Before the video showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was leaked to a horrified public this week, his killers had not been charged—and the footage itself had been cited to justify that decision.
The video was apparently shot by Willam Bryan, the man who’d followed in his own vehicle after Gregory McMichael—a former police officer and investigator in the Brunswick District Attorney’s office—and his son Travis saw Arbery, grabbed their guns — a shotgun and a .357 magnum — and hopped in their pickup truck to pursue him. The McMichaels, who said they suspected he was a burglar, eventually caught up to Arbery and confronted him. A struggle ensued, in which Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery.
Arbery, who died in the street, was unarmed and possessed no items indicating that he had burgled any homes.
Following Arbery’s murder, the McMichaels told their version of the story to the police and the men were not charged with any crimes. On Friday, two Glynn County commissioners told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson blocked police on the scene from arresting the McMichaels.
Gregory McMichael had previously worked in Johnson’s office and she later recused herself from the case. Her replacement, the District Attorney of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, George E. Barnhill, wrote a letter in April recusing himself from the case while also concluding that the McMichaels had committed no crimes.
After reviewing the evidence, witness statements, and the video, Barnhill wrote that, “We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties” since they were in “hot pursuit” of a burglary suspect, “with solid firsthand probable cause.”
According to Travis McMichael’s 911 call, he’d only saw Arbery looking around a construction site, and the 911 dispatcher did not understand what crime he attempted to report. "I just need to know what he was doing wrong," the dispatcher said. "Was he just on the premises and not supposed to be?"
The fact that the McMichaels never said they saw Arbery commit a crime had no bearing on Barnhill’s view that they were within his rights to arm themselves and chase him down because in America, and especially the South, criminality is stamped on black bodies from birth.
Barnhill declares that Arbery instigated the confrontation—claiming that the video shot by Bryan makes that clear, which it does not—and that Travis McMichael was only protecting himself. Barnhill attributed Arbery’s “attack” on him to his “apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern.”
According to Barnhill, killing Arbery was no crime but merely a citizens’ arrest gone awry after an “aggressive” black man in the South refused to passively let two racist, gun-toting white men “arrest” him.
In his recusal letter, Barnhill also ridiculed the request of Arbery’s mother that he remove himself from the case, saying: “She believes there are kinships between the parties [there are not] and has made other unfounded allegations of bias[es].” Barnhill writes that he ultimately recused himself because his son works in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.
He concludes by noting that his letter, which was obtained and published by The New York Times, should be considered part of an open case and withheld from requests under the state’s public information law until “the next District Attorney’s review” about whether to present the case to a grand jury.
Before the video’s release this week, Gregory McMichael told The Daily Beast in a brief interview that the “closest version of the truth” exists in Barnhill’s letter, and that he “never would have gone after someone for their color.”
And that may well have been the end of that if not for the video’s release 72 days after Arbery was killed.
Alan Tucker, an attorney who may have consulted with the McMichaels but is not currently representing them, took credit Thursday for releasing the video, saying that he wanted people to see that, “It wasn’t two men with a Confederate flag in the back of a truck going down the road and shooting a jogger in the back.”
Astonishingly, Tucker appears to have released the video to show that the McMichaels were good Southerners.
That same day that the video came out, District Attorney Tom Durden—the third prosecutor on the case—announced that he would present the case to a grand jury. On Thursday, the McMichaels were finally arrested, and on Friday they were denied bond.
But there is no certainty that justice will be served. America has a long history of letting guys like these get away with murder, and then moving on as if nothing happened. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown were all unarmed, and blamed for their own deaths as their murderers went free.
America’s stand-your-ground laws, interpretations of the Second Amendment, and systematic disregard for black life exist to let white Americans become terroristic vigilantes at any moment. This specter of perpetual terror hangs over black American lives, while other Americans struggle to recognize our dystopian status quo because our perpetrators of terror work to appear friendly.
Concealing the evidence as part of an “ongoing investigation,” blaming the dead for their killings while professing no ill will to victims or their community and appearing as normal and mild-mannered as possible remains the playbook for modern-day lynchings.
Wrapping terrorism with a banal façade makes it easier to distract people from the atrocity, and act as if nothing horrific has occurred. This guise of normalcy can make covering up and perpetrating terror the norm of a society.
In 2017, the Equal Justice Initiative reported that from the end of the Civil War to just after World War II that there had been over 4,000 “terror lynchings” in America, mostly in the South. These were murders intended to terrorize African-Americans, where no one was criminally charged. That is more than one lynching a week for over 75 years. Throughout this time, the South worked to appear a polite and hospitable place rather than a racist and authoritarian one.
From slavery to the Civil War to Jim Crow to the present, the American South has crafted laws, language, and social norms to shape a society based around white people’s “right” to dehumanize, marginalize, and terrorize non-white people as an essential way of life.
Arbery’s death is horrific, but it is not shocking. America is built to inflict and conceal this terror. The only shock about his death is that we saw the video.