Ahmaud Arbery was killed in the street by white men. That’s how lynchings work.
Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23 while running in the predominantly white neighborhood of Satilla Shores in Georgia’s Glynn County. He was black and 25 years old.
A video recorded his last moments. In it, two white men with guns corner him as he runs near their parked pickup truck. One shoots him three times, twice in the chest. The other man is a former officer with the local police department. Both men, a father and his son, were free until that video went viral on May 5. It took 74 days after Arbery’s death before the men were put in jail and charged with murder; they now face possible federal hate crimes charges.
The video brought a level of attention to Arbery’s killing that it had not attracted until then. It also sparked national anger: People were — and are — furious that an arrest had taken so long, that police appear to have empowered one of the suspects to act as a vigilante, that a small and interconnected local criminal justice community appeared uninterested in a full investigation, and, most of all, that another young, unarmed black man had been killed over nothing.
That anger has led to ongoing protests calling for the removal of the first two district attorneys placed on the case — in particular one who suggested Arbery was a mentally unstable criminal. And it has led to calls from Arbery’s family that a number of commentators have remarked on: While the families of some victims of similar killings have called on the public to forgive, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, has said, “Ahmaud wasn’t given a chance, he wasn’t given a chance to live. … So, I think that they should get what Ahmaud got.”
His father, Marcus Arbery Sr. has explained the source of this anger succinctly: “My son was lynched,” Arbery has said. “Lynched by a racist lynch mob.”
Arbery was, indeed, lynched.
It is why the video has sparked such outrage: It appears to show a particularly violent lynching — with the video itself serving as a memento or vehicle for spectacle — that encapsulates the darkest parts of the black American experience. In watching that video, we don’t just see Arbery’s final moments; we are also reminded of the ugly, racist history that has left the US with a sinister legacy it has been unable to reckon with. That legacy is a matter of life or death for many — as well as a constant source of fear and pain for communities of color.
Georgia has a long history of lynchings
Lynchings in America are lawless killings generally committed by groups of white people, usually targeting their fellow Americans of different races. NAACP research has found that 4,743 lynchings occurred in the US between 1882 and 1968; the vast majority of those — 3,446 — were lynchings of black Americans. Many minority groups have faced lynchings, however; for instance, 15 Latin Americans were lynched in Texas one night in 1918, after being accused of being thieves. And a night of lynching in Los Angeles in 1871 saw 10 percent of that city’s Chinese population at the time killed. Historically, lynchings were used to reinforce a system of control, and to prevent minorities from even thinking about enjoying their rights as US citizens.
Sadly, lynchings are not a thing of the past. In fact, in recent years, there has been a push, led by black lawmakers, to make lynching a federal hate crime.
The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, sponsored by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tim Scott (R-SC), defined lynching as “willfully [causing] bodily injury to any other person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.” The House never approved this bill but has a more recent version of its own, Rep. Bobby Rush’s (D-IL) Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which has yet to be taken up by the Senate.
Minorities have been lynched for all sorts of reasons in American history. Charles Lewis was lynched in 1918 for refusing to empty the pockets of his Army uniform. Richard Wilkerson was lynched in 1934 for defending a black woman who had been assaulted by a white man at a dance. Sam Gates was lynched in 1917 for being “annoying.”
The terror inherent in this uncertainty was reinforced by lynching as a public spectacle; at some, white citizens were encouraged to take direct part in torture. For instance, in the 1904 lynching of Luther Holbert and his wife, a crowd cut off pieces of their “quivering flesh” while they were still alive, as spectators drank lemonade and whiskey and bought snacks.
Pieces of lynched black bodies were also used souvenirs. In Arbery’s home state of Georgia, Sam Hose — who was lynched in Newnan in 1899 — had his heart, liver, and bones sold to spectators.
Overall, Georgia has had a particularly high number of lynchings — between 1880 and 1940, it came only second to Mississippi in the number of lynchings committed, according to an analysis by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Three of the 589 known lynchings that occurred during that span were committed in Glynn County, a study by the University of Georgia found: In 1891, Henry Jackson and Wesley Lewis, two black men accused of killing a shopkeeper, were taken from police custody by a group of 300 men and lynched. Three years later, 100 men seized Robert Evarts, a black man accused of rape, and lynched him.
These cases reflect something that is true in many lynchings: a powerlessness, or even apathy, on the part of law enforcement — and an eagerness of individuals to carry out what they believe to be justice with their own hands.
None of these Glynn County lynchings represent the sort of terrorism inherent in the lynchings of people like the Holberts. But they took place in a time in which terror lynchings formed a constant backdrop, normalizing the persecution of black people for existing and creating an atmosphere of terror for black Americans just trying to go about their daily lives.
