Update: Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault on Thursday, May 7.
Ahmaud Arbery was jogging.
But to be young and Black and male in a Georgia suburb on a Sunday afternoon is to be a threat. A call to 911 claimed a Black man was walking around an unfinished house under construction.
“And you said someone’s breaking into it right now?” the dispatcher asked.
“No,” the man replied, “it’s all open. It’s under construction.“
This was just after 1 p.m. on Feb. 23, almost eight years to the day after Trayvon Martin was murdered by a vigilante.
Another 911 call came in minutes later from the same neighborhood to report, “There’s a black male running down the street.”
Arbery was unarmed. He didn’t have so much as a backpack.
Yet retired district attorney investigator Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, armed with a shotgun and a pistol, hopped in a pickup truck and chased after Arbery. They sped ahead of him, parked in the street, and cut him off.
He tried to avoid them. Until he couldn’t.
Gregory, standing in the bed of the truck, pistol ready, hollers at Arbery. Travis stands outside of the truck with a shotgun.
It’s very clear: The McMichaels are the threat here.
Arbery runs around the truck blocking the road, in an effort to escape. Travis awaits him. A shot is fired. Boom. Unarmed, Arbery tussles with him, desperately fighting for his life. Two more shots are fired. Boom. Boom. Arbery tries to fight. He tries, again, to run. He takes about seven short, stuttered strides. He wants to live. But he falls to his death. Arbery was murdered.
Remember when Trump tried to say he was being lynched? No. What happened to Arbery is a lynching.
Yet it took two months and all of us bearing witness to a violent viral video his killing for charges to be filed. The district attorney who originally reviewed the video considered it self-defense and reasonable behavior for a citizen’s arrest.
Only this week, on Tuesday, in the wake of public outrage in reaction to the recording, did Georgia authorities begin the push for justice. The first two prosecutors in the case recused themselves after possible conflicts of interest: Gregory McMichael is recent retiree, having worked as an investigator in the Brunswick district attorney’s office and as a Glynn County police officer. His connections are deep.
The third prosecutor initially wanted to wait until June 12, when Georgia is set to lift its judicial emergency and let a grand jury decide to charge the McMichaels. It took all of us bearing witness to a slaughter to supersede that decision and initiate an arrest. And we don’t know if the footage will be enough to humanize Arbery.
It wasn’t enough when we saw the life choked from Eric Garner’s body. It wasn’t enough when we saw the drive-by shooting police pulled on 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Too often, white jurors find Blackness so terrifying they justify the violence and aggression of murderers.
How many times must we watch Black people killed and make snuff films go viral only to be let down by the justice system? How many murder videos can one consume before she loses pieces of her soul? When will justice look like not having to fear for our lives in the first place?
Some blame the coronavirus for the minimal coverage of Arbery’s killing. No. It’s good old American racism at work.
Coronavirus is simply amplifying how much we don’t value Black life and the lives of other people of color. In California, a white man casually wore a Ku Klux Klan hood while grocery shopping last weekend. In New York, there are recurring incidents of officers brutalizing Black people for not adhering to social distancing orders while handing out masks to white sunbathers.
It's a different story for White people in New York who not only don't social distance but have masks handed out by the NYPD. pic.twitter.com/dNDajukq9l— The Crisis Magazine (@thecrisismag) May 5, 2020
Armed, white protesters can storm capitol offices demanding that states open again, while unarmed Black protesters are met with militarized police, vilification, and tear gas. When Black people wear masks in public, as recommended by the CDC, they also fear for their lives because they know Black skin alone is seen as an American danger. And when Black people are unmasked and outside, they might be attacked for not social distancing. Whatever you do, your life is in danger.
Last month, John Rademaker cursed out teens at a Kentucky park for not being 6 feet apart. But it was the Black girl, the lone person of color, he choked. In Boston last weekend, a white woman asked young Black men where they lived over and over again, yelling in their faces for no reason other than she didn’t think they belonged. Privilege has a bullhorn in the era of coronavirus.
When Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says public defenders are overwhelmingly privileged, when she points out the inherent biases in the justice system, people should listen rather than rushing to point out they aren’t the problem. Why not admit there is privilege, racism, and bias bleeding throughout every facet of American society and its government — including public defense?
Implicit bias is real. It’s why Black men who commit the same crimes as white men are punished with federal prison sentences that are about 20 percent longer. It’s part of why we see doctors ignoring the pain, the symptoms, and the health care of their Black and brown patients.
Rana Zoe Mungin, a UMass Amherst MFA graduate, died last month due to complications from COVID-19. The 30-year-old teacher tried multiple times to seek medical treatment and was instead told she had asthma and anxiety. By the time she was admitted to a hospital, she immediately had to be put on a ventilator. If doctors listened sooner, she may have survived.
The circumstances that led to Black people making up 40 percent of the coronavirus cases in Boston are issues of race and socioeconomic status. Period. These victims have asthma and diabetes due to air pollution and food deserts. They often live in communities ripe for these conditions due to redlining and economic injustice, because of — wait for it — racism.
But the minute you say the word racism, people will call you a racist and accuse you of self-victimization rather than acknowledge the truth.
For that reason, Black people in this country are always fighting to live in a system set up to kill us.
Ahmaud Arbery was jogging. He was jogging before social distancing and coronavirus became our latest threat.
But when you unmask America, it feels like Black people might be running for their lives forever.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.