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Remembering Ahmaud Arbery Three Years Later: The Murder In Broad Daylight That Inflamed a Racial Awakening In America

Cellphone video footage of a Black man being hunted and killed by three white men in south Georgia in 2020 was a catalyst that led to a racial awakening that evoked change and trigged white guilt in America.

Ahmaud Arbery fought for his life on Feb. 23, 2020, after being cornered by father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. However, his years of athletic training did not prepare him for the power of Travis’ shotgun.

Ahmaud Arbery third anniversary
BRUNSWICK, GA – NOVEMBER 24: A woman carries a portrait of Ahmaud Arbery outside the Glynn County Courthouse as the jury deliberates in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 24, 2021, in Brunswick, Georgia. Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan were found guilty in the February 2020 fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The specter of white men chasing a young Black man in pickup trucks permeated the minds of Americans and fueled impending civil unrest of historic magnitude. It led to significant changes in policy written into law when scenes of racial killings of Black people were more familiar in the South.

Georgia NAACP president Gerald Griggs said Arbery’s murder was a “modern-day lynching” that built up to the global outrage over George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. 

Video of Arbery’s killing surfaced online on May 3, 2020, a little more than three weeks before Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. A Black woman, Breonna Taylor, was also killed in Louisville, Kentucky, in a botched narcotics raid in March 2020. The string of deaths sparked peaceful protests and riots starting in Minnesota to as far as the capital city of Australia.

“We were inside during the pandemic, and we all saw the video, and it was the impetus for people to go outside,” Griggs told Atlanta Black Star. “So, I think that it was the impetus similar to the Emmett Till case for the rebirth of the social justice movement, just as Emmett’s case was the impetus for the birth of the civil rights movement.”

Two white men admitted to torturing and killing 14-year-old Emmett in Mississippi in 1955. The boy’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, made it a point to showcase his battered body at his funeral to expose the world to racial violence. Till-Mobley’s stance has been credited as a turning point in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 60s.

Sixty-five years later and multiple decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the McMichaels chased Arbery in the Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood. They believed the former high school football player was behind a series of burglaries after he was spotted near a home under construction.

Williams recorded the event on his cellphone. The father-son duo trailed Arbery as he jogged away from their neighbor’s unoccupied house. After catching up with the Black man, Travis fought off Arbery’s hold on the barrel of his shotgun and fired the fatal shots.

Gregory McMichael, who had a long history in law enforcement, argued that the men were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest.

The video’s release spurred outrage from local, state and national leaders. Georgia General Christopher Carr requested the FBI’s involvement just days after its release.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle moved to repeal the 1863 law in May 2021. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was a strong proponent of the measure, which made it illegal for private citizens to arrest others.

The bill was stripped, leaving the right to retail business owners, restaurant owners in certain situations and weight inspectors, licensed private security guards, and private investigators while on duty.

Law enforcement officers can still detain citizens outside of their jurisdiction. Georgians can still detain someone in cases of self-defense or to protect their property, but the new law restricts the use of deadly force in those situations.

The previous version of the law allowed a civilian to arrest someone if they witnessed a crime or had “immediate knowledge” the offender committed one. If that crime was a felony and the suspect attempted to escape, the law also allowed a person to detain a suspect.

“Ahmaud was the victim of vigilante-style violence that has no place in our country or in our state,” Kemp said during a bill signing ceremony on May 10, 2021. “It quickly became clear to me and many other state leaders that we needed to act.”

Unauthorized Backroom Deal': Ahmaud Arbery's Parents Opposes DOJ’s Plea Deal with Son's Murderers In Federal Hate Crimes Case
BRUNSWICK, GA – NOVEMBER 23: Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the Glynn County Courthouse as jury deliberations begin in the trial of the killers of her son on November 23, 2021, in Brunswick, Georgia. Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan are charged with the February 2020 fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

While the elder McMichael sought to justify the shooting with the state law signed during the Civil War era, court proceedings revealed he called his ex-boss, former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, hours after the crime for advice.

Johnson reportedly connected McMichael to an attorney who later arranged for the video footage to be leaked to the public. After the release, McMichael referred to the move as “interference” in a voice message to his former prosecutor boss.

The three men were later arrested and found guilty of state and federal offenses. Their federal convictions were the first for federal hate crimes in Georgia. 

“In the aftermath of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Georgians and citizens across the country sought answers, justice, and a better way forward,” Kemp spokesperson Garrison Douglas told Atlanta Black Star.

Arbery’s death also pushed the Georgia Legislature to pass its first hate crime law that enhances sentencing for crimes motivated by bias.

State lawmakers passed hate crime legislation in 2000, but the Georgia Supreme Court struck it down four years later because the measure did not specify what actions would be penalized.

In 2019, a year before Arbery’s death, the House passed the current measure, but it had been stalled until after the jogger’s death.

“Ahmaud Arbery should still be with us today, and that is why Governor Kemp signed the state’s first hate crimes legislation into law and the repeal of the citizen’s arrest provisions,” Garrison said in an email statement. “Though these important measures could never bring back Ahmaud for his loved ones, they were historic steps of progress.”

Griggs, however, said local prosecutors need to be more proactive in using the hate crime statute. More importantly, the scales of justice have not been thoroughly weighed in the case, he added.

The attorney and civil rights advocate is calling for Johnson, the former Brunswick district attorney charged with meddling in the police investigation into Arbery’s killing, to be convicted and sentenced. He also wants Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, who declined to prosecute the men, citing self-defense, to face charges for allegedly conspiring with Johnson.

Johnson’s involvement in the case led to her being voted out of office. In January 2022, Barnhill announced that he would not seek re-election. Arbery’s death also has been attributed to subsequent changes in Brunswick’s city council and Glynn County Police Department.

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