If you haven’t been following the story of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, you should. Everything about the case illustrates why so many Americans have lost faith in our criminal justice system, and why it sucks to be black in America.
Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down by a posse of armed white men in broad daylight in Brunswick, Georgia, and the whole thing was captured in a harrowing video posted online earlier this week, sparking outrage. Why the outrage? Because the video shows nothing less than murder in cold blood, and although it happened on February 23, the men in question, whose identities are known, have not been arrested or charged. A Georgia prosecutor only this week announced a grand jury will investigate the fatal shooting.
The killers are Gregory McMichael, 64, a retired cop and investigator for the district attorney’s office, his 43-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and an unidentified third man. According to the police report, Gregory McMichael, claims he saw Arbery “hauling ass” down his street and assumed he was a burglar who had recently been targeting homes in the area. He and his son, armed with a handgun and a shotgun, got into a white truck, the third man got into a separate vehicle, and they chased after Arbery.
The elder McMichael told police they shouted at Arbery to stop and when he didn’t, they confronted him. McMichael alleges that Arbery then attacked Travis McMichael and they began struggling over the shotgun. Police say the younger McMichael fire twice, Arbery fell face down and died of his wounds shortly thereafter.
But that’s not what the video shows. It shows Arbery jogging at a normal pace (not “hauling ass”) when he comes upon a white truck pulled over on the side of the road. One man is standing in the bed of the truck with a pistol and another is outside the driver’s side door with a shotgun. Arbery appears to cross the road in an effort to jog past the truck, he disappears briefly from the frame and we hear a shot, then we see Arbery grappling with a man holding the shotgun. Another shot rings out, and Arbery falls to the ground.
Barring some new evidence, it’s impossible to conclude from the video that this was anything but murder, and that whatever Arbery did when he was confronted by the armed men, it was done in self-defense. As David Harsanyi notes at NRO, the entire situation was instigated by the McMichael posse, “which made the decision to chase a man down a street after concluding, without any genuine evidence, that he was a burglar.” If Arbery had been armed, he would have been within his rights to shoot the McMichaels.
And of course it wouldn’t have mattered even if Arbery were the burglar. Retired cop or not, McMichael had no authority to stop Arbery or detain him, much less threaten him with a firearm. A prosecutor previously assigned to the case reportedly advised the police there was insufficient probably cause to arrest the McMichaels because they had acted legally under Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws.
But any plain reading of Georgia’s statute authorizing citizen arrest makes a mockery of that claim. The law says a private citizen “may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” You don’t need to be a prosecutor or have a law degree to know that neither of those conditions were even remotely met in this case.
So what’s going on here? Put bluntly, McMichael and his son are walking free today because they’re connected to the right people. Two prosecutors have recused themselves from the case because McMichael had previously worked as an investigator in local district attorneys office, and one of them, George E. Barnhill, was the prosecutor who told the police the McMichaels were acting in self-defense when they killed Arbery.
Given the facts of the case so far, it’s hard not to conclude that McMichael and his son aren’t in custody because they’re white and because McMichael is a former cop and district attorney’s office investigator. We all know what would have happened if Arbery had been white and his assailants had been black, and we all know that investigators and cops, even retired ones, tend to get different treatment from prosecutors than the rest of us.
The larger point here is that we see this pattern too often in our criminal justice system. Wanton police violence, from Eric Garner to Philando Castile to Freddie Gray, always seems to