On the Murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Modern Day Lynching

On the Murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Modern Day Lynching May 6, 2020

In late February, two civilian men with no role in law enforcement followed 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in their truck while he was out for an early afternoon jog, pulled past him and stopped in the road, got out of their truck carrying weapons, and shot and killed him as he tried to jog around the roadblock they had created.

As journalism professor Jelani Cobb put it on twitterthey hunted him like prey. Neither man has been arrested. Neither man has been charged. The two murderers claim they thought Arbery might be the man who’d been committing some local burglaries—based on zero evidence—and that they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest—with guns and, it seems, a willingness to kill. Based on literally nothing. No evidence, nothing.

As screenwriter Mark Hughes put it:

Based on original police excuse for not making an arrest, if I see someone I suspect might be up to no good, I can get a gun, follow them & SHOOT THEM TO DEATH, & it’s totally legal if I say I wanted to make a “citizen’s arrest” WITHOUT EVIDENCE OF A SPECIFIC CRIME AT THE TIME.

Yesterday, a Georgia radio station released a graphic, disturbing video of the killing—video authorities already had, but had not made public. Also yesterday, after the video began to spread on twitter and elsewhere in the news media, the district attorney recommended the case to a Grand Jury for review. A Grand Jury will decide whether Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael should be tried for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Note that this would not have happened if the video had not been made public—or if there hadn’t been video.

We live in a country where white men can hunt down a black man like prey, shoot and kill him, claim they were acting in the public’s good, and get away with it—so long as the video of the killing isn’t publicly released.

The killers called 911 twice that day to report a black man jogging. The dispatcher repeatedly asked what the actual crime was: “I just need to know what he was doing wrong.” According to an article in the Brunswick News:

Gregory McMichael was outside at his son’s Satilla Drive home when he saw Arbery running down the street, he told police. He ran inside, armed himself and told his son to grab a gun, Gregory McMichael told police. He said they had seen Arbery on surveillance cameras.

McMichael claims that when Arbery jogged by their house, he recognized him as a man who had been committing burglaries in the area at night. (The authorities say no such burglaries had been reported.)

Many people have called Arbery’s killing a lynching. This is apt. Lynchings were often justified with claims that the victim had committed some sort of crime—claims that were typically either false or cases of mistaken identity.

The two men got into his son’s pickup truck and caught up to Arbery at Burford Road and Satilla Drive, he told police. After asking Arbery several times to stop, Travis McMichael stepped out of the truck with a shotgun, Gregory McMichael told police.

In the video, Arbery is jogging down a rural two-lane road when he comes to a white pickup truck parked in the right lane, and a man with a gun standing in the road in the left lane. He tries to go around the truck on the right, running into the grass. The two men can be heard yelling—presumably ordering Arbery to stop. For no reason. As Arbery comes around the truck and jogs back onto the road, the first shot rings out.

Gregory McMichael told police a struggle for the gun ensued between Travis McMichael and Arbery, during which his son fired twice. Arbery died at the scene.

The video does show a struggle for the gun. And really, what was Arbery supposed to do? From his perspective, he was being held up by two armed white men. They were trying to stop him at gunpoint. He had no reason to assume they had good motives. Arbery didn’t start by going after the gun, he started by trying to go around the truck. Imagine what he must have felt at that moment. There are two white men out here in a pickup truck, with guns, stopped in the road, trying to block his way, yelling at him—what exactly was he supposed to do?

The prosecutor assigned to the case recommended that the McMichaels not be prosecuted. He argued they were within their rights under Georgia’s gun laws and citizens’ arrest laws to chase Arbery down, that they were right to be suspicious of Arbery because he jogged in an “aggressive” manner, and that they had the right under Georgia’s stand your ground laws to shoot and kill Arbery when he tried to disarm them while they were carrying out their citizens’ arrest. The prosecutor recommended that the McMichaels not be arrested or charged.

Where are Arbery’s rights, in all of this? Does the right to self defense not exist in Georgia? Sshouldn’t Arbery’s struggle for the gun be seen as him trying to stand his ground, trying to defend himself from attack? Why are only white men allowed to defend themselves? The McMichaels stalked, hunted, and ambushed Arbery, but that was fine! That was self defense! They, two white men, declared that the black man they had summarily stalked and killed was a bad, bad man—that they could tell!—and that was enough for the authorities in Hinesville, Georgia.

He went for an early afternoon jog. 


It boggles my mind that many white people in this country think racism is a thing of the past. We live in a time where black parents have to coach their children on how not to end up shot by police, and yet racism is over. We live in a time where black men are shot and killed for jogging while black, and yet racism is over.

I’m not really sure what there is to say that hasn’t been said a million times over. Black children are viewed as potentially criminal, and as older than they are. Black children are followed by security in stores. Black children have the cops called on them. Black children can’t afford the sort of mistakes white children are expected to make.

Black people are shot in their apartments. Botham Jean. They are murdered in their homes. Atatiana JeffersonThey are shot in their cars. Philando CastileThey are murdered for selling loose cigarettes. Eric Garner. They are shot and killed for asking for help. Renisha McBride. They are shot by police responding to alerts that they need medical help. Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. Black kids are shot by police for playing with toy guns. Tamir RiceBlack kids are shot and killed for walking to the store to buy skittles. Trayvon Martin.

If you haven’t already, you should definitely listen to Season 2 of the In the Dark podcast. Let’s just say that having listened to it, I wasn’t surprised the district attorney in this case hadn’t pursued charges against the McMichaels. We pretend that we as a country have a functioning justice system. Well, in many places, we don’t. Or rather, we have a justice system functions to uphold white supremacy and protect entrenched networks of power.

Maybe things will change, now, in Hinesville, Georgia, and Ahmaud Arbery will get justice. But the cynic in me says that authorities there are probably more interested in figuring out who leaked the video than anything else. I don’t know what it will take to bring change in this country. All I know is that it’s taking too damn long.

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