Update (8th April): On Thursday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Gregory and Travis McMichael for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Both McMichael's were taken into custody and are being charged with murder and aggravated assault, according to police.
This story was originally published on Wednesday 6th May 2020.
On Sunday 23rd February, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was out for a run when he was shot and killed by two white men. The case had mostly escaped national attention, likely thanks to the coronavirus pandemic dominating the news cycle and the country’s attention. But that changed this week, when new evidence in the form of a video was posted online by a local radio station host on Tuesday. The new evidence comes after a district attorney recommended the case go to a grand jury, and two local prosecutors have had to recuse themselves from the case citing conflicts of interest.
When the video was taken, Arbery was living with his mother in Glynn County, on the coast of Georgia. On the afternoon of 23rd February, the former high school football player went out for a run, jogging through the suburban neighbourhood of Satilla Shores on his route. That’s where two men, Gregory McMichaels, 64, and his son, Travis McMichaels, 34, saw him running and chased him down before shooting and killing him. According to the elder McMichaels, who is a former Glynn County police officer and a former investigator with the local district attorney’s office who retired last May, he thought Arbery looked like a robbery suspect in the neighbourhood.
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The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery is now going to the Grand Jury after a video went viral of what appears to be Arbery being gunned down during a jog. . the video alone looks incriminating enough that the two others involved should be jailed immediately. Unsure of why there needs to be a grand jury to see that. Sick people out there. . . . . #justiceforahmaud #ahmaudarbery #news
The two men say they grabbed their guns, a .257 magnum and a shotgun, and went after him in a pickup truck, along with a third man. The video appears to show two men with guns, one on the street and one in the bed of a white pickup truck, parked in the middle of the road. Arbery jogs towards the vehicle and attempts to run around it, when the men confront him. It is not possible to hear what, if anything is said, but Arbery struggles with one of the men over the gun and three shots can be heard before Arbery falls to the ground. Arbery was not armed.
The prosecutor for the Brunswick judicial district recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked in her office, and the case was sent to the district attorney in Waycross, GA, George E. Barnhill. Barnhill argued that there was not probable cause to prosecute in the case, before eventually recusing himself after Arbery’s mother argued he had a conflict of interest due to his son also working for the Brunswick DA.
In the letter he wrote before recusing himself from the case, Barnhill cited various laws in Georgia that he says the McMichaelses were not violating: the state’s open carry law meant the men were legally carrying their guns; a Georgia law that permits “a private person” to “arrest an offender” (known as a “citizen’s arrest”) meant the men were within their rights to pursue a suspected “burglary suspect;” self-defence laws meant that Travis McMichaels was within his right to “use deadly force to protect himself” from the unarmed Arbery if Arbery had attacked him first.
But the attorney for Arbery’s family, Lee Merritt, told CNN that argument is deeply flawed. Merritt said that the most the two men had the authority to do under the law is follow Arbery and send the police to his location. But, Merritt cited the 911 calls from that afternoon, when the 911 operator asks what Arbery is doing that is of criminal concern. "They didn't give any answer for that, they said, 'He's a black man running down our road,'" Merritt said.
“Ahmaud Arbery's horrific murder reminds us how dangerous it is when average white people feel empowered to deputise themselves w/ powers of surveillance, judgment & punishment,” writer Eve Ewing tweeted. “THIS is why we get upset when folks call 911 on BBQs & lemonade stands. It's always been life & death.”
Political leaders are now also speaking out against the lack of action taken in Georgia to rectify the footage shown. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar attributed Arbery's death to be "a Black man in America" in an impassioned message on Twitter.
Say his name: Ahmaud Arbery.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 6, 2020
He was lynched. Killed in cold blood simply for being a Black man in America.
Far too often, our criminal justice system fails us. We can’t let that happen this time — the white men who hunted him down and ended his life must be held accountable. https://t.co/GCkmjH8GUz
The video of Arbery’s killing has become the latest in a long line of viral images of black death and suffering at the hands of white perpetrators. These videos often spark outrage and trauma — particularly for black communities — and may lead to prosecution, but often fail to bring the perpetrators to justice. “Authorities started pretending the killers, Gregory & Travis McMichael, will somehow be held responsible ONLY after a gruesome video emerged,” Koritha Mitchell, author of Living with Lynching, tweeted. “But the American (in)justice system will do what it does best for black & brown citizens: pile insult onto immeasurable injury.”
Arbery’s case was handed to a third prosecutor on 13th April, Tom Durden, who is based in Hinesville, nearly an hour away. On Tuesday, the same day the graphic video of the shooting was released, Durden recommended the case go to a grand jury for review. “I am of the opinion that the case should be presented to the grand jury of Glynn County for consideration of criminal charges against those involved in the death of Mr Arbery,” Durden wrote in a press release obtained by News4Jax. However, many have noted that it took actual footage of the killing to gain serious attention to a gruesome crime.
"A day after Ida B. Wells is awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her documentation of lynching, some 90 years after her death," New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter, "we see the wrenching evidence of the ongoing legacy of the extrajudicial killing of black 'citizens.'"
Refinery29 has reached out to the Glynn County Police Department for comment. We will update this story as we know more.