Ahmaud Arbery case: Brunswick looks to move forward after trials, sentencing

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

BRUNSWICK - After two high-profile trials and the convictions of the three men responsible for Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, this coastal Georgia community is hoping to move forward.

The unarmed Black man’s Feb. 23, 2020, shooting in a Glynn County subdivision thrust the area into the national spotlight, highlighting racial tensions that many residents say lurked just beneath the surface.

In the majority-Black city of Brunswick, where some streets still bear the names of Confederate generals and the occasional rebel flag bumper sticker can be spotted on the backs of old pickups, residents of all races came together to condemn the shooting and to call for justice.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

With the media scrum finally gone, residents and community leaders are now hoping for meaningful change.

“This incident showed that there wasn’t true unity in Glynn County,” said the Rev. DeWayne Cope, a Savannah native who moved to Brunswick from Washington D.C. months after Arbery’s murder. Cope, who is Black, said he has a 17-year-old son he often worries about.

After Arbery’s shooting death, Georgia largely repealed its Civil War-era citizens arrest law and created a hate crimes statute increasing the punishment for those who commit crimes against someone based on their race, sexual orientation, religion or other factors.

Explore‘Not in vain’: How Arbery’s murder sparked changes in Georgia’s law

But local religious leaders say change starts from within, and have urged their congregants to be more accepting of their neighbors.

Drew Thompson, the pastor of Union City Church in Brunswick, called Arbery’s killing “a tragedy and a horror” that stunned his community. He was among several clergy members who held a downtown prayer vigil on Monday morning, hours before Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were sentenced on federal hate crimes charges.

“It was a horrific event and it was a violation of everything that we say we believe in,” Thompson said of Arbery’s killing. “But it exposed a reality that’s existed in this community for a long time and it forced us to talk about it. The truth is it’s really never been safe for a Black man to run in some neighborhoods in Glynn County. We just haven’t had to say that.”

Thompson said the shooting sparked a dialogue about race relations in the Brunswick area, a conversation that was long overdue.

“We can no longer look the other way,” he said. “This has made us realize we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

‘Say his name: Ahmaud Arbery’

The morning after sentencing, dozens of people chanted and cheered in the hot sun as Brunswick officials dedicated Albany Street, a road that runs through the city’s Black community, as Honorary Ahmaud Arbery Street.

Arbery’s parents unveiled the new street signs while the crowd sang the Civil Rights spiritual “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

“I never imagined this day would come. I never did,” said a tearful Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Say his name!” Georgia NAACP organizer Porch’se Miller shouted into her bullhorn. “Ahmaud Arbery!” the crowd replied.

Cooper-Jones faced an uphill battle in her quest for justice, but in the end emerged triumphant. Glynn County police saw Bryan’s graphic cellphone footage of Arbery’s final moments at the scene of his killing. But no arrests were made for 74 days.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The three men weren’t charged until the video of Arbery falling dead in the street was released and the GBI took over the investigation. Relentless in their quest for answers, Arbery’s parents galvanized the community and led large demonstrations that drew national attention.

ExploreTravis and Greg McMichael sentenced to life for hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery case

Lifelong Brunswick resident Essie Sheffield, 88, attended Tuesday’s city-sponsored street dedication. When she began her 30-year teaching career, Brunswick’s schools were still segregated. After integration, she taught at nearby Brunswick High, where Arbery would eventually graduate. Despite the hate crimes convictions and the social reckoning Arbery’s killing inspired, Sheffield says racism is still very much alive in her community.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“If it wasn’t for that video and the TV cameras coming in here, nothing would have happened,” she said, referring to Bryan’s cellphone recording of Arbery being shot to death at close range and the media firestorm that followed. “It would’ve just been swept under the rug.”

Arbery, an avid runner, lived about two miles from the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside city limits and often jogged there. He had been seen on surveillance cameras visiting a home under construction a handful of times in the weeks leading up to his death. The McMichaels, who told police they thought Arbery was a burglar, grabbed their guns, jumped in Travis’ truck and chased him through their neighborhood for about five minutes as he ran for his life on that Sunday afternoon.

Explore2 years later, Ahmaud Arbery’s parents find justice

Bryan, who had been working on his porch, hopped in his pickup and joined in the chase after seeing Arbery run past his house with the McMichaels in pursuit, ultimately blocking Arbery’s only escape route and redirecting him back toward the father and son. Authorities later determined Arbery had taken nothing from the house under construction.

State prosecutors largely avoided making last year’s murder trial about race, opting instead to secure a conviction by focusing on the facts of the case. Federal prosecutors, however, introduced racist text messages and social media posts at February’s trial as they successfully argued the defendants likened Black people to criminals.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Had Arbery been a white man running through their subdivision, the government told jurors, he would still be alive today.

“You don’t deserve no mercy because you didn’t give him none,” Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, told the defendants just before they were sentenced in federal court Monday afternoon.

Diane Jackson told the judge her nephew was “hunted down and killed him like an animal.”

Explore3 men convicted of hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Travis and Greg McMichael were given life sentences without the possibility of parole on both the murder and hate crimes charges. Bryan, who was unarmed when he joined the chase, will be nearly 90 by the time he’s eligible for release, a federal judge told him at sentencing.

“Then again, Mr. Arbery never got the chance to be 26,” U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said. She noted all three defendants got a fair trial, “the kind of trial Ahmaud Arbery did not receive.”

‘This is not the end’

Sheffield believes the men responsible for Arbery’s murder got what they deserved, but feels bad for the three families torn apart by what she called a senseless killing.

While many are optimistic about Glynn County’s future, Sheffield says there’s still plenty of work to be done if her community is to overcome the systemic racism that has plagued the South for centuries. She noted the glaring disparities between the mostly poor Black neighborhoods of town and the wealthier, predominately white sections of the city just blocks away.

“I’m concerned that not much has changed,” said Sheffield, who is still politically active and spends much of her free time campaigning for her preferred candidates in local elections.

Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who organized prayer vigils during both the state and federal trials, said Arbery’s killing, while tragic, brought the community closer together.

“This is the last of the big trials, but this is not the end,” she told the crowd of about two dozen gathered on the steps of a church across from the federal courthouse Monday morning. “Let this inspire us and move us to keep going, to be a community of practice where no one ever again is feared for going running in the street, where no one is afraid to go into a community which they don’t happen to live in.”

For Arbery’s mother, not a day goes by that she doesn’t wake up and think about her son. But Cooper-Jones is grateful for those across the country who joined in her “hard fight for justice” and has vowed to keep her son’s memory alive.

“The hardest part is knowing that he’s no longer with me. But I look at the change that Ahmaud has brought since his passing,” Cooper-Jones told the crowd as she turned away to choke back tears. “Please promise me you guys will always say his name.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution