Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
John M. Crisp, Tribune News Service
The story of Ahmaud Arbery might have been overlooked except for the outrage provoked by a dramatic video that shows Arbery being killed in a Georgia residential neighborhood on Feb. 23.
On May 7 — two and a half months later — Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis, 34, both white, were charged with murdering Arbery, a 25-year-old black man.
The McMichaels noticed Arbery jogging through their neighborhood, thought he resembled a suspect in several recent break-ins, grabbed their weapons, pursued Arbery and blocked his path with their pickup. As Arbery tried to jog around the truck, a confrontation ensued and Arbery was killed by three blasts from Travis McMichael’s shotgun.
Local officials took a casual approach to the shooting. The original prosecutor, George Barnhill, wrote a three-page letter in which he both recused himself from the case and did his best to exculpate the McMichaels.
Barnhill says that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons legally and were within their rights to attempt a citizen’s arrest. He says that they suspected Arbery of being connected with a spate of break-ins in the neighbourhood and that they had “solid first hand probable cause” to arrest Arbery.
This does not appear to be true. The local newspaper, The Brunswick News, notes that only one burglary was reported to Glynn County Police Department between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23, the theft of a 9-mm pistol from an unlocked pickup that happened to belong to the McMichaels.
A cynic might say that the McMichaels’ only probable cause was the fact of a black man jogging through a white neighbourhood.
Barnhill’s analysis of the 30-second video seems calculated to pin the blame on Arbery and to exonerate the McMichaels. According to Barnhill, Arbery swerves “abruptly” to his left and “attacks Travis McMichael.” “Arbery strikes McMichael and appears to grab the shotgun.” “...McMichael was attempting to push the gun away from Arbery while Arbery was pulling it toward himself.”
According to Barnhill’s narrative, Arbery practically committed suicide.
What caused this tragic event? The essential element is pure, old-fashioned racism. If that doesn’t seem right, consider the chances of the McMichaels arming and mounting up to pursue a white man jogging through their neighbourhood.
But consider also the agency of firearms in this incident. It’s not just that Arbery was killed by a shotgun. It’s equally difficult to imagine the McMichaels pursuing Arbery without firearms, and not just because they were afraid he might have been armed. Firearms embody violent power. But we also associate them with authority, significance, righteousness and order. They lend a sense of legitimacy and potency to their bearers that they might not otherwise possess.
Without his handgun, Dylann Roof was a pathetic, maladjusted youth beguiled by racist fantasies. With his handgun, he murdered nine black worshippers at a church in South Carolina in 2015. The handgun gave him not only the power to kill, but the gun itself contained the power to turn Roof into — as he saw it — a legitimate actor instead of a sad loser.
I wonder if in retrospect the McMichaels regret having hastily taken up weapons before taking up pursuit of a black man jogging through their neighbourhood. But, of course, without the false sense of authority supported by the weapons themselves, the McMichaels would have never taken up pursuit of anyone, especially a black man.
Nearly as much as the racism, the guns made them do it. Maybe guns actually do kill people, after all.
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