Justice isn’t blind; the justice system willingly turns a blind eye.
Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23, but Tom Durden, the district attorney didn’t request a formal investigation until May 5. On May 6, the Kingsland Office began the investigation, and Arbery’s killers, the father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, were arrested on May 7 – the day before Arbery would have turned 26. Did justice have a backlog? And if so, what got the wheels of justice going after such a delay? My wheels are turning. Why 74 days?
This is why the Tuskegee Institute kept a record of lynchings beginning in 1882 and lasting until 1950. They counted 3,436, which is just the deaths that they knew of. It was the reason for which the NAACP was created in 1909. Dedicated to passing anti- lynching laws, the legislation, now known as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, finally passed on February 26, 2020, by a vote of 410-4. It only took 111 years. Was there not enough evidence?
They could have checked Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s “The Red Record,” first published in 1895. Frederick Douglass wrote her a letter now included as a preface; he writes from Anacostia, D.C., “If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven where ever your pamphlet shall be read.”
Clearly, most haven’t read it. But most of us have seen pictures or heard of these lynchings.
In 2018, the subject was brought up again by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was erected in Montgomery, Alabama, a memorial to, by their count, more than 4,400 African Americans who had been lynched. Open to the public, you can see it if you want to; I already have. Or, you can continue to look the other way. Still, consider this a public service announcement.
While there was sometimes a professional photographer on hand who would point and shoot as the crowd pointed and shot, the announcement of a lynching wasn’t always made public. But there are instances wherein it was printed in the local newspaper. It was for the public entertainment of those socially colored white, who brought their children out to see the murder of an African American who was proven guilty apart from judge and jury. They were the executioners and the consumers of lynching photographs made postcards sent to relatives, often with persons standing in front of the beaten, hanging, dismembered and/or burning corpse. “Say cheese.”
Flash. Fast forward and Ahmaud’s death is being recorded. Not “at the hands of persons unknown,” which was the designation for the lynching of thousands of African American men, women and children, this mob justice captured just like those in the book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.” It is hatred’s pornography. This time, William Bryan, a neighbor, is the cameraman.
First, there was nothing to see here and the district attorney said the shooting was “perfectly legal.” Then the case was passed off from one district attorney to the next due to one conflict of interest or another. They knew Gregory McMichael, a former police officer. They didn’t want to touch it and resolved to let a grand jury decide on the McMichaels’ arrest. But the jury wouldn’t convene until mid-June, that is until the video was released to the public.
I see Ahmaud running. I watched the murder of Ahmaud Arbery again and again. I didn’t need a different angle. I don’t need to know what happened beforehand because I have seen this one before, watched it play out for Trayvon Martin (2/26/2012), Eric Garner (7/17/2014), Michael Brown (8/9/2014), Laquan McDonald (10/20/2014), Tamir Rice (11/22/2014), Freddie Gray (4/12/2015), Sandra Bland (7/13/2015), Philando Castille (7/6/2016) and countless others. I am keeping my own records now.
I know how it will end for Arbery and I cannot stop it. I scream and my body shakes. He is fighting for his life, but he will not win. Both hands on my face, I watch his face hit the pavement. Roadkill.
Feet to pavement, he was running for exercise and they were running to exercise their socially constructed white supremacy. Chased down by three men, they reach for their guns so easily. They remind me of the slave patrol, also known as “patrolllers,” “patterrollers” or “paddy rollers” as there are some who still believe that the African American has no right to run free. It is their duty to surveil his body and the wrong day for a jog, at least for Arbery.
Because it is all his fault. It is always his fault. His body made them do it. It looks suspicious, criminal, dangerous. Quick! Release his criminal and medical history. Repeat the racialized narrative that accounts for thousands of lynchings in America. He is guilty of something and if he isn’t, he was going to be.
Prison pipeline, any hope I had for the American Dream has long gone down the drain. Because who do Arbery’s murderers fit the description of? Blood on their hands and no gun in his, persons were quick to put their heads in the sand. Maybe they are not familiar with the biblical narrative of two brothers, Cain and Abel (see Genesis 4.1-16). Cain kills Abel and his blood cries out from the ground. And Arbery’s blood offers a blood curdling scream now: “WHY?!”
Justice tried to feign deafness, but the public outrage was too great. You will answer him. You will not run away from this. We will wait though justice is running late because it’s better than never.
This article was commissioned by Ethics Daily and previously published on May 11, 2020.