The Murder of Ahmaud Arbery and its Lessons for Organizing Against Injustice

Blerim ElMazi

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog around the neighborhood on a sunny afternoon. This was routine for Ahmaud, he was just 25 years old but was an avid runner and former high school football star. While out for his jog, Ahmaud was targeted and stalked by Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael. The McMichaels were joined by a neighbor, William Bryan, who also participated in the chase and stalking of Ahmaud. The men suspected Ahmaud of being involved in alleged past burglaries in the neighborhood, none of which has been supported by facts or evidence. The McMichaels saw Ahmaud as a criminal because of his race and decided to arm themselves with guns and take the law into their own hands. What transpired next was a devastating chase that ended with the McMichaels cutting off Ahmaud’s path and forcing an encounter with him. Travis McMichael then shot Ahmaud to death with a shotgun. On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog around the neighborhood on a sunny afternoon. This was routine for Ahmaud, he was just 25 years old but was an avid runner and former high school football star. While out for his jog, Ahmaud was targeted and stalked by Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael. The McMichaels were joined by a neighbor, William Bryan, who also participated in the chase and stalking of Ahmaud. The men suspected Ahmaud of being involved in alleged past burglaries in the neighborhood, none of which has been supported by facts or evidence. The McMichaels saw Ahmaud as a criminal because of his race and decided to arm themselves with guns and take the law into their own hands. What transpired next was a devastating chase that ended with the McMichaels cutting off Ahmaud’s path and forcing an encounter with him. Travis McMichael then shot Ahmaud to death with a shotgun.

The McMichaels and William Bryan were not arrested on that day. Or the next month. Or the month that followed. In fact, the Glynn County Police Department immediately began to craft a narrative, along with local district attorneys, that attempted to justify the murder of Ahmaud.

The public outcry began to rapidly mobilize after cellphone video of the encounter was published online confirming what many had already suspected, Ahmaud was chased, trapped and murdered by an armed posse for no justifiable reason. The public demanded accountability. They demanded arrests and prosecution.

When district attorneys Jackie Johnson of Glynn County Georgia and George Barnhill of Waycross County recused themselves due to conflicts, Tom Durden was appointed as the new district attorney over the case. Durden decided he would present the case to a grand jury, but the potential for conflicts permeated his office as well, prompting the need for a special prosecutor to be appointed.  That special prosecutor has been appointed to further investigate the case and present it to a grand jury for indictment.

This was relatively good news.  Johnson and Barnhill were forced to recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest in this case.  Johnson’s recusal stemmed from the fact that one of the defendants, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, was employed as an investigator by the Glynn Count DA’s Office for over 20 years.  Barnhill’s recusal came because his son is a prosecutor in that same Glynn county DA’s Office where McMichael had worked. 

On April 2, 2020, Barnhill, wrote a highly inappropriate letter to the police department. In it he attempted to justify the murder of Ahmaud as a case of justifiable homicide.  The letter states that Barnhill found that Arbery had been suspected of robbery in the minutes before his death at the hands of the McMichaels.  The letter goes on to say, “It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and Bryan William were following, in hot pursuit, a burglary suspect … and asking/ telling him to stop.”  At that time Mr. Arbery was not charged or arrested for robbery when the McMichael’s opened fire with a shotgun, killing him.

This entire process has now become delayed as we await intervention by the Department of Justice and as the special prosecutor proceeds with an investigation. Additionally, an excuse has been proffered to further delay the case.  At least one previous prosecutor over the case reasoned that grand juries cannot be convened at this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, the State of Georgia’s own Governor, Brian Kemp, has already invalidated parts of the executive order he issued, forcibly opening parts of the state to return to some sort of normalcy despite these same COVID-19 concerns.

In Tarrant County, and really across the United States, we’ve experienced thousands of officer-involved shootings over the last several years, the vast majority of them receiving little to no attention.

Although arguably the McMichaels were not active law enforcement officials when they murdered Ahmaud, they certainly are beginning to use the defenses that are routinely heard in officer-involved shootings. Not only that, the McMichaels will likely use the defense that they were acting under the scope of Georgia’s citizen arrest statute, which essentially authorizes private citizens to act as law enforcement but in very limited circumstances. I believe the McMichaels were acting entirely outside the scope of that statute and will not be afforded its protections in court.

The lesson here is that organizing works. Public outcry, phone calls, emails, and social media outreach have a profound impact on how a case proceeds.

Had the viral video of Ahmaud’s murder not been released, I don’t know that we would have had this level of mobilization and action among activists and Georgia officials. This provides us an opportunity to examine how other viral videos have impacted the criminal justice process.

Here in Tarrant County we’ve seen several officer-involved shootings that made local and national media headlines. O’Shae Terry was killed by an Arlington police officer who shot into a moving vehicle, an action that is against department policies and constitutional standards.

There were protests involving this incident, and they did make local headlines. However, it took months for the officer involved to be fired and for the district attorney to decide on whether to proceed with a prosecution. I wonder what national mobilization would have done to spur this case into a sense of greater urgency. There are others, but I highlight O’Shae Terry’s death as a clear-cut example of wrongdoing that really shocks the conscience at first glance.

It is heartening to see national campaigns for justice make progress. There are community activists who have spent weeks and months organizing these campaigns and have made incredible progress and I believe we are beginning to see a new network emerge among activist groups that are capable of elevating local tragedies to national attention. We saw it organized quickly and effectively after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and I’m hopeful going forward that more cases of injustice are elevated to national attention.

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