Emmett Till was lynched 65 years ago, but it has been only three since Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted that her lie got him killed. She copped to what, I’d wager, most black Americans had already figured when she gave a rare interview to Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson, who was writing the latest volume about the 1955 lynching of the Chicago boy in Money, Mississippi. She had been 21 on the day that she claimed young Emmett committed the capital offense of making verbal and physical advances on her; he was only 14. Her brother and her then-husband, both since dead, then murdered Till.
The dead boy was so nightmarishly disfigured and mutilated by his murderers that his great-uncle, Mose Wright, could only identify him by an initialed ring that he wore. Emmett was pictured in his open casket on the pages of Jet magazine upon the wishes of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, so that the world could see what the murderers had done to her son.
Images of lynchings had previously been traditionally shared like postcards and even body parts of victims had been kept as souvenirs. I am likely not the first to observe that Till’s brutalized, unrecognizable face was an antecedent of cellphone videos that capture the killings of black people today. But even Mamie Till Mobley could not have known that generations hence, we would still need visual evidence to not only get white people to believe this kind of thing happens in America, but to even open the doors to legal consequences for white people who kill black people, whether or not racism motivated them. That is what we have come to label as “justice.”
We should reshape our thinking about that conception of “justice,” however, as we confront yet another murder of a young black person, visual evidence of that crime, and the insidious and racist justification of it.
Ahmaud Arbery was 25. A former high school football player who reportedly was passionate about staying in shape, Arbery was out for a run in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia. That’s a little more than an hour north of Jacksonville, Florida, if you need to get your bearings on a map. So that you can spare yourself the horror of actually watching the video, I’ll briefly describe what happened in broad daylight on the afternoon of Sunday, February 23rd.
I’m going to word this carefully, because I don’t necessarily believe any part of the story Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan are telling. Gregory, a retired investigator for the Brunswick County district attorney, told police that he first saw Arbery “hauling ass” that day down Satilla Drive, according to the police report. That is what a young, athletic man might be doing on a jog, first of all. But that sight provoked him to tell his son Travis that he suspected Arbery was involved in two recent burglaries in the area, even though neither of the alleged incidents had been reported to police and no official description was on record. Gregory made that assessment, despite the guy “hauling ass” past him. Was a black man running away in this predominantly white community all the probable cause that he needed?
The men loaded themselves up with a .357 Magnum and a shotgun before pursuing Arbery in a white pickup truck. Bryan joined them in the pursuit. Gregory told police that they were packing because “‘the other night’ he saw the same male and he stuck his hand down his pants which lead [sp] them to believe the male was armed.”
If we are to understand Gregory McMichael correctly, he claims he believed Arbery to be armed because — and this is his deduction, based upon his career as an investigator for the local district attorney — he saw a person who he thinks was Arbery the previous night stick his hand down his pants. Because heaven knows, no man in American history has ever done so for any reason other than procuring a handgun. (That he keeps there at all times. Even while supposedly “hauling ass.”)
That is the best story that he could devise for what appears on the video to be the deliberate stalking of a human being. Sure, there’s the audible, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” yelled by the McMichael boys, but what black man in America with a survival instinct stops when a bunch of white men with guns, without badges, hollers this at them?
The police report and full video, photographed by an as-yet unknown driver trailing the McMichaels’ truck, both detail what happens next. The McMichaels cut off Arbery’s path and then we see people getting out of the vehicle and hear yelling. As the car pulls up, per the police report account, the video depicts Arbery struggling over a firearm with Travis, the son. A man is perched in the bed of the truck overlooking. Shots are ringing out. By the end of it all, three shots are fired. At least two struck Arbery, who falls dead to the ground with a visibly bloody shirt. He was unarmed.
Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt, who last October secured a conviction of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger for the murder of Botham Jean, told me Thursday morning that Bryan was the person that recorded the video and that he believes Bryan coordinated with the McMichaels in committing the murder. “We are demanding that all three of these men be arrested immediately,” Merritt said to me via text. (Update, 5/7: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced late Thursday evening, several hours after the publication of this article, that Gregory and Travis McMichael had been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.)
