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A video showing the last moments of a young unarmed black man’s life has sparked outrage among criminal justice advocates across the country — and has led a Georgia prosecutor to call for a grand jury to investigate the fatal shooting.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot and killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood on February 23, 2020, following an altercation with a white father and son. The men — Gregory and Travis McMichael, the former a retired district attorney investigator and police detective — armed themselves and followed Arbery in Travis McMichael’s pickup truck after seeing him jog by; they later told police officers they believed Arbery to be a suspect in two burglaries in the area.
Previously, the only public record of Arbery’s final moments were the statements the McMichaels gave to police. But a video depicting a struggle between Arbery and Travis McMichael went viral on Tuesday, after being posted (and then deleted) by a radio station.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, told CBS News that the newly emerged video “proves that my son was not committing a crime. He was out for his daily jog and he was hunted down like an animal and killed.”
The video has led to widespread calls for further investigation into Arbery’s death. It’s also been compared with the shooting deaths of other unarmed black people, including 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and Botham Jean, who was killed in his Dallas apartment in 2018. It also sparked protests in Georgia — where social distancing requirements were recently relaxed — with hundreds of people marching through Satilla Shores on Tuesday, promising to “run with Maud” and chanting, “We want justice!”
“The video is very clear that they were on the truck with guns hunting him down,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what more you need to make an arrest.”
But before any arrests can be made in Arbery’s shooting death, there needs to be some sort of investigation, which has so far been limited as a series of prosecutors recused themselves from the case. Tom Durden, the district attorney looking into the killing, said in a statement Tuesday that a grand jury would decide whether criminal charges should be brought against the McMichaels — but such a jury can’t be called while courts are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This has frustrated Arbery’s supporters, who argue that his killing — and the subsequent actions of local law enforcement — shows how little has changed in an area of Georgia that’s been described as dotted with Confederate flags, with a history of mobs of white men taking justice into their own hands in a manner that leaves black men dead.
Everything we know about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing
Much of what we know about the circumstances around Arbery’s death comes from four sources: a police report filed after he was killed, several 911 calls, accounts from Arbery’s friends and family, and a viral video.
None of these provide a complete picture of the 25-year-old’s killing. The police report captures only the narrative of Gregory McMichael, a former police detective and district attorney investigator in Brunswick County. The 911 recordings feature unknown callers. It is not clear who took the video, which was filmed through the windshield of a vehicle and has obstructed views of certain key moments. And no friends or family were with Arbery at the time of his death.
Arbery, a former high school football star, was passionate about staying in shape, according to friends and family, who told the New York Times he often spent his free time running. He went for one such run on February 23, ending up in Satilla Shores, a few miles away from his home in Glynn County.
Gregory McMichael claims he was in his front yard when he saw Arbery “hauling ass,” after which he ran inside to get a weapon and his son, Travis. He told police that he said, “Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.”
By “the guy,” he meant the person responsible for what some in the neighborhood have described as two burglaries. Larry English, a man building a home in the McMichaels’ neighborhood, said someone stole $2,500 in fishing gear from him earlier this year. English told the Daily Beast he never reported the theft. The second was reported to police by Travis McMichael, who said a 9mm pistol was stolen on January 1 from a vehicle parked outside his home.
In the police report filed after Arbery’s killing, Gregory McMichael said the burglar had been caught on surveillance video and that Arbery matched the description of the suspect.
There seemed to be concern about Arbery’s presence in the neighborhood for much of his time there on the afternoon of February 23; although it is not clear who made them, several calls were placed to 911. Satilla Shores is a predominantly white neighborhood, one the Daily Beast’s Justin Glawe describes as featuring “several homes … decorated with Trump flags, one bearing the president’s smiling face with the phrase, Make liberals cry again.”
The first featured a caller expressing distress about Arbery being near a house that is under construction on property owned by English. The caller claimed Arbery was inside the home, which is open to the air due to the construction; the dispatcher asked what Arbery was doing wrong but never received an answer. Arbery’s family has said he’s always been inquisitive and was likely just having a look at the bones of the home, since that’s something one doesn’t see every day.
After that first call, 911 received another, in which the caller said, “I’m out here at Satilla Shores. There’s a black male running down the street.” The caller can be heard yelling, “Watch that. Stop, damn it! Stop!” but stops responding the dispatcher’s inquiries.
As these calls were being made, the McMichaels were preparing to pursue Arbery. George McMichael told police he armed himself with a .357 magnum while his son got a shotgun. George told police he felt the weapons were called for because he’d seen Arbery in the neighborhood previously with his hand in his pants in a manner suggestive of a firearm. Then the men got into Travis McMichael’s pickup truck and began to chase Arbery through the neighborhood.
Arbery’s uncle told the Brunswick News that Arbery was amazingly fast and agile. And the police report suggests that — despite being on foot — he evaded the McMichaels for a time. George McMichael claims his son tried to cut off Arbery with his truck, but that he turned around and ran in the other direction.
The police report mentions another person, identified only as “Roddy,” tried unsuccessfully to cut Arbery off with their vehicle as well.
