‘It’s sacred ground.’ Ahmaud Arbery’s loved ones visit site of his death amid court proceedings

Marcus Arbery stands between a representative of the Transformative Justice Coalition and a community member overlooking the stretch of pavement where his son, Ahmaud Arbery, was killed.
Caption
Marcus Arbery stands between a representative of the Transformative Justice Coalition and a community member overlooking the stretch of pavement where his son, Ahmaud Arbery, was killed.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Glynn County - Marcus Arbery disembarked from the Prevost charter bus, his feet crunching onto the sparkling pavement of Satilla Drive. The Satilla Shores neighborhood outside coastal Brunswick was quiet when the three-bus caravan arrived after a 10-minute drive from the nearby courthouse.

Arbery took in his surroundings, first looking up at the cloudless stretch of blue sky, then glancing to his right, where clusters of demonstrators and activists were streaming out of the bus to join him on the pavement. Then he looked down, several feet ahead of him. His son had died there.

The crowd congregated in the street between a cluster of homes on Satilla Drive, staring at one.

“This is where his blood was spilled,” one woman among the group said. “It’s sacred ground, right here.”

A charter bus carrying members and associates of the Transformative Justice Coalition arrives in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, where Amhaud Arbery was killed last year.
Caption
A charter bus carrying members and associates of the Transformative Justice Coalition arrives in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, where Amhaud Arbery was killed last year.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

The town of Brunswick is small, with a population of about 16,000. The neighborhood outside the city limits where Ahmaud Arbery was killed is even smaller. But the burden of coping with the loss of a son — and publicly mourning that loss while serving as an advocate for a grieving community and nation — is enormous.

“But that’s what a dad’s supposed to do. Step up,” Marcus Arbery said. “He can’t talk no more. He’s in a grave. Why? Because of his skin color. But he’s got a strong daddy and I’m gonna fight to the end for him.”

Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old, was shot and killed by Travis McMichael in the neighborhood outside Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. McMichael, and his father, Greg McMichael, were both armed and riding in a pickup truck when they began chasing Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood after leaving a house nearby that was under construction. The McMichaels contend they were relying on Georgia’s then-existing citizen’s arrest law to detain Arbery, who they suspected in a string of neighborhood break-ins.

Roddie Bryan, a neighbor, soon joined the chase in his own pickup truck and filmed the cellphone video of the final moments of Arbery’s life. When the two pickups hemmed in Arbery, he charged at Travis McMichael and was shot three times at close range as he tried to take his shotgun.

Ahmaud Arbery was chased from a home on Satilla Drive that was under construction.
Caption
Ahmaud Arbery was chased from a home on Satilla Drive that was under construction.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

The shooting thrust the Brunswick area into a national spotlight, drawing outrage from activists and galvanizing state authorities and legislators. The death was followed by demonstrations as droves of protestors stood against what they said was a racially motivated shooting that had happened in broad daylight.

In the wake of the fatal shooting, the Georgia General Assembly passed a state hate crimes law and its sponsors cited what happened to Arbery as the reason why. Then lawmakers repealed the law enabling private citizens to make arrests. With Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, seated nearby, Gov. Brian Kemp signed the new legislation and said, “Today, in honor of Ahmaud’s memory, we commit to taking this step forward together.”

The McMichaels and Bryan face counts of murder and false imprisonment, among other charges, in the fatal shooting. On Oct. 18, the men’s attorneys and prosecutors began questioning prospective jurors inside the Glynn County courthouse in order to impanel an impartial jury for their trial.

Finding prospective jurors who believe they can be fair-minded in such a high-profile case has been a slow process. As of Tuesday evening, 36 potential jurors had been qualified, just more than half of the 64 needed before attorneys can begin exercising their strikes. That pool of 64 will be whittled down to 12 jurors and four alternates before opening arguments and testimony can get underway.

Marcus Arbery, his sisters Ruby and Dianne and supporters from the Transformative Justice Coalition held vigil near the courtyard in front of the courthouse for days as the judicial proceedings were carried out. Dozens of demonstrators with fire in their eyes and “Justice for Ahmaud” banners in their hands chanted, shouted, sang and, at times, cried as anticipation mounted.

Supporters of the Arbery family and members of the Transformative Justice Coalition gather in the street around the place where Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot last year.
Caption
Supporters of the Arbery family and members of the Transformative Justice Coalition gather in the street around the place where Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot last year.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

But when during a lunch recess last week the group took the brief voyage from the courthouse to the scene of Ahmaud’s death, that fire was quickly extinguished. It was first replaced with confusion, as the assembled demonstrators set foot in what they have for so long known as the scene of so much heartache.

“This looks like any other neighborhood,” one woman remarked.

“It’s actually kind of peaceful,” another replied. “It’s actually pretty.”

Then came the rage, as one of the slain man’s aunts recalled visiting the neighborhood the day after his death and finding his blood still on the ground. And sorrow, as Marcus Arbery moved away from the line of charter buses and into the crowd of people standing where his youngest child had laid motionless and bleeding 20 months prior. He had walked along that street countless times, he said.

“I went there the first day it happened, when I came home from work,” he later told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter. “What was it like? You couldn’t even imagine. I can’t even explain it to you.”

Arbery offered very few words while standing at the site where his son was gunned down. The group huddled in a tight circle and prayed before turning and trekking further down the path where Ahmaud Arbery took his last steps. Their journey ended at the home under construction — where the chase had begun.

“It gets no easier going to where you lost your child at,” Marcus Arbery said. “I lost my child to three white men. I can’t really explain that. I can’t tell you what that’s like. I’m still mad and I’m still emotional and I’m going to be like that for the rest of my life. That’s something that I will never forget. And I will never forgive those three men.”

Later, at a crowded convention center where the supporters gathered to decompress following judicial proceedings, Arbery glanced at the flood of people filling the hall and then turned back to address a young woman standing beside him.

“Do you have any children?” he asked. He paused to consider her answer — “no”— and then returned a small token of advice.

“If you do have any — if you ever do, keep up with them.”

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