A Year After Ahmaud Arbery’s Death: A Family Still Grieves; Some See Signs Of Progress

A man waits in his car for a May 16 rally and call for justice against the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. A year later, a family still grieves and some see signs of progress.
A man waits in his car for a May 16 rally and call for justice in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. A year later, while the men arrested in Arbery’s killing have not been convicted, local leaders say some change has come to Glynn County.
Credit Stephen B. Morton / Associated Press file
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One year ago, on a suburban Brunswick, Georgia, street, Ahmaud Arbery was chased and shot in broad daylight.

It would be three months before most of the world heard about Arbery’s death and before those responsible were arrested.

While the men arrested for his killing have not been convicted, local leaders say some change has come to Glynn County since.

At the state level, a new hate crimes law passed almost immediately after the outrage about Arbery’s death, and lawmakers are considering a repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, which was used to defend the men who shot Arbery.

Federal authorities opened an investigation into Arbery’s case in May, and the Georgia attorney general has also been looking into any possible prosecutorial misconduct.

I’ve got to get justice for my boy, and I’ve got to make sure those three men never walk the streets again.

— Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father

And yet, despite the time that has passed, the grief of Arbery’s family, including his father, Marcus Arbery, has not gotten any easier to bear.

“They took a part of me they never going to be able to put back,” Arbery said. “When those monsters killed my baby boy, that’s a part of me nobody can put back.”

Marcus Arbery is focused on getting guilty verdicts for the three men in jail for his son’s killing. No trial date has been set as the pandemic has caused nationwide justice delays, but all three have been denied bail.

“I’ve got to get justice for my boy, and I’ve got to make sure those three men never walk the streets again,” Arbery said. “I’m starving for justice for him. And we’re going to get justice.”

Recently released police bodycam footage shows one of those men, Greg McMichael, justifying his actions, his hand still covered in Ahmaud Arbery’s blood. McMichael said he and his son Travis thought they were chasing a repeat burglar in the neighborhood.

“Travis grabs his shotgun because we don’t know if this guy’s armed because the other night the guy stuck his hand down his pants, which led Travis to think he was armed,” McMichael told an officer. Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times.

There’s been no evidence Arbery committed the burglaries, but the McMichaels’ account is what local prosecutors believed.

Greg McMichael had been a Glynn County police officer and a longtime investigator in the local district attorney’s office.

Quickly after the video leaked, sparking a global outcry, new prosecutors were appointed, and the McMichaels were arrested. Their neighbor, who joined in the chase and took the video of the killing, William Roddie Bryan, was arrested later.

‘Progress’

While the criminal cases continue moving slowly through the court system, leaders in Brunswick say the area has seen real change since the outrage over Arbery’s death.

“We’ve made more progress in the last year than I thought we would have,” said Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker, the sole Black commissioner on the board.

“Ahmaud was our baby, first to his family, but he was also the baby of this community. And we should not allow anybody to take and snuff out the life of any of our children.”

A man holds a sign during a May 16 rally to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Cedric King, a Brunswick entrepreneur and community organizer, said Arbery’s death has sparked new dialogue between local churches, nonprofits and business leaders. (Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press file)

One clear-cut change to the community in the last year has been the defeat of local District Attorney Jackie Johnson.

She became a focus of protesters and activists because of reports she advised law enforcement not to arrest the men at the scene of the crime, reports she has denied.

Six months later, Johnson lost her reelection bid by a resounding 30 points thanks to a write-in campaign.

“That activism cannot do anything but give everybody hope and optimism for what the future can be, if you handle things the right way,” said Cedric King, a Brunswick entrepreneur and community organizer.

He said Arbery’s death has sparked new dialogue between local churches, nonprofits and business leaders.

“Instead of, you know, ‘This is my bucket, and I want to be the one that controls my bucket,’” King said, “it’s more or less like, ‘Hey, I think this is really our bucket.’”

He said the tone of cooperation was set by the peaceful multiracial protests in Brunswick last summer.

“Because we came together, whites and Blacks together, decrying and detesting this act, our community was the only community that did not burn down,” King said. “We had protests, but we did not have riots. We did not have a bunch of civil unrest.”

“Hopefully, we can be a model of how even in the wake of a tragedy, you can come together and move forward.”

Commissioner Booker agreed that conversations have shifted in part thanks to a conscious effort to keep protests peaceful.

“This movement has raised the consciousness of folks who may have been on the bubble of this, or been willing to say slow walk it, to understand that we’ve got to root out this hate and we’ve got to step up, better than we have in the past,” he said.

“I think that there are folks who were allies and friends of the Black community that have always worked at some level with us, but they really stepped up. And then there were others who maybe hadn’t thought about it, but this really helped them to focus in, and they’ve stepped up.”

Booker said he’s heartened that almost half of new police recruits in Glynn County are now people of color.

Commissioners have adjusted their search for a new police chief to involve the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and Booker’s own faith-based local advocacy group, the Community First Planning Commission.

Commissioners have also pledged to prioritize a shift to community-based policing.

Booker and other local advocates have proposed a citizens oversight board, in tandem with the American Civil Liberties Union, and Booker is optimistic about the proposal.

“I feel that the new chairman and the Board of Commissioners are really listening,” he said. “And want to see real progress and want to have a police department that is a model for the country. Since the world is looking at us, we might as well.”

“We feel that there’s hope,” King said.

“We know we see a lot of change on the horizon. But then, there is a lot of fatigue because we, who are used to doing this type of work, know that the arrests were just the beginning … this thing is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”