McMichael claims they were able to catch up with Arbery and shouted out of the truck, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” before stopping the truck beside him, at which point Travis exited with his shotgun. Then, McMichael claims, Arbery attacked his son, the two men fought over the shotgun, two shots were fired, and then Arbery fell, bleeding. The officer who wrote the report said Arbery died not long after police arrived on the scene.
But the video — filmed from a vehicle — appears to show something slightly different. Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, who is representing Arbery’s family, reposted the video on his Twitter account Tuesday.
As the vehicle turns a bend in a road, a black man wearing a white shirt — what Arbery was described as wearing in 911 calls — can be seen running. A white pickup truck blocks his path; a white man is in the street next to the driver’s side of the truck, and another stands in the flatbed. The video is blocked by the dashboard for a moment, and some unintelligible yelling can be heard. The video then shows the black man trying to run around the truck by way of the passenger’s side.
It’s not possible to see what happens next, but there’s a gunshot; the black man and the white man who was standing in the road reappear in the frame, engaged in a struggle, and move off the road, again leaving the video’s frame. As the man in the flatbed brings up his firearm, there’s another gunshot. The video Merritt posted ends with the struggle — seemingly over possession of a firearm — continuing. A longer version available online features a third gunshot, and the black man falling to the pavement, his shirt seemingly red with blood.
When police arrived, Arbery was “on the ground ‘bleeding out,’” according to the report. Travis McMichael had blood on his hands; his father said this was from Travis rolling Arbery’s body over to check for a gun.
Arbery’s supporters say this is a clear case of racist murder — but complications have inhibited an investigation
Advocates for Arbery argue his killing is a very clear case of racial profiling; in his caption for the video, Merritt wrote, “Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three white men that targeted him solely because of his race and murdered him without justification.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by others, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who tweeted Tuesday, “The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood.”
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election and who has said she hopes to become Biden’s running mate, demanded a “full investigation, appropriate charges, and an unbiased prosecution.”
But charges have been slow in coming, due to conflicts of interest and Georgia’s stand-your-ground law and citizen’s arrest law.
The case is on its third prosecutor; the first put in charge of the case, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because she’d previously employed George McMichael. The district attorney of Waycross, Georgia, George Barnhill, was then assigned it, but he recused himself after Arbery’s mother pointed out his son works in Johnson’s office.
Before his recusal, however, Barnhill wrote a letter laying out the reasons he felt the McMichaels had done nothing wrong, noting Georgia has an open-carry law, that a separate state law allows a private citizen to attempt arrests if an “offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge,” and that it has a stand-your-ground law that allows someone who feels threatened “to use deadly force to protect himself,” without having to first try to retreat or call law enforcement.
Merritt has dismissed Barnhill’s interpretation of these laws, telling CNN he doesn’t believe the McMichaels were trying to make a citizen’s arrest, noting that the McMichaels’ statements frame the shooting as an act of self-defense.
And he said the citizen’s arrest law says “you actually have to be observing the crime or be in the immediate knowledge of the crime” but argues the McMichaels never claimed this was the case.
“The only thing they have ever said is … that Ahmaud stopped by a house that was under construction and he looked through the window,” Merritt said Sunday. “We don’t know if that happened or not, but even if that did happen, that is not a felony that would invoke the citizen’s arrest statute that would make this allowable.”
Merritt has also pushed back against other claims in Barnhill’s letter, including that Arbery had mental health issues as well as the district attorney’s efforts to point out Arbery was once convicted of shoplifting and of bringing a gun to campus while he was in high school.
“The reference to … alleged conduct from high school or shoplifting is absurd and has nothing to do with his murder,” Merritt said.
The real root of the killing, Merritt suggested, can be seen in the 911 calls, when the caller fails to give a clear reason for the call but does note, “There’s a black male running down the street.”
Gregory McMichael told the Daily Beast Arbery’s race has nothing to do with anything and that he “never would have gone after someone for their color,” saying instead that Barnhill’s letter is the “closest version of the truth.”
A grand jury investigation should be forthcoming
The actual version of the truth may come to light soon, however. District Attorney Tom Durden of Hinesville, Georgia, has now taken over for Barnhill. He promised to look at the case without “any preconceived idea about it.”
Tuesday, Durden announced he will have a grand jury investigate the killing. However, it will not be able to do so for at least a month — although hair salons, massage parlors, and other nonessential businesses are open in Georgia, the court will be closed until at least June 13 due to Covid-19 concerns.
Durden did not say what charges the grand jury would consider but did say he had accepted an offer from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation — an independent state agency with investigative and forensic expertise — for assistance.
Gov. Kemp promoted the offer on Twitter Tuesday, writing, “Georgians deserve answers. State law enforcement stands ready to ensure justice is served.”
Merritt and other civil rights advocates say they plan to ensure the same — and some, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, have called for a federal investigation, citing delays in the state-level efforts.
“Any system that stands by as an unarmed man is gunned down in the street without any obvious justifiable reason, is also filled with bias and hate,” Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in a statement. “That these people have not been charged or held to account in any way speaks volumes about the level of respect that law enforcement in Glynn County have for Black lives.”
And what those volumes say, according to Georgia’s NAACP, is “what we all know to be true — justice for all is just not specific enough.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story miscategorized the incidents described by Larry English and Travis McMichael. They were burglaries.
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