We cannot allow for systematic racial brutality to go unchecked
On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, went for a run outside his home near Brunswick, GA. A former high school athlete, Arbery was known as an avid runner by friends and family. Shortly after 1 p.m., Arbery was confronted by two White men, a father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael. The two men allegedly suspected Arbery of burglary, grabbed two weapons — a shotgun and a handgun — and followed him around a residential neighborhood in their truck. Eventually cornering him, they shot Arbery three times, killing him. Unfortunately, this incident is not the first of its kind, and it won’t be the last.
Before recusing himself from the case, District Attorney George E. Barnhill, in a letter to the Glynn County Police Department, stated that the McMichaels were within their rights. “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge,” Barnhill said, citing a state law. But even so, this does not give the McMichaels the right to be judge, jury and executioner.
“Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog,” said S. Lee Merritt, a lawyer for Arbery’s family, in a statement Saturday. “He stopped by a property under construction where he engaged in no illegal activity and remained for only a brief period. Ahmaud did not take anything from the construction site.”
More to the point, no individual has the right to take the life of another on the basis of their own “suspicions.”
“The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” said Michael J. Moore, Arbery’s defender, in an email to The New York Times.
We, the Editorial Board, want to acknowledge the personal and honest reaction from Chancellor Gary May who asked in a Twitter post, “What if I were running in Brunswick, GA on February 23?” Many of us will never have to ask ourselves this question.
Americans often like to think they live in a post-racial era, where a country that twice elected a Black man no longer sees color. But for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson and hundreds of other young, Black individuals, this is not the case.
For two months, the McMichaels were walking free until citizens, politicians and celebrities led a nationwide outcry, underscoring a broader issue of racial brutality. It is unsurprising that a justice system built on the premise of protecting White people and White property continues to fail to protect Black bodies, and shielded two White killers of a Black man.
White people make up five times more of the total U.S. population than that of Black people, yet Black people are 2.5 times more likely to die as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement. The reality for Black citizens is that they are constantly under suspicion, and even if they follow the law to a t, they still face brutalization and murder.
Take Philando Castile, for example. On July 6, 2016, Castile, who was driving with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in the car, was pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile informed the officer, as is required by law, that he had a firearm and a license to carry. Despite telling the officer that he was not reaching for his gun, Castile was shot seven times.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the alarming rate of excessive use of force against Black Americans is the lack of accountability. For decades, lynching mobs went without prosecution, and today, officers standing trial for excessive force or manslaughter are often acquitted. This cannot be the case for the McMichaels.
The way forward requires not only justice for Arbery but a recognition of a continued systemic failure that allows for murder to be excused as self-defense or an honest mistake. Whether we would like to admit it or not, we all see color and we all have biases. For one, all police departments should implement implicit bias training. We all, and especially those who swear to protect and serve, must acknowledge and confront our prejudices or else the life and death consequences of these prejudices will persist.
On a more personal level, we must admit to ourselves that we are not free of our own partialities. And we should not be ashamed to confront this fact. What does warrant shame, however, is to continue on in ignorance of these uncomfortable truths. Such ignorance may protect us from feeling embarrassed, but it does nothing to protect innocent people like Ahmaud Arbery.
Written by: The Editorial Board