OPINION: A lynching? No. But Arbery case certainly raises those ghosts

Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Two weeks ago, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was a local tragedy.

But in the past week, it has become a national exposition on race and justice, an emotional debate kicked off by the release of a video and accelerated by the pandemic's lockdown.

“There’s nothing on the news but cornonavirus, so this came and is filling that,” former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers told me.

Millions have seen the video of Arbery being tracked down in a Brunswick neighborhood, confronted by a gun-toting father-son duo and then shot to death as he desperately struggled for the shotgun. That footage thrust the case into the national political realm.

President Donald Trump called it "heartbreaking." Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, went farther, writing: "Lynched before our very eyes, lynched so plainly, unmistakably and without mercy."

The term “lynching” has been tossed around frequently in connection with the case. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms used the term, as did former state Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican, who said, “It’s unbelievable in 2020 that you just saw a lynching.”

Calling it a lynching is hyperbole. The two men accused of felony murder in Arbery’s death — Greg McMichael, a former cop and district attorney’s investigator, and his son, Travis — almost assuredly did not grab their guns that Sunday afternoon in February with the idea of killing a black man.

But I understand the anger and frustration over a killing that was followed by the prolonged foot-dragging of prosecutors.

By grabbing their guns and chasing Arbery on the offhand belief that he was up to no good, the McMichaels caused the 25-year-old to fight for, and lose, his life. The incident wasn’t a lynching, a purposeful act of a mob tracking down and killing a victim. But it seems to be a remnant of that — ham-handed stupidity and aggression probably driven by race and a man who wanted to be a neighborhood hero.

This wasn't "stand your ground" while defending one's self. This was a case of "chase after a stranger, precipitate a reaction and then deliver deadly force."

And what has driven outrage even more than the horrific video of Arbery’s final moments is what has been widely viewed as a slow-moving whitewash.

“What you see is state-sponsored racism,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond while speaking on “Political Rewind,” the same radio show where Olens made his lynching comment. “This harkens back to the 1960s, when prosecutors and elected officials would do nothing to address issues of injustice and murder.”


Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from investigating the case because the elder McMichael had served for nearly a decade as her investigator. She called George Barnhill, the DA in the neighboring Waycross circuit, and asked if his office could look at it.

Two Glynn County commissioners have said Johnson told the cops there not to arrest the McMichaels, as the police wanted to do. That would seem to be covering for a friend. Johnson has denied this, saying she called Barnhill to get an independent set of eyes on the matter.

Johnson and the cops there have had a bizarre relationship. In fact, there’s so much strangeness in Glynn County that it has bred more conspiracy theorists per square acre than anywhere in the state.

In 2011, Johnson's office helped scrub the wrongful killing of Caroline Smart, a motorist who led cops on a slow-speed chase. Years later, she and Glynn County police bent over backwards to allow Smart's killer, troubled police Lt. Corey Sasser, to roam free and ultimately murder his ex-wife and another man.

But in the past year, Johnson has spearheaded an effort to indict several Glynn County cops, including the chief, on charges they ignored evidence that an officer was consorting with a drug dealer. She says this is why county commissioners are dumping on her.

Barnhill, the DA who Johnson called to take over the Arbery case — and who was later officially appointed by Attorney General Chris Carr — stepped in and quickly determined there was nothing to see here, move along. And I mean quick, as in he called it self-defense the day after the killing.

Later, in a letter to the police department, Barnhill explained that during his 36 years in the business he had handled perhaps 200 killings and had “countless” hours of training. He suggested Arbery was mentally unbalanced and a criminal, reasons that got him killed.

In a later letter to AG Carr to recuse himself, Barnhill seemed put off by Arbery's family insistence that the DA had a conflict with Johnson's circuit — namely, his son works there — and seemed miffed that "rabble rousers" had entered the fray. It's uncertain to whom Barnhill was referring with that term. I suspect it was a catchall description meaning "those exerting pressure on the system."

Another DA got the case until this month, when the damning tape surfaced.

The GBI started investigating and within two days found probable cause to make arrests.

Carr, who I understand is miffed with the whole episode, has asked the feds to investigate “the communications and discussions by and between” Johnson and Barnhill. The feds are also investigating the killing itself for possible federal charges.

Bowers, the former state AG, told me he did not want to badmouth Carr. Nonetheless, “I would have investigated it,” Bowers said of the Arbery killing. “There’s no question. That’s something the attorney general has to investigate, not turn it over to the feds. This office has enormous reach. I learned it’s better to be feared than loved.”

This week Carr appointed Joyette Holmes, Cobb County's first black district attorney, to prosecute the murder case. Holmes was appointed as district attorney last year by Gov. Brian Kemp when former Cobb DA Vic Reynolds left to head the GBI.

Holmes’ assignment to the Arbery case is a political twofer: It is good optics for an African American prosecutor to handle this dicey drama. And it could help Holmes — a Republican who faces an election this year to keep her DA job — gain some cred with voters in the once-conservative county’s growing Democratic majority.