Arbery’s killing took place amid a similar atmosphere, as newly released details remind us. And the inaction of his local law enforcement officials is in many ways reminiscent of those Glynn County officers’ failure to control lynch mobs near the turn of the century.
What happened to Ahmaud Arbery is a repetition of the past
Arbery — known to his family and friends as a great athlete and a former high school football star — went for a run on February 23, one that took him through a predominantly white neighborhood near his home called Satilla Shores.
He reportedly stopped along the way to look at a house under construction owned by a man named Larry English, and was caught — as a number of men, women, and children had been before him — on a surveillance camera.
English has said he usually used a non-emergency number to report entrances to the police. The day Arbery was killed, however, 911 received multiple calls about a black man near the house who was also running through the neighborhood.
As these calls were being made, the two men who have now been arrested in connection with Arbery’s killing — Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and district attorney investigator who had been stripped of his law enforcement certification after repeatedly failing to complete required training — saw Arbery running down his street. Gregory McMichael later told police he believed Arbery to be the person behind a number of burglaries, and called out to his son, saying, “Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.”
Travis McMichael says he was the victim of one of those burglaries, and Gregory McMichael reportedly had an interest in the ongoing trespassing happening on English’s property as well. So much so that, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a member of the Glynn County Police Department told English in December to contact the elder McMichael, rather than the police, whenever his security system caught people on his property.
“Greg is retired Law Enforcement and also a Retired Investigator from the DA’s office,” Officer Robert Rash texted English, along with McMichael’s phone number. “He said please call him day or night when you get action on your camera.”
English’s attorney has said her client did not contact McMichael the day of Arbery’s death — or any other day. McMichael later told police he linked Arbery to the thefts based on a description of the person who burglarized his son.
It’s difficult to imagine that description not including ethnicity — a reality that has led many, including lawyers for Arbery’s family, to suggest a series of 911 calls give the real impetus for McMichael’s assessment. In one, the caller fails to explain why they’ve called 911 but does note, “There’s a black male running down the street.”
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased after Arbery in their truck; they were joined in this pursuit by William “Roddie” Bryant, a neighbor who’s now under investigation for his role in Arbery’s killing. It was Bryant who took the viral video of Arbery’s killing. (According to civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, there is another version of the video that shows the men chasing Arbery with their vehicles that is more than four minutes long.)
The shorter, publicly available version — which Atlanta station WSB-TV reports Gregory McMichaels requested be leaked, believing it to be exculpatory — shows Arbery running away from Bryant’s vehicle, toward a white truck that blocks part of the road. Travis McMichael stands by the driver’s side door with a shotgun, his father in the truck’s flatbed.
Arbery can be seen trying to escape, then struggling with Travis McMichael as two shots are fired. After a third gunshot, Arbery falls to the ground, his white shirt red with blood. When police arrived, Arbery was dead; they took a statement from Gregory McMichaels, reviewed Bryant’s video, and then everyone went home. Eventually, the video was broadcast around the world and watched millions of times online, fostering a modern-day version of those earlier lynchings in which audiences participated in the spectacle.
Until May, investigations into what happened were limited. The first district attorney assigned to the case recused herself, as Gregory McMichaels worked for her. In a letter, the second DA, George Barnhill, suggested Arbery had mental health issues, highlighted Arbery’s past interactions with law enforcement, and argued the McMichaels were in their rights to kill Arbery based on Georgia’s open carry and stand-your-ground laws. He also claimed, without evidence, that Arbery “initiated the fight” and had an “apparent aggressive nature.”
Barnhill recused himself after Arbery’s mother pointed out his son worked in the office of the first district attorney alongside Gregory McMichaels. As he withdrew, Barnhill noted that his son and Gregory had also worked on a previous prosecution of Arbery.
On the day the video of Arbery’s killing went viral, the state of Georgia took over the case, and the McMichaels were arrested two days later. The Department of Justice then began reviewing local authorities’ delay in making an arrest, and weighing hate crimes charges. A fourth district attorney was named, who has said she is is considering pushing for the death penalty. A fifth judge was put in charge of the case after four judges with ties to Glynn County recused themselves, and a bond hearing is expected soon; the newest district attorney has said she plans to push for no bond to be offered.
Amid these rapid developments, there have been a number of protests — many of which have called for the removal of the first two district attorneys, a call that has been echoed by several state lawmakers.
How the case was originally handled reveals the limits of a justice system often willing to give some — be they members of a lynch mob, former law enforcement officials, or both — the benefit of the doubt. It seemed all but impossible for a serious and rigorous investigation into Arbery’s death to be carried out by those with ties to Gregory McMichael, particularly considering Barnhill’s attempt to cast a black man out for a jog as “aggressive.” In this sort of system, it seems inevitable that black people will be needlessly harmed and arbitrarily criminalized.
Why Ahmaud Arbery’s death was a lynching
No evidence has been reported that Arbery was burglarizing the area. The McMichaels allegedly saw Arbery, armed themselves, chased him down, trapped him, and shot him. The police — like the officers in earlier lynchings — did not arrest them. In fact, they’d empowered Gregory McMichael to take the law into his own hands, as evidenced by the text messages. The district attorneys initially assigned to the case knew the McMichaels, and were part of their circles; the first had employed Gregory, and the second defended the actions of father and son.
Lynchings do not require evidence. Guilt is presumed based on appearance. It is important to note that Gregory McMichaels has claimed he “never would have gone after someone for their color.” But he has also said Arbery matched the thief’s description; it’s not clear if Arbery was of the same height or weight as the suspected burglar, but he was very clearly a black man. There was something about his appearance — which includes the color of his skin — that led the elder McMichael to assume Arbery was the burglary suspect.
One reason evidence is unnecessary in lynchings is that they’ve historically often been carried out to speed up the course of justice. Henry Jackson and Wesley Lewis — the two black men lynched in Glynn County — had both confessed to murder. They were in police custody and presumably would have faced legal consequences if proclaimed guilty. But a lynch mob refused to wait for the criminal justice system to do its work.
In Arbery’s case, McMichael, though he was no longer a public servant, volunteered and was deputized to carry out law enforcement work by the officer who shared his contact information with English. Trespassing is meant to be a matter for the police to investigate. But the texts from the Glynn County police officer seem to tell English: The police aren’t necessary — there is someone else who can handle this for you. A concerned McMichael could have called the police on Arbery and waited for them to investigate him. Instead, McMichael allegedly did as he did with English: He interceded in police matters.
Perhaps he felt empowered to do so because he had been promoted as an alternative to actual, active law enforcement officers. Lynch mobs were treated the same way — they were often seen by authorities as not just above the law but the law itself.
This is why the lynching of people of color rarely bought consequences — and was sometimes even considered cause for celebration: A lynch mob’s judgment was usually considered final. Rarely were its members investigated or prosecuted. This created an assumed impunity that allowed people to lynch others with assurance. Their decision to kill a fellow citizen was as good as a court’s verdict: After they were done, a criminal was dead, and the case was closed.
And until the third district attorney joined the case, this was how Arbery’s killing seemed set to play out. After Arbery was killed, Bryan and the McMichaels went back to their families, had their actions endorsed by a criminal justice official, and that appeared to be that.
The McMichaels have now been arrested, but even if they face legal consequences, that does not change the fact that Arbery — a black man — was chased through the streets by armed white men, shot, and killed. That is, in its simplest form, a lynching.
And regardless of the final outcome of the investigation into the McMichaels, it is important to remember that lynchings were often used as a method of control and to protect a certain way of life. Looking narrowly, the killing immediately reduced the already small number of black people in Satilla Shores by one; but broadly, it also increased ambient existential fears, which have haunted black Americans since the early lynchings following emancipation.
February 23 was not even the first time Arbery was forced to face those fears. Body cam footage from 2017 recently released by the Guardian shows Arbery being questioned by police officers about why he was sitting in his car near a park. He tells them he was sitting in nature, rapping to himself, enjoying rare time off. But they tell him he is suspicious, that he is in an area known for drug activity, and the officers become aggressive, all while saying that they are the ones afraid of him.
As Arbery protests, an officer positions him against his car, and says, “I’m not searching you, I’m checking you for weapons,” proceeding to conduct a search. No weapons are found, but as Arbery moves his hands toward his sides, an officer rushes to Tase him.
No one wants to be treated like this. No one wants to be chased and killed. No one wants to be lynched. But all of it happened to Arbery, and all of it feels as if it could happen to any black American, at any time, for any reason. It always could.
Again, part of why lynchings were so successful as tools of control was because of their seeming randomness. So black people operated with care, lest they breach some invisible, arbitrary boundary. But no matter how hard one worked, no matter how fast one ran, there was still a chance they would be boxed in, nudged over that boundary, and killed for it. And that inevitability — that someone, perhaps you — would be lynched no matter what you did led to an atmosphere of fear, one that is echoed today.
Arbery’s fate is a reminder that black people can be killed for not just having candy or sitting or sleeping at home, but for running, too. Just as each new lynching did decades ago, Arbery’s killing adds to the feeling that no place is safe.
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Author: Sean Collins