Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23 when he was chased down and killed. His alleged murders are ex-cop Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, who, after spotting Arbery jogging through their neighborhood, grabbed their guns and hopped into their truck. They later told police that they believed Arbery was a local break-in suspect. A third person filmed the encounter. The traumatic and disturbing video was shared this week, quickly going viral.
Here’s the kicker: It’s been almost two and a half months since Arbery was killed, and it has taken this long for those who allegedly took part in his brutal killing to be arrested or charged. Finally, on Thursday, the McMichaels were taken into custody and charged with murder — but it took a surge of public outrage to make it happen.
Many called Arbery’s murder a modern-day lynching, where a black person is dead and the perpetrators were allowed roam free. Arbery’s name has now become yet another trending hashtag, reminding us of Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice. Time and time again, black people can be doing the most mundane and everyday activities, like shopping, chilling in their apartment, driving, or exercising, and be gunned down.
Arbery’s death has caught the attention of numerous well-known celebrities, politicians, and athletes. These include LeBron James, Senator Kamala Harris, presidential hopeful Joe Biden, and many others, demanding justice for Arbery and his family. Why did it take so long for the subjects to be arrested? What was the holdup? There is video footage of the murder.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the video yesterday. All I could think about is that Arbery was a young, black man, and I’m raising a black son. The stereotypes surrounding black males, that they are suspicious (“up to no good”), sexually promiscuous, and dangerous, means they are walking around with a literal target on their backs. My son was two years old the first time a white person referred to him as a “thug.” This took place just a few months after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and the St. Louis area was under 24/7 news coverage. Yes, my little boy who was still in diapers and could barely string three words together, was seen as criminal.
Last fall, we were playing at our local park. One of the dads meandered around, scrolling through his phone and occasionally looking up to check on his kids. But the minute his son and my son climbed to the top of a rock tower and started playing together, happily roaring like dinosaurs and giggling, the dad made a beeline for the rock tower and started imploring his son to climb down and play elsewhere. My black son put this adult white male on immediate notice. This wouldn’t be the first time, or the last.
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of times white people have shown us that they are clearly uncomfortable with black children, especially as my kids get older. When my children were very young, they were readily admired, called “adorable” and “beautiful.” But as my children continue to grow taller and more mature, I am more watchful than ever before, yearning to protect them from all the dangers that lurk. Because the dangers are clear and present.
Their blackness is beautiful, yet their blackness is also what makes white people terrified enough that they may just snatch up their guns to protect themselves against danger that doesn’t exist. They might summon the police or security (who each have their own biases), follow my children, or film them. White vigilantes, including Karens like Permit Patty, BBQ Becky, and Cornerstore Caroline, are unpredictable. And too often, the law and society are on their side, and this gets black people killed.
Many times, when I’ve had conversations with white people about Black Lives Matter and my own children’s safety, I get the same-o, same-o response. They talk about what black and brown people could and should do to stay safe, in their not-so-humble-opinions (and with zero experience except their “one black friend”). They’ll tell me that if people of color would just be respectful, dress well, be educated, and make sure to use good manners, there wouldn’t be a problem. The reality is no amount of money, education, or politeness can save a black person from a white person who is determined to cause harm. It’s yet another case of blaming the victim. White people are uncomfortable and instead of looking inward, they blame the person who is being stereotyped, discriminated against, and violated. It’s racism in action.
When white people refuse to acknowledge their privilege, the often unspoken rights they have based on hundreds of years of the oppression and violence against black people, the oppression and violence continues. White denial doesn’t make the reality any less true. There are gross racial inequities in our criminal justice, educational, housing, and medical systems that are upholding white supremacy. Arbery’s murder is a tragic example.
What can we do? If you’re as outraged and heartbroken over this as I am, let’s turn our emotions and words into action. Arbery would have turned twenty-six-years-old this Mother’s Day weekend, and his family’s lawyer is asking that people choose to run or walk 2.23 miles (the miles representing the date Arbery was killed) to honor him.
Whatever you do, don’t just go about your day. And don’t just go on a walk to show solidarity. Follow up your solidarity with action. Arbery was the victim in this case, but what happened to him is representative of the potential harm every black person faces every single day in this country, including my own four children. If you truly love and care about your black co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family members, you will do something. Now, not later.
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