Ahmaud Arbery set out for his usual Sunday jog on Feb. 23 around the neighborhood of Satilla Shores — a suburb of Brunswick, Georgia. He had no idea that he would never return home. On his last trek down the rural road of his neighborhood, the 25-year-old was gunned down by Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael.
Claiming that they were performing a botched citizen’s arrest, the McMichaels avoided police arrest for over two months until a leaked video of the killing surfaced and spread across social media platforms. With little focus, the alleged citizens’ arrest-gone-wrong garnered attention due to the complicated nature of vigilante justice, although Arbery’s case is much more sinister than self-proclaimed officers of justice operating under a grey area of the law.
Arbery’s case is a color-coded controversy of black hate posing as white-saviorism, blue lies by a police force riddled with a disturbing past, a blinding spotlight of international attention, and the warm colors of the beautiful spring day when Arbery was tragically shot and left to die on the asphalt. His life faded away, as his last spark of hope rested in the cell phone camera recording his final moment. Rather than fizzling off as a majority of cases similar to Arbery’s, it erupted throughout the nation, ripples of which have reached across the globe. The case exposed not only Arbery, the McMichaels and the Brunswick police, but also the handling of the entire case from the moment it occurred to its gritty end.
Outside of the Deep South city of Brunswick, silence over the case ensued until May 5, when Alan Tucker, a criminal defense lawyer, released the now infamous and disturbingly graphic video tape.
Within three days, every major news outlet in the U.S. — The New York Times, Fox News, Huffington Post and CNN, to name a few — had gathered information on the murder’s details and accounts. Soon enough, opinions bisected by bipartisan sources poured into the public’s lap as Arbery became the face of a movement for justice against not only racism and lynching, but the American legal system itself.
Due to pressure from the public, the crawling legal pace was shoved along, until finally, on May 8, both Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Both were charged with aggravated assault and murder over the death of Arbery. Filmed by William Bryan, who followed the McMichael duo when they cornered Arbery, the cell-phone video shows the horrific incident unfold in its final moment as Gregory McMichael fires a shotgun round into Arbery’s torso as he tussles with Travis McMichael. In shock, Arbery runs several steps away from Bryan and the McMichaels before collapsing on the road.
Details immediately poured out of the case, prompting several grim questions about yesterday’s racism being indistinguishable from today’s racism. Other questions directly related to the case also arose — Who are Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael? Why weren’t they immediately arrested? Why were the McMichaels arrested 75 days after the murder?
The most disturbing and sadly obvious answer to the last question is that Gregory McMichael is a retired investigative officer who served for 30 years in the Brunswick Police. This personal connection to the Brunswick PD gave him credibility when first questioned by the police. In addition, two district attorneys were prompted to quit the case due to their personal relationship with the McMichaels, lengthening the process further.
Those are the two surface-level reasons that the arrests were delayed for so long. A much more sinister explanation sits just below the surface though, as during the period before the video leaked, Brunswick was bubbling with civil unrest and failed protest attempts due to the mandated stay-at-home orders in place.
The police fully condoned the McMichaels’ action as legal and avoided pushing the case forward despite local pushback from community activists. Using Arbery’s past criminal record as a weapon against him, the Brunswick police covered for the McMichaels until it was too big for the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to ignore, prompting an immediate arrest of the two McMichaels.
The case may have eventually found footing in the larger media, but without the widespread distribution and coverage of the video, there is a possibility that the two McMichaels wouldn’t have been arrested for many months longer, if ever.
David Andrews is an Opinion Intern for the 2020 spring quarter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.