Any Black dignity that these laws did not criminalize, Jim Crow culture sought to cripple. This culture demanded a racial etiquette where Black people did not dare look white people directly in the eyes and had to address them as “sir” or “ma’am,” regardless of their age or stature. Any breach of the social order was liable to be disciplined by the threat of lynching – or actual lynching.
Even today, a legal remnant of these statutes remains in Georgia – the citizen’s arrest law, first implemented in 1863.
On paper, the citizen’s arrest law allows a person to “arrest an offender if the offense is committed in the presence or within his immediate knowledge.” In practice, it allows for the same kind of armed vigilantism that has been historically used against Black people. In 1863, the law deputized any white person to incarcerate any Black person according to bigoted rules that should have never existed. In today’s Georgia, while many of the rules have changed, the law still allows people to act on preconceived notions of Black criminality and to take violent measures to enforce those notions.
In 2019, police say an attempted citizen’s arrest in Clayton County turned a simple fender-bender into the murder of Kenneth Herring, a 62-year old Black grandfather of three, by a white woman who, police say, decided to aggressively chase him down in her vehicle and shoot him. Nine months later, in Brunswick, a citizen’s arrest would lead to the death of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white men in an eerily similar fashion – except this time it was caught on camera for the world to see.
Neither Herring nor Arbery were dangerous criminals. In the eyes of Jim Crow, being Black was enough for suspicion, ire and swift civilian “justice.” Citizen’s arrest murders remind us that the threat of racial violence did not die with our Civil War ancestors, nor was this vigilantism resolved by the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s.
In this year’s State of the State address, Gov. Brian Kemp spoke of Arbery’s story and referred to his murder as “a vigilante-style of violence” allowed by “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”
A full repeal of citizen’s arrest is the only way to start to turn away from the violence against Black people that was legally sanctioned in an era of white supremacy. A full repeal is the only solution for change in Georgia – even if it is tardy by more than 150 years. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously noted, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
We urge Kemp to live up to his commitment to a Georgia resembling Dr. King’s vision.
Delvin Davis is a regional policy analyst focused on criminal justice reform at the SPLC Action Fund. Isabel Otero is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Georgia.