Ahmaud Arbery slaying becomes part of political debate in Georgia

State Rep. Al Williams speaks Tuesday at a rally in Brunswick calling for the passage of a state hate-crimes law. AJC/Bert Roughton Jr.
State Rep. Al Williams speaks Tuesday at a rally in Brunswick calling for the passage of a state hate-crimes law. AJC/Bert Roughton Jr.

Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death has shifted Georgia’s political conversation and renewed a push to impose stiffer penalties on crimes rooted in racial bias at a time when voters are readying to cast ballots in primary races and lawmakers prepare to return to the state Capitol.

The Feb. 23 death of the unarmed black jogger in southeast Georgia punctuated concerns that many African American leaders and their allies have raised for years surrounding killings of black teens and men. These leaders are issuing fresh demands to adopt a stalled hate-crimes measure and take more sweeping action when state legislators reconvene next month.

A number of Republicans also reacted with horror at the graphic video that showed Arbery's fatal confrontation with two white attackers in a leafy neighborhood outside of Brunswick. Some insist it's past time to advance the hate-crimes law, though an internal rift means there's no certainty it will succeed.

"It's a good time to remember that the power of the majority in a legislative body carries not only opportunity but responsibility," House Speaker David Ralston, an outspoken supporter of the measure, said in an interview.

“Sometimes, exercising the responsibility demands some courage and bold leadership,” Ralston said. “Last week, we came to a point where we’re called upon to be responsible.”

Arbery’s death and the two months that passed without an arrest focused the nation’s attention on Georgia’s criminal justice system at a particularly fraught moment as politicians struggle with a pandemic that has disproportionately preyed on African Americans in Georgia and other parts of the nation.

"Here we go again" was the reaction from U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Marietta Democrat who became a gun control activist after her teenage son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed by a white man who complained about his loud music. She added, "This hit me even more so because, visually, the world has seen it."

Georgia candidates preparing for a June 9 primary responded swiftly, too, calling for more thorough investigations, and in some cases, they arranged virtual town hall meetings with community leaders and activists to discuss their plans to improve the criminal justice system.

The killing has also seeped into the presidential race.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden framed it as a modern-day lynching carried out during a “pandemic of hate,” tying the violence with the coronavirus outbreak. President Donald Trump called it “very disturbing,” though he added the shooting might be more complicated than the video appears.

In Georgia, however, many Republicans steered clear of Trump’s approach and instead followed the lead of Gov. Brian Kemp, who has used unequivocal language to condemn the slaying. He said the footage of the shooting was “absolutely horrific” and ordered the GBI to launch a probe.

Shortly after, state authorities announced the arrest of Greg and Travis McMichael, a Brunswick father and son with ties to local law enforcement, on charges of murder and aggravated assault.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, tapped Cobb County’s district attorney to lead the prosecution of the McMichaels while warning that he’ll be investigating how the Arbery case “was handled from the outset.”

“It’s not only important to hear, but to see that this matters. To all of us — Republican, Democrat, independent alike,” Carr said in an interview. “I think it’s important for people to know that Republicans value each and every human life. I think its important for everyone to understand that civil rights is not within the purview of any one party.”

‘Time to act’

Much of the response in Georgia has focused on renewed bipartisan calls for legislation that would impose stiffer prison sentences on those who commit crimes based on race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. At a Tuesday rally in Brunswick, sponsors of the bill wanted it to be renamed in memory of Arbery.

Georgia is one of four states in the nation without such a measure after a previous law was declared unconstitutionally vague in 2004, and supporters pressed for a new version when legislators resume the session in June after a pandemic-related hiatus.

The measure passed the Georgia House last year by a 96-64 vote with the support of several influential suburban Republicans. But it stalled in the state Senate, held up by critics who say they're skeptical about whether additional penalties will deter crimes.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (right) is joined by Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) and Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (center) before the start of a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the state Capitol building in Atlanta on Monday, April 20, 2020. During the presser, Gov. Kemp revealed that he planned to allow some small business owners to open back up by the end of the week. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (right) is joined by Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (left) and Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (center) before the start of a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the state Capitol building in Atlanta on Monday, April 20, 2020. During the presser, Gov. Kemp revealed that he planned to allow some small business owners to open back up by the end of the week. (ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

Those concerns linger, though the measure has won the outspoken support of leading House Republicans. In an interview, Ralston pressed Senate leaders to adopt hate-crimes legislation without delay — and with no amendments.

“The time for being silent ended last week. It’s time to do what’s right,” he said. “It’s going to take some leadership and some courage, but I think it’s time to act.”

Democrats who have long pressed for the measure sense an opportunity amid the tragedy. State State Sen. Harold Jones has encouraged Democratic lawmakers to push the issue with their constituents — and raise the pressure on critics.

“This should be the catalyst to pass the hate-crimes legislation,” said Jones, an Augusta Democrat and member of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus who said the slaying laid bare shortcomings in the justice system.

