The killing of Ahmaud Arbery and why it didn't need to happen

Arbery was killed when his killers didn't call for help. They and others believe that was their right.

The pain and anger never really go away. They just simmer underneath the lid of the pot. But sometimes the heat gets turned up and the cook doesn’t know, and when he goes to take the lid off the whole thing goes boiling over.

At various times the cook has been law enforcement agencies, entire cities and some whole states. At all times the cook is just the guy manning the stove for the kitchen in the restaurant of the United States of America, which is badly managed and has been for years.

Black America’s pain and anger — over slavery, segregation, voter suppression, police shootings and a general sense that many African-Americans remain second class citizens — is always simmering. It sometimes goes boiling over when a killing brings all those issues back to the surface, which is what is happening right now in Brunswick, Georgia.

Last night, hundreds of people protested in front of the home of a white man who gunned down a black man for little reason other than that the black man was running in the white man’s neighborhood, I reported yesterday at The Daily Beast. The shooter’s father, an ex-cop himself and a former investigator with the local district attorney, must never have been a great investigator because he could point to zero evidence that the dead black man was the same person who had stolen twice from the neighborhood. It was just a hunch, and when Arbery ran by that day the father, Gregory McMichael, figured he was the thief plaguing the Satilla Shores neighborhood in suburban Brunswick.

Gregory’s son, Travis, is Arbery’s killer. There’s a complicated timeline that has yet to be fully straightened out — and probably won’t be unless Gregory decides to talk to me again or until this case goes to trial — but the timeline of Arbery’s last moments are available on video for all to see. They show the 25-year-old running around to the front of Travis’ truck where he meets the younger McMichael. A shot rings out, then the pair appear to the left of the truck, clearly fighting and struggling over the shotgun. They briefly go off-screen and a second shot is heard. If you look closely, you can see a cloud of blood splatter floating through the air from their direction. Then back on screen, a continued struggle, and the final shot into Arbery before he collapses and Travis walks away.

After that, Travis yells something that’s unintelligible. (I’m having the video and audio slowed down and analyzed with forensic-level audio plugins to try to determine what Travis said and other unanswered questions from the video.) Then, the video stops.

There are lots of legal issues in this case: The citizen’s arrest statute, Georgia’s stand-your-ground law, and the state’s open carry rules will all play a role. But the bottom line is that this never needed to happen. If Arbery really was a thief, as the McMichaels say they believed, a response from law enforcement might have netted a different result. The McMichaels could have called the police. Sure, Arbery could have reacted to police officers the same way he did with Travis. But the cops would have had badges and uniforms. Arbery would have known who they were. As it stands, Arbery — whatever he was doing in Satilla Shores that day — was confronted by two armed white men, not in any uniform, wielding guns at him.

He was then presented with the choice none of us ever want to grapple with: fight or flee. Arbery apparently chose to fight which, ironically, is his right under Georgia law. That law will now determine the fate of the McMichaels, who made their own choice that day. They chose to take matters into their own hands instead of calling the police, and choices have consequences.  

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