When the video first surfaced depicting the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a shotgun-and pistol-wielding father-son duo in Brunswick, Georgia, people across the nation found the images shocking. African American citizens, from Georgia to Wisconsin, although disturbed by the footage, were sadly unsurprised.
“This event happening really rose an uproar in me, it really upset me,” said Noah Anderson, a high school student from Madison, Wisconsin on a Zoom call on May 15. “ The virtual town hall brought together the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County, the Coastal Georgia Community Action Action Authority, Arbery’s sister and mother and others for a candid discussion of what racial injustice looks and feels like.
In February, Arbery was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood when he was approached by former police officer Gregory McMichael and his son Travis. Video taken by a man who was following the McMichaels’ pick-up truck shows the pair dismounting to stop Arbery. The McMichaels accused Arbery of fitting the description of a burglary suspect and, during a physical confrontation, shot Arbery three times with a shotgun. They were not arrested for months, until a video that had been in the possession of local authorities since shortly after the incident occurred was leaked to the public. Travis McMicheal shot Arbery at close range with the shotgun, as his father covered him with a revolver from a standing position in the back of the truck.
The McMichaels claim that there had been a string of nearby break-ins, which compelled them to pursue and confront Arbery. However, no chain of burglaries were recently reported, and police said the only robbery report they were aware of involved a gun which went missing from a car in front of the McMichaels’ home. No reports of break-ins were reported that day, and Arbery wasn’t carrying any tools or other items that might link him to a break-in.
The case has been compared to the lynchings that historically terrorized black communities in the South and elsewhere. It also reminds many of the Treyvon Martin killing, in which a self-described neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman pursued Martin, and started a physical confrontation which ended in the 17-year-old laying on the sidewalk, dying in the rain from a gunshot wound. Zimmerman accused Martin of possibly being a burglar, and refused to wait for police to respond before confronting the boy. Martin was walking from his father’s house to a nearby gas station to grab some snacks. Zimmerman was eventually cleared, and attempted to sue Martin’s family, lawyers, and prosecutors.
“I just want this to end,” said Anderson, “I don’t want to see no more names on my feed.” The young student, rapper and activist, like many on the call, wanted their message about the Arbery killing to be stronger than a simple share on Facebook. Many of them have experienced forms of racial discrimination in contexts similar to Arbery and Martin.
“I’ve experienced being racially profiled,” said Sirena Flores on the Zoom call. “I was arrested on my own front porch ‘cause someone thought I was robber.” Flores, a political science and sociology major at UW-Madison, noted that she was, “a victim of racial profiling, when I’m someone who’s working really hard. And I’m angry.”
They’re not alone and, unfortunately, these kinds of stories tend to be very consistent. Regardless of where it happens, or a person’s status in the community. Even Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) was confronted by police, called by a neighbor when she was going door-to-door for her campaign. It compelled her to introduce a bill to add penalties for so-called “race out of place” police calls. Georgia’s Arbery case is the worst case scenario in these kinds of encounters.
“He respected everyone,” Ahmaud’s sister Jasmine Arbery said on the call, recalling her brother with a smile. “I look at it as I’m his older sister, and I feel like I’m his protector. I’ve always been his protector, and I want his voice to shine through me.” For Jasmine and her family, the entire situation has been surreal, from the moment Ahmaud was killed to the weeks it took before any arrests were made.
Investigations into the case are still open, and are complicated by the McMichaels’ rapport with local legal authorities, which developed through the father’s career. Not only was Gregory McMichael a local police officer, but he was also an investigator for the district attorney’s office in Glynn County. As a result, the prosecutor for the Brunswick judicial circuit and the district attorney of Waycross, Georgia, both recused themselves from the case due to their prior professional ties with the McMichael family. The U.S. Department of Justice has been asked by Georgia’s attorney general to investigate the handling of Arbery’s case.
Bound by stereotypes and misconceptions
Ahmaud’s sister Jasmine, explained how pervasive and ingrained negative assumptions about African Americans can be. “We’re seen as being more aggressive,” she said. “Me being an African American female, when I say that I’m angry, people automatically assume that I want to get like, physical.” The assumptions which, in some ways, dictate the lives of young minority Americans, don’t end there.
Nataysha “Tay” Woods, a Brunswick High School student and president of Youth Speak Justice, adds that in educational environments with few African Americans, there are all sorts of outside pressures and expectations. “Me personally being in the honors program, I’ve always been one of the only African Americans in the class,” she said on the call. Her classmates and peers would regularly comment about, “Oh, you’re basically white because you’re top of the class. You’re basically white.”
Woods wonders why she has to be a certain color in order to be considered successful, and why her classmates feel so comfortable talking to her like that. For Woods, this is a form of oppression which is “hindering a lot of youth, especially in the African American community,” she explained. Even at her job, Woods said, she sometimes feels like employers are watching her handling of money more than others. “Like I’m trying to cheat somebody,” she said, “it’s just these stereotypes that we have to eliminate.”
It’s as if you can never be perfect enough to satisfy the fears and assumptions of complete strangers. Anderson also points out that throughout K-12 education, history is often taught from the perspective of European settlers and their descendants. “We all share history,” said Anderson. “History is history at the end of the day. But I didn’t, until my junior year of high school, learn anything about any of my history. And not just my African American history, but my African history.” Anderson feels that if teachers really want to reach their students, they should teach not just black history, but also those of other minority groups.
The echoes of the past represented in the Ahmaud Arbery killing resound too loudly to be ignored. Even in the calls to end the Safer at Home order in Wisconsin, which garnered mostly rural and suburban support. For describing the protests as clear examples of white privilege, African American state representative LaKeshia Myers received a barrage of threats and racially derogatory comments from apparent anti-Safer at Home protesters. Examples of these sorts of comments continue to arise within the private Facebook groups used to organize opposition to the orders.
Anderson fears where all of this could be going. “Understand your history, and understand that the effects from the past affect us today,” he urges Wisconsinites and other Americans. “Once we start learning our history, and accepting our history, then we can move on from repeating our history.”