However, it is the video of this incident, emerging earlier this week, that has both seemingly secured the nation’s attention and an eventual grand jury in Brunswick County. The killing happened more than two months ago, and a series of prosecutors have recused themselves from the case because they’re connected professionally to McMichael. One prosecutor — Waycross, Georgia district attorney George Barnhill — wrote a letter that candidly stated why he felt that the McMichaels should escape accountability for the incident, citing Georgia’s open-carry and stand-your-ground laws, as well as its state code for grounds for arrest: “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
Barnhill’s letter points to the real problem at hand. True justice cannot be served until we change the system that allows for human rage and frailty to indulge itself at a whim, seizing its own sick justice while the real thing must be more deliberate.
I speak somewhat from experience. I have stood in a courtroom as the murderers of someone I loved were sentenced. They were caught, prosecuted for their heinous and unforgivable crime, and in the parlance of our times, justice was served.
But the people who had murdered my cousin had, in their own perverted manner, carried out their own sentence long ago. The same goes for the McMichaels. They got whatever justice they sought for the alleged burglaries, which again hadn’t even been reported to police. If they had, they’d just add to the backlog awaiting the local courts. Due to COVID-19, no grand jury in Georgia can even convene until at least June 13th. More likely, the pandemic will ensure it will be months before the McMichael/Bryan case is heard. Until then, Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp has assured, via tweet, that the state’s bureau of investigations will conduct a “thorough, independent investigation” into Arbery’s death. “State law enforcement stands ready to ensure justice is served,” Kemp wrote.
It is natural to get excited at the very prospect of the Arbery family seeing these men go to prison for killing Ahmaud. This is especially the case considering how easy states like Georgia make it to give white men like the McMichaels all the legal leeway in the world to run and grab the nearest firearm whenever they feel like slapping the label of illegality onto a person of color and taking her or his life for it. But whether or not “justice” is delivered in a courtroom, the McMichaels got theirs on that Brunswick, Georgia street that Sunday afternoon, in the form of bullets and blood. Nothing that our legal system can do outpaces the efficiency of racism when it comes to delivering consequences.
I want these men put away, but this is why the solution to incidents like this cannot be sought primarily through the courts. We need lawmakers to get busy. Open-carry must be abolished. Stand-your-ground has to go. State codes that allow citizens to arrest people? Those are golden tickets for lynchings. They should be relics of an America that should embarrass us.
Why should these be the priority? Given that racism has such permanence, it only makes sense that Americans must do away with any law or standard that empowers those who embrace that ideology. First, there is too much money in it. Those who seek to maintain power invest heavily in seeding it amongst the poorest, whitest Americans, and frankly, a lot of rich folks believe it themselves. So especially in this pandemic age, I’m even more about survival than ever. If black folks want to vent about the racism of the individuals involved here, I don’t begrudge them, especially if it helps assuage their anger and grief. But another reason why Arbery is dead today is that the laws of the land, along with those who enforce them, have long ensured that people like the McMichaels don’t have to think twice about picking up that .357 and that shotgun before running off to harass or even kill someone like Ahmaud Arbery.
With laws that made sense, at the worst we’re talking about a young man with some viral tweets about white guys who confronted him about burglaries while he was out for a jog. Maybe he even takes cellphone video of it, and laughs to keep from crying as he runs off. A lot of people will be doing the same as they run Friday in tribute of Arbery on what would have been his 26th birthday. I’ll join them. It will help sate the pain, for now, and demonstrate that we should be able to do what he was doing that Sunday afternoon without threat of losing our lives.
Arbery’s death didn’t get much media attention until now, in part because it happened right as COVID-19 began scaring us into submission. But even long before the coronavirus, there has always seemed to be some reason for us to look away from black death of this kind. The era that birthed Black Lives Matter is several years past, yet we keep needing to repeat those words to a largely white America that seems exhausted by them. The shock of Arbery’s limp body slumping to the ground after very real gunshots is here to once again wake up the “woke,” I guess. Saying their names over and over again to people who don’t hear them until we eventually lose our voices has to end. We cannot afford, as citizens, to continue propagating memes and other forms of online absolution without concrete action. Until there are severe and inescapable consequences for killing black people, anyone who isn’t fully antiracist will continue to do just that.
We didn’t need a pandemic to remember how filthy America has been left by racism and the laws that uphold it. However, we cannot baptize ourselves in the blood of the slain and leave feeling clean. We can no longer accept facsimiles. We must have actual justice.