negates Barnhill’s belief that there were no “grounds for arrest” in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Barnhill claimed that the McMichaels had “probable cause” to suspect Arbery of wrongdoing and were simply attempting to, “hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived.”
“Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal,” Barnhill wrote.
Worst yet was Barnhill’s assessment of the video of the Arbery shooting. In his letter, he noted that it appeared as if Arbery started the fight and that Travis McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself” by law.
“Arbery’s mental health records and prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man,” Barnhill added.
Arbery’s “prior convictions” fall short of validating Barnhill’s assessment: According to the AJC, Arbery was “sentenced to five years probation as a first offender on charges of carrying a weapon on campus and several counts of obstructing a law enforcement officer.” Arbery was also convicted of a probation violation in 2018 for shoplifting. Given the fact that shoplifting is not a violent crime, that “obstructing a law enforcement officer” is a vague violation that includes everything from lying to an officer to hitting one, and that carrying a gun is considered a God-given right to millions of Americans, especially in the gun-friendly state of Georgia, Barnhill’s logic doesn’t hold.
But applying logic to this situation is fruitless. People like Barnhill are not swayed by celebrity Instagram posts, cable news chatter, or the traumatized black people in his community who are risking their lives amidst a pandemic to protest this injustice. While Ahmaud Arbery’s father and countless others watched the viral video and saw a modern-day lynching, Barnhill and countless others like him saw a white man defending himself from a black aggressor. This is about a lack of empathy for black lives, particularly from people like Barnhill whose value—or lack thereof—for black lives quite literally determines whether someone gets away with murder.
And if Barnhill didn’t recuse himself in April, perhaps the case of Ahmaud Arbery would have ended up like that of many other black people killed by police and wannabe vigilantes: His hashtags fade away, his name is added to an ever-growing list of high-profile black deaths, his portrait added to the ever-expanding collage of unarmed black people killed in the name of self-defense.
The McMichaels’ arrest may be a welcome surprise two months after they allegedly shot Arbery, but this ordeal acts as a sobering reminder that outcomes like this aren’t necessarily the result of collective rage, hurt, and dismay at a racist criminal justice system that makes jogging while black a crime. Those who believe otherwise have a short memory.
Outrage followed the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, an unarmed black boy playing with a toy gun in the park; it was caught on camera, a grand jury declined to indict the officers. Outrage followed the police shooting of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed in his car; the shooting was captured by Castile’s horrified girlfriend, his killer was acquited. Eric Garner was strangled to death by officers during an arrest; the incident was captured on camera; the officer responsible was never indicted, but the man who filmed Garner’s death was.
The list goes on, but the facts are the same: Black death on film is not a smoking gun. America watched as Philando Castille bled out in his car seat after getting shot seven times with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter at his side. It wasn’t enough. We have to be prepared for the possibility that, when a jury reviews the footage of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting over, and over, and over again, they may decide that it’s not enough either.