“This is the type of disconnect we have: As soon as an African American male is accused of doing something, it becomes a complicated case and all common sense has just gone out the window.”

Still, it's not clear whether the measure will move forward. While Kemp has indicated he's receptive to the legislation, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the state Senate, has not yet taken a stance.

The measure would also have to emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Jesse Stone blocked it last year. In an interview, Stone said there's still no consensus about whether to move forward.

He said many members are opposed because it could limit the discretion of trial judges to impose sentences and also because of a “philosophical concern” about requiring different punishments for similar crimes.

“The bill doesn’t do enough in some areas, and it goes too far in others,” Stone said. “We’ve got our plate full with bills that we do need to move on, so if a consensus comes together, it’s possible we can move on this. But if it doesn’t, it could lag behind.”

‘Stick with it’

Even as Democrats approach a long-sought goal, many of the party’s most prominent figures and their allies say a hate-crimes law should be among several steps that lawmakers must address.

2/28/19 - Atlanta -  Rep. Bee Nguyen, D - Atlanta, watches the votes come in on bills this morning.  The legislature was in session for the 24rd day of the 2019 General Assembly.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
2/28/19 - Atlanta - Rep. Bee Nguyen, D - Atlanta, watches the votes come in on bills this morning. The legislature was in session for the 24rd day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, said lawmakers should also roll back Kemp's attempts to crack down on gangs, repeal "stand your ground" laws that allow for immunity if deadly force is used in self-defense and pass legislation that requires law enforcement agencies to publicly detail use-of-force incidents.

“This is just the beginning,” Nguyen said. “Obviously, we need a hate-crimes bill, but we need to go further. The system as a whole needs to be completely reformed.”

And at Tuesday’s rally in Brunswick, state lawmakers also called for eliminating Georgia’s citizens arrest provision and called on Kemp to dismiss the first two prosecutors assigned to the Arbery case for failing to take action.

"It's appropriate for them to be charged with criminal obstruction," said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

Activists, celebrities and politicians have responded in other ways, too. Thousands of joggers around the world pounded the pavement Friday, what would have been Arbery's 26th birthday, to run 2.23 miles to signify the date of his shooting, Feb. 23. Some have rallied, masks affixed to their faces, outside the courthouse in Brunswick. And some held workshops to float policy changes.

Sarah Riggs Amico, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, hastily arranged an online forum over the weekend with several allies and activists to discuss racial justice.

“I am a mom and I’m angry about what happened to Ahmaud Arbery,” Amico said. “We’ve seen in the COVID pandemic that it’s not created structural inequity by race and gender and class and privilege in this country — but it’s exposed it.”

Amico said we have a choice between accepting “that this is just the way it is — or do we band together and fight back?”

Plenty have chosen the latter. Audrey Gibbons, a Brunswick activist, is now organizing the city's black residents to back the independent candidate running against District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who has been accused of thwarting arrests after Arbery was killed.

People react during a rally to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed Feb 23 while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
People react during a rally to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed Feb 23 while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

“With choices in November, we can make a difference,” she said. “Just because the McMichaels were arrested, it doesn’t mean they’ll be convicted. We have to stay focused. We have a purpose, and we have to stick with it.”

‘It’s a shame’

In suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District, one of the most competitive races in the state, Arbery’s killing has quickly factored into the contest.

McBath’s personal tragedy shaped her successful campaign for Congress in 2018, and she said the video of Arbery’s death has resurfaced those feelings of grief. She mentioned the shooting in a Mother’s Day email to supporters, adding that the slaying brought new attention to her gun safety platform.

Her likely opponent in November, former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, said she also was horrified by the video and supports the decisions that led to the McMichaels’ arrests. She also accused McBath of using the incident for personal gain, noting that her Mother’s Day dispatch included a fundraising link.

“As Georgians, we should rally around a call for justice, not divide ourselves by politicizing a tragedy and using it for fundraising,” Handel said in a statement.

Many Republican responses don’t stop at expressions of dismay, either. U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, whose district spans coastal Georgia, said he was “extremely concerned by the alleged improprieties” of the investigation.

Mark Gonsalves, a GOP candidate in the 7th Congressional District, rooted in Gwinnett County, was more direct: “If corrupt government officials were involved in shielding the perpetrators from justice, they should be removed and charged,” he wrote.

As for Ralston, he said the slaying has reframed how lawmakers should view the last stretch of a legislative session that will also be dominated by filling multibillion-dollar holes in the state budget wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's a shame that it took a video of this to engage many leaders, but our responsibility is threefold: to demonstrate that Georgia and Glynn County will not be tarnished by this act of evil. It's time that we bring our law into the 21st century and make it more just, and it's time to do what's right."

Political columnist Jim Galloway and special correspondent Bert Roughton Jr. in Brunswick contributed to this article.