(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Before the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last month, before the killing by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March, there was the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Two armed white men pursued him through the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick in February, while a third filmed the adventure on his phone.
Police violence against unarmed black individuals is a well-documented occurrence in the U.S. The asphyxiation of Floyd and the shooting of Taylor, who had been sleeping in her own home, join a long strand of evidence. The killing of Arbery, on the other hand, was not an exercise of state violence. It was a smash-up at the well-traveled crossroads of systemic racism and radical gun culture.
Having seen Arbery jogging in their neighborhood, 64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his 34-year-old son Travis grabbed a shotgun and a pistol, jumped in their truck and chased after him. Father and son later told police they were eager to question Arbery about some local burglaries. The guns were apparently conversation starters.
It’s a dramatic tableau with a long, sordid pedigree. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” published in 1903, four decades after the end of slave patrols, W.E.B. DuBois writes:
A black stranger in Baker County, Georgia, for instance is liable to be stopped anywhere on the public highway and made to state his business to the satisfaction of any white interrogator. If he fails to give a suitable answer, or seems too independent or “sassy,” he may be arrested or summarily driven away.
In Glynn County, Georgia, in 2020, a similar assertion of dominance took place. White vigilantes demanded that a black stranger satisfy their curiosity. Racial prerogatives permeate every aspect of the killing and the shoddy initial inquiry of it.
In his incident report, County Police Officer Jake Brandeberry describes Gregory McMichael, who had just pursued Arbery armed with a .357 magnum, as a “witness to the incident.” The incident itself is cast as a brief moment in time, divorced of cause and effect, separate from the mad hunt leading up to the moment when Travis McMichael leaves the truck armed with a loaded shotgun and confronts Arbery.
What happened, apparently, was this: A gun went off. As George Barnhill, the elected district attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, wrote in a memo in April: “While we know McMichael had his finger on the trigger, we do not know who caused the firing.”
Barnhill wrote his three-page memo shortly before recusing himself from the case at the request of the victim’s mother. In it, he describes “our opinions” on the evidence, stating for the record — recusal notwithstanding — that he finds no grounds for arrest of the armed men whose bullets were in the dead man’s body. They were “following in ‘hot pursuit’ a burglary suspect, with solid first hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop,” he writes. “It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.”
In order for someone to be in “hot pursuit” of a burglary suspect, at least two elements are necessary prior to the pursuit: a burglary and a suspect. Barnhill neglected to identify the burglary in which Arbery was a “criminal suspect.” Nor did he identify what possible “probable cause” the two non-officers of the law had for stopping Arbery.
I called Barnhill’s office this week and asked the woman who answered the phone if Barnhill or anyone else in his office could clarify what burglary had taken place in which Arbery was a suspect. She replied, “He is not available for answers on that.” Then she hung up.
Burglary figures prominently in Brandeberry’s report as well. “McMichael stated there have been several Break-ins in the neighborhood and further the suspect was caught on surveillance video,” it reads.
It’s a useful mental exercise to imagine two black men, one armed with a .357 magnum, the other with a warm shotgun, having this conversation with a white police officer over the dead body of an unarmed white man. The elder black man explains that, unfortunately, the white man died from a gunshot wound. But, he notes, the white man had been seen on a surveillance video, and there had recently been some break-ins in the neighborhood.
Every American adult knows that the result of such a conversation would be handcuffs and murder charges. It took more than two months for the McMichaels to be arrested for Arbery’s death. The arrest occurred only after public outcry and the transfer of the case from local investigators to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
As for the burglary in which Arbery was a suspect? It does not seem to exist. There is video of Arbery (and of others) looking around a new home under construction. There is no evidence anything was ever taken. There is speculation that Arbery may have helped himself to a water source at the construction project — an act of some presumption by a thirsty jogger, if true, but not typically a capital offense.
In fact, according to the Glynn County Police Department, there is only one record of a burglary in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in the weeks leading up to the killing. On Jan. 1, 2020, more than seven weeks before Arbery was killed, police received a call about a black Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol stolen from a truck.
The call came from Travis McMichael, who had left the gun in his truck. Gregory McMichael had subsequently moved the truck and failed to lock it. Weeks before accosting Ahmaud Arbery on a public street and leaving him dead, the McMichaels appear to have negligently supplied a criminal with a free weapon. The McMichaels are in custody now, charged with murder. The Smith & Wesson remains at large, with the fully loaded capacity for further mayhem down the road.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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