In 2017, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a report, “Lynching in America: Confronting The Legacy of Racial Terror,” that shows the state of Georgia had 589 lynchings from 1877 to 1950—second only to Mississippi’s 654 lynchings during the same period. The New Georgia Encyclopedia reports that 95 percent of the state’s lynchings involved black people being lynched by white people. At least three of those documented lynchings took place in Glynn County, one of the eight original counties in Georgia.
Another lynching has now occurred in Glynn County. The latest lynching in the county occurred on February 23, 2020, when two white men, a father-son duo named Gregory and Travis McMichael, chased down Ahmaud Arbery in their pickup truck in a white neighborhood. Arbery was fatally shot three times with a shotgun by Travis McMichael after a police-like approach by McMichael. The twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud was out for a jog in a neighborhood when he often ran for exercise and waved at people he encountered.
The McMichaels told the authorities at the time of the incident that they acted in self-defense while trying to make a “citizen’s arrest.” Gregory McMichael saw Arbery jogging through his neighborhood and thought he looked like a suspect in several burglaries that had occurred in the previous weeks. He called his son, who raced to his father’s house. The father/son duo armed themselves with a shotgun and a .357 pistol and jumped into a pickup truck to chase Arbery down. They were followed in another pickup by a neighbor who was filming the chase.
Local DA Cover-up
In the days following the shooting death, Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill, a close friend of the McMichaels, refused to bring any charges in the case. Barnhill, who has now recused himself from the investigation, declined to prosecute the McMichaels claiming there was no probable cause to issue arrest warrants. He said the McMichaels, along with Williams, were in “hot pursuit of a burglary suspect” when they shot Arbery. Barnhill told the local police:
“It appears it was their (the McMichaels) intent to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law, that is perfectly legal.”
The problem with Barnhill’s reasoning is that Georgia law does not permit lynching, which is what the McMichaels did to Arbery.
In his letter explaining his decision, Barnhill recites his 36 years experience as a prosecutor but failed to mention that Gregory McMichael was a career law enforcement officer with ties to the DA’s office and local law enforcement. McMichael had spent seven years at the Glynn County Police Department, followed by another twenty years as chief investigator for the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.
A “citizen’s arrest” in Georgia requires that the citizen personally witness the crime for which a person is arrested. The McMichaels had not personally witnessed Arbery doing anything illegal. They simply saw a black man jogging through a predominantly white neighborhood—and the fact that he dared to do that in front of one or more of them apparently constituted a crime from their perspective.
The exact wording of a citizen’s arrest as stated by the Georgia Area Legal Aid Office is this:
“When making a citizen’s arrest, a person may not use more force than is reasonable to make the arrest. Deadly force is limited to self-defense or to instances in which such force is necessary to prevent certain felonies.”
The McMichaels convinced D.A. Barnhill and their well-connected law enforcement buddies that Travis McMichael was forced to kill Arbery in self-defense after he resisted the father/son’s attempt to stop and hold Arbery until law enforcement arrived.
The first problem with this defense is that the father/son duo had no legal reason to chase down and detain Arbery about anything. Neither had seen Arbery commit a crime, and he wasn’t about to commit a felony as he was jogging down the street.
Modern Day Lynching
The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery was a modern day lynching. As George Yancy eloquently argues in Ahmaud Arbery and Ghost of Lynching Past, “[h]istorically, white people have always had this sort of power over black life, functioning as judge, jury and executioner. To understand Arbery’s death as anything other than predictable is to miss the persistent history of white supremacy in Georgia and throughout the United States.”
After two and one-half months of receiving preferential treatment, the McMichaels were arrested on felony murder charges that carry a penalty of life in prison. The arrest came after weeks of increasing public awareness about the incident and only after a video surfaced on social media depicting the crime for the murder that it was.
What this case really boils down to is this: vigilantes, an ex-cop, his son, and a like-minded neighbor (who was not arrested) decided to gang up on a young black man and take the law into their own hands.
The alleged burglaries, the citizen’s arrest, and the self-defense statements are doublespeak to justify the lynching of a black man in a white neighborhood. Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was a racial, vigilante-style lynching disguised as self-defense. It is disturbing and undeniable that the self-defense claim would have remained protected behind the “thin blue line” had it not been for a video that documented the homicide for what it was, murder.
A full investigation into District Attorney George E. Barnhill’s decision-making process and complicity in the cover-up should come next.