Opinion: A welcomed first step toward justice

Supporters gathered for a rally in Ahmaud Arbery’s honor in Brunswick. Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.
Supporters gathered for a rally in Ahmaud Arbery’s honor in Brunswick. Photo: Bert Roughton Jr.

Not again, I thought while reading the first AJC story about the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County.

I was not surprised that it took two-plus months for arrests to come of two men and filing of murder charges in the case. This only after the GBI was rightly called in.

And, as news continues to unfold, I’m not shocked that areas of gray seem to be emerging in a story that people might choose to see as being purely black or white.

Possible mitigating circumstances aside, the central fact remains unchanged: Arbery, an unarmed black man, was shot dead on the side of a road. Authorities allege that happened at the hands of two white men who’d pursued him in a truck.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this homicide wouldn’t remain a quiet matter confined to Glynn County. Not given our reporting on past incidents of troubling law enforcement behavior there. Add in race as an element and that ensured the case would quickly go viral.

It’s not hard to understand why. Arbery’s killing is the latest in a long, deadly narrative for Americans who look like me. Black people, often-unarmed, killed by armed civilians, or police, for minor suspected offenses, or even while minding their own business up until they were confronted.

And, somehow, many times the legal system excuses such homicides, concluding that the shooters were in justifiable fear of their lives, even if they were the initial aggressors.

It shouldn’t be so difficult for reasonable people of any ethnicity to see why that grates on many people of color and corrodes our faith in the legal system.

If you were that afraid of a black person in the first instance, you should have left any pursuit and confrontation to police. That’s essentially what a Florida police dispatcher told George Zimmerman shortly before he confronted and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Like all of us, what I’ve lived and seen comprises the lens through which I view the world around me. If that’s myopic, it’s an affliction we all share.

I thus admit I can’t yet claim the privilege of believing America is fully beyond the impact of race. Not when a jogging man can be shot dead on a Georgia road after being suspected as a possible burglar.

Even assuming that Arbery was indeed behaving suspiciously by reportedly entering a house under construction, many reasonable, law-abiding people are extremely troubled by what happened next. The GBI apparently was too, as murder charges resulted 48 hours after they were called onto the case.

I would submit that calling police would have been the prudent thing for concerned neighbors to do. Any charges that might have resulted, say trespassing or burglary, are far from capital crimes.

Somehow, I still have a tattered faith in the ideal of law and order, however imperfectly attempted or achieved.

It gets harder to see that North Star when you watch the jerky video of what happened in Glynn County. Or that of any other questionable shooting by cops or armed civilians that you can find on the Internet. That’s what has so many upset by this matter.

I grew up in a family of lawmen. As a result, I’m not particularly sympathetic to criminals. I’ve been a crime victim and have known too many innocents harmed by violence. The assailants and victims have been both black and white.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a chapter for a friend’s book “Not Guilty: Twelve Black Men Speak Out on Law, Justice, and Life.” I closed my essay with advice I planned on giving my then-young son when the time came.

Black folks today call it “The Talk” — what to do if stopped by the police so that you survive the encounter. I wrote then, “When he stands at the edge of manhood, will the same survival rules still apply?”

I had no way of knowing then that “stand your ground” – a legal theorem that so far seems to apply only to angry, armed white males – would become a factor in the “Talk” as well.

As I’ve written before on these pages, I’ve confronted people on my property who were behaving suspiciously, even criminally. I still thank God that push never went beyond shove in those instances.

My son is an adult now. So far, the “Talk,” prayers and his sound judgment have kept him safe. News coverage at times recalls Trayvon Martin’s killing. I’m reminded, bitterly, of the blowback that greeted an American president – a man as much white as he is black – when he dared note that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

I have a son who shares that skin color. And I can’t forget Martin’s killer’s exoneration via a masterful turn of script-flipping that saw the initial aggressor successfully portrayed as a victim.

The lag of months until Thursday’s arrests rightly put Georgia in a global spotlight where it should not want to be, as people used social media to keep pressure on authorities.

I’d like to think the Georgia I’ve come to call home has grown well beyond the old, bloody era of Southern disregard for the Constitutional rights of black people. Reading a prosecutor’s sympathetic portrayal of Arbery’s accused killers led me initially to doubt that. I thought then, another unarmed black man dead. For no sound reason I can discern.

The GBI’s arrests and charges give me reason to hope that the justice system can quickly and impartially get to the truth of what happened in Glynn County.

The final answers may not be what any side in the American matter of race will want to hear. But they must come.

I hope and trust the legal system is up to that task.

Andre Jackson, Editorial Editor.

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