Supporters launch a virtual campaign after fatal Brunswick shooting

Wanda Jones-Cooper with her son, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by the son of a former Glynn County police officer in February.
Wanda Jones-Cooper with her son, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by the son of a former Glynn County police officer in February.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Brunswick, Ga. – Unable to take to the streets in the midst of a pandemic, community leaders here have taken to social media and are emailing and phoning officials to call attention to the case of Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery, who was black, was shot to death Feb. 23 after being chased by two white men in a pickup truck through Satilla Shores, a middle-class subdivision outside Brunswick. He was 25.

The men told police they suspected Arbery of a series of burglaries. After they saw him running down the street, they armed themselves, jumped in their pickup truck and pursued him. Arbery, who was unarmed, died from shotgun wounds inflicted during a struggle with one of the men. No charges have been filed.

Arbery’s friends and family say he was simply taking his daily jog the day he was shot in the mixed-race subdivision across US 17 from Satilla Shores.

“My kid was murdered,” said his father, Marcus Arbery. “That’s all I can say. He ran like that every day – all his life. He ran in his neighborhood and that one too. That’s the only place he ever had a problem.”

The case has gained attention through social media campaigns such as the Facebook page "I Run With Maud," which has more than 11,000 followers.

“It’s got to make things better than it is now,” said Marcus Arbery, hopeful at the growing attention.

The local NAACP has urged people to flood Brunswick City Hall and the Glynn County Board of Commissioners with phone calls and emails demanding action. (Government buildings have limited access for public business due to coronavirus concerns; city and county officials have been meeting by teleconference lately.)

“Now that we are aware on a local level, we are seeing an outcry on social media from both the minority community and the non-minority community,” said Brunswick NAACP president John Perry.

Lifelong Glynn County resident Samantha Guilder has begun producing T-shirts expressing support for Arbery and his family. The T-shirt, which she sells at cost, includes an image created by Arbery’s family of a runner’s legs with the words “I Run With Maud.” Her initial order was for more than 100, and she is overwhelmed with orders for a new batch. Most orders are local, but she will be sending T-shirts to people in Maryland, North Carolina and New York.

“I didn’t mean to become so involved,” said Guilder, who is white. “I felt from the start that something was wrong with the way this is being handled. It’s important to acknowledge the race in this situation, but it’s really, really important to focus on the actions that took place. This white community is upset; this is not just a racially charged thing. If you take race out of the situation it is still wrong.”

The Brunswick-based Robert S. Abbott Race Unity Institute also called on its diverse membership to take action.

“Ahmaud’s life mattered,” the institute said in an email that went to the 378 people on its list. “Justice for his death matters to his family, his friends and his community – to all of us.”

City and county officers have been swamped with calls, leading Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey to issue a statement noting the shooting occurred outside city limits.

The NAACP is demanding answers from the Glynn County Commission.

“We will ask them why an arrest hasn’t been made,” Perry said.

Allen Booker, the county’s only black county commissioner, said the county government has initiated an internal investigation and expects the results to be made public soon. He met Ahmaud Arbery a few times as he worked for his father’s landscaping business.

“He was always a very personable kid – always saying, ‘Yes, sir; no sir,’” Booker said. “It’s just a tragedy all around that this young’s man life is gone.”

Booker believes the pandemic has suppressed outcry.

“There would be press conferences, it would be people in the street all over the place” in normal times, he said. “That’s the only reason you don’t see a more physical expression.”

Because the African American community has seemed particularly susceptible to the virus, Booker has urged people to stay home for now.

“I don’t think you will see a massive outcry gathering,” he said. “But people may decide to a car rally – by having a parade vigil or something like that. The main thing is to put pressure on officials to make sure we get justice.”

RELATED: CDC surveys eight Georgia hospitals, finds more than 83% of COVID-19 patients were African American

A cross placed in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot in February. No arrests have been made. Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.
A cross placed in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot in February. No arrests have been made. Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.

The case has captured the attention of national figures such as Al Sharpton and former CNN commentator Roland Martin.

“It’s stunning that two months have gone by and you still don’t have a real investigation taking place,” Martin said in a digital broadcast. “Are they saying that in Georgia you are basically allowed to accost anyone who’s black no matter what they are doing?”

Both the Georgia NAACP and the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center have condemned the manner in which the case has been handled. The Georgia NAACP argued the case should be transferred to an Atlanta jurisdiction, while the SPLC demanded that it be placed in the hands of federal investigators.

The case already has moved twice because of allegations of conflicts of interests.

Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson has recused herself because one of the two men involved in the shooting, Gregory McMichael, 64, last year retired from his job as an investigator for Johnson’s office. Before that he was a Glynn County police officer. His 34-year-old son, Travis, was involved in the struggle over McMichael’s shotgun that led to Arbery’s death.

The case was transferred to the Waycross Judicial District, but the district attorney there, George Barnhill, also recused himself after Arbery’s family complained of a conflict of interest. Barnhill’s son is an assistant DA in Glynn County.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has assigned the case to Hinesville area District Attorney Tom Durden. Durden did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Before sending the case to Durden, Barnhill said that he saw no cause to arrest the McMichaels and that the men were legally justified in giving armed chase and using lethal force with Arbery.

In a letter to Glynn County police, Barnhill said that the McMichaels were legally carrying their weapons – a shotgun and a .357 hand gun - under Georgia’s open carry law. Barnhill said they were entitled to pursue and detain Arbery under the state’s provision that allows for citizen’s arrest.

He also said Travis McMichael was entitled to defend himself if he had been attacked by Arbery, an assertion suggested in the police incident report. The report was based largely on Gregory McMichael’s account. The shooting took place near Travis McMichael’s home.

Barnhill also said that be believed Arbery had “mental health issues,” without providing any documentation to support the claim, and noted Arbery had a criminal record. Arbery was convicted of shoplifting and of violating probation in 2018, records show. Five years earlier, he was indicted on charges that he took a handgun to a high school basketball game.

Before Arbery was shot, at least two residents called 911.

“There’s a black male running down the street,” said one person, according to the audio of the call.

The dispatcher asked why police should respond, saying, “I just need to know what he was doing wrong.”

Booker, the county commissioner, said he was unsurprised that the sight of a young black man running down the street would lead to a chase and confrontation.

“I grew up here, and I’ve experienced the racist atmosphere that we still have to stamp out,” Booker said. “I know that these people exist here. We encounter them every day. But I tell you what has been heartening has been the diversity of support for justice for this young man locally, not just from other commissioners but from folks from the white community who say almost the same thing as the black folks are saying.”