“The sad truth is that Ahmaud’s case isn’t unique at all. He is a representation of the ongoing level of distrust that a large part of our communities have in law enforcement and elected officials and the importance of placing reform like-minded people in office who will uphold the highest standards of the law for everyone, regardless of color. The anger and frustration being expressed by professional athletes and people of color all over the country stems from a centuries-long thread of violence against the black body that goes without consequence or justice.” — NFL player Malcolm Jenkins, co-founder of The Players’ Coalition
The pattern is nauseatingly familiar.
An unarmed person of color is killed by police or by self-appointed vigilantes. Authorities accept, without question, an explanation of self-defense. It is only after the disinfecting sunlight of public attention arouses outrage that the wheels of justice begin to turn. And so it has been for Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Georgia man shot to death while jogging in February.
The 64-year-old former police investigator and his 34-year-old son who are charged in his death told police he thought Mr. Arbery looked like a man suspected of several break-ins in the area.
No break-ins had been reported in the area for seven weeks before the shooting.
The father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, armed themselves and chased Ahmaud in a pickup truck before the younger man fired the fatal shots from his shotgun.
No one was arrested. Shortly afterward, the prosecutor with jurisdiction over the case recused herself, because the elder McMichael had worked in her office. The second prosecutor, whose son worked in the same office also recused himself. But before he did, he made it clear to the police that he accepted the McMichael’s claim of self-defense.
By the time the New York Times published its first account of the killing, two months had passed with no arrests. It was only two weeks later, after a video of the armed chase emerged that the third prosecutor assigned to the case said he would present it to a grand jury. That same day, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. Two days later, Ahmaud’s attackers were arrested.
Appallingly, the defense attorney who leaked the video said he thought it would exonerate the attackers because Ahmaud didn’t freeze when the attackers told him to stop.
It boggles the mind that in the year 2020 there are still people in positions of authority who accept, unquestioningly, the notion that a Black man who fails to heed the orders of a white man on the street deserves instant death.
It seems clear that without the national attention focused on the case, there would have been no justice for Ahmaud. And that, as much as Ahmaud’s death itself, is what must be investigated.
This week, The Washington Post revealed that the elder McMichael was stripped of his law enforcement certification and power to arrest a year more than a year before the shooting because he repeatedly failed to complete required training. He also was he was stripped of his powers to arrest people in January 2006 because of an undisclosed infraction.
Furthermore, the Glynn County Police Department, which led the investigation before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, has a history of corruption and scandals.
Glynn County Police Chief John Powell was indicted for perjury and witness tampering four days after the Arbery shooting. He remains on administrative leave.
The police department lost its state certification in 2018 because it did not meet basic policing standards. Only 12 percent of the police force was African American, even though African Americans make up 26 percent of the county’s population.
Last year, the county’s drug task force was disbanded after a state-led investigation found extensive misconduct by Glynn County officers.
A lieutenant with a long history of violent behavior shot and killed his estranged wife in 2018 before taking his own life. The wife’s family is suing the department for failing to intervene.
Without the persistence of Ahmaud’s family to seek justice, the corruption would have been allowed to fester.
Meanwhile, another tragic killing, the death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, has risen to national attention. The EMT shot to death by Louisville police executing a no-knock search warrant. The police were not wearing body cameras. Her family have sued the police and the case is under review.
The National Urban League stands in solidarity with the other civil rights and social justice advocates and activists who have called on U.S. Attorney General William Barr to investigate these killings and the work of the police and prosecutors involved.
An unsigned note left at the spot where Ahmaud was killed reads: “Ahmaud – I am so sorry. I should have stopped them. I am so sorry.” We, as a nation, should have stopped them, and must stop it from happening again.
Morial is president of the National Urban League.