‘History Has Seized Us:’ Glynn County Community Takes Action After Ahmaud Arbery

People react during a rally on May 8 in Brunswick, Ga., to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. A bond hearing for the three men charged in Arbery’s death will take place Friday, July 17.

John Bazemore / Associated Press

In February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in a neighborhood in Glynn County, near Brunswick, Georgia. For months afterward, his family, residents and activists worked to bring attention to Arbery’s case.

After a graphic video showing the slaying was leaked, sparking national outrage, the area’s sleepy reputation was forever changed by a wave of social activism. Protesters took to the streets in the area, undeterred by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. And in May, months after Arbery was killed, three white men were arrested and charged in Arbery’s death.

With a motions hearing set for Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. Friday, Arbery’s family has put out a call for the community and activists to show up once again at the courthouse that morning.

In the wake of the case, WABE interviewed a handful of Brunswick residents about their view of the community after Arbery’s killing — and the events surrounding it — thrust their small town into the national spotlight.

Mayor Cornell Harvey said he believes his community distrusts the justice system because they only saw action after the video of Arbery’s death surfaced.

“We realize that this is just the start of a long process,” he said. “I think the citizens of Brunswick are very wary of the system because they foresee, had the video not been leaked, it would probably have went down as another one of those things that happened and nothing got done.”

But it would be too easy to say that the residents of Brunswick are simply rising to the challenge when they, in fact, should be credited with creating the spark.

Arbery’s friends and family members, frustrated that no arrests had been made, came together in the weeks after his death to rally the community despite the coronavirus lockdown. They organized a Facebook page and a GoFundMe page, both of which would later explode with support. Other community members offered assistance by making open records requests, reaching out to the media, selling “I Run With Maud” T-shirts, and flooding the district attorney’s offices involved with calls and emails. Even before the video went viral, their efforts had caught the attention of The New York Times as well as activists Shaun King and Rev. Bernice King.

Brunswick resident John Williams is proud that despite high tensions in the wake of Arbery’s death and the lack of immediate action from law enforcement, his community was able to protest peacefully.

“Unlike in other places, when we do come together, and we do rally, there hasn’t been violence. There hasn’t been different instances where things have been broken into like you see in other major cities,” Williams said. “I want to applaud my community for that. I want us to keep going. I think our voice is being heard a little.”

A group of protesters gather outside the Glynn County Courthouse while a preliminary hearing is being held inside for Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan on June 4. (Stephen B. Morton/AP Photo)

Abra Rainy, a local pastor, expressed the importance of coming together to build more significant conversations. She also explained the fatigue Black people feel as they fight for the same rights as other communities who haven’t had the same experiences of racism. “As African-Americans, we’re just simply tired, and we want justice, and we want real conversation, and we recognize that we can’t do this alone.”

Community activism in Brunswick before Arbery’s death was mostly limited to various parent-teacher associations and the occasional environmental issue. Now demonstrations against racial injustice are regular events. The newly formed A Better Glynn promotes change in the county through social justice, advocacy and civic engagement. They host live-streamed town halls, Q&As with experts on new legislation, and encourage all citizens to register to vote.

“There is a lot of unity here in this county. People are coming together from all walks of life, race, religion, professions, all coming together,” said resident Kendra Rolle.

Standing in her earrings featuring the image of Coretta Scott King, Rolle recited the quote, “’The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.’ And that’s what we see right now–the actions of the members of Glynn County.”

Alphonso Whitfield filmed and edited this video.
Note of Disclosure: Rebecca Etter and Alphonso Whitfield lived in Glynn County previously.

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.