On this day one year ago, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was killed by two white men while out for a jog in his neighbourhood in Georgia. For a while, the case evaded national attention due to COVID-19's domination of the news cycle around the world and specifically in America. But in May 2020, that changed when a video that showed the confrontation leading to Arbery's death was posted online by a local radio host. The new evidence circulated publicly after a district attorney recommended that the case go to a grand jury.
A year after her son was violently killed, eventually becoming a figure that triggered a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, is speaking out. In an interview reflecting on the first year dealing with the loss of her son, Cooper-Jones describes her grief: "What happened in February last year changed my life. When I lost Ahmaud, I lost a part of myself."
She also revealed that on the day of his death, she got a phone call with muddied details about the events that took place. "They initially called me and told me he had burglarised something. There was a fight over the gun and Ahmaud was shot and killed by the homeowner. I know that was different. Ahmaud was never, never accused of taking anything from anybody," she said.
Arbery had been living with his mother at the time of his death. On February 23, Gregory McMichaels, 64, and his son, Travis McMichaels, 34, saw him running while he was out jogging. They chased him, shot him, and killed him, in an act of vigilante violence. The elder McMichaels, a former police officer who has only recently retired, defended his actions saying he thought Arbery looked like a robbery suspect in the neighbourhood. Travis McMichael claimed he was fearing for his life, despite video evidence showing the two men literally hunting down and killing Arbery while a third person filmed it. While there was relatively little noise around his death initially, Arbery's name and story would soon become one of the catalysts for the renewed Black Lives Matter uprisings during the summer and fall of 2020.
"Early when it first happened, I could have just stopped and accepted what they told me, but I didn't. And I thank God for giving me the intuition to push," Cooper-Jones said. Although it took months for the public outcry over Arbery's killing to really spread, Cooper-Jones continued to push to get answers, make known the injustice her family suffered, and hold the McMichaels accountable.
On 21st May, both the McMichaels were finally arrested. But the movement to find justice for Arbery didn't cease: protesters in Georgia focused their sights specifically on removing Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson from office entirely, with many believing that the only reason the McMichaels were even arrested was because of the public backlash the office faced as a result of the video circulating. In November, that effort became a reality when Johnson lost her post as DA to Keith Higgins.
On the anniversary of his death, at 5pm, Cooper-Jones and Arbery's other loved ones plan to hold a candlelight vigil in Waynesboro, Georgia. She's asked everyone to wear a blue ribbon in memory of him, hoping to continue keeping his fight alive.
"I knew he didn't want me sad. He'd want me to be happy. So, I try to look at it that way as well. You know, he wouldn't want his mommy sad, he would want me happy," Cooper-Jones said. "[If I could speak to him now] I would tell Ahmaud that things are going better than before, that we do seek justice at this point. I think Ahmaud will be pleased with how, you know, the family and I have approached it. How we waited patiently, not let it change us, the people who we are. Ahmaud was love. So, it changed me, but I still know there is hope and we just pray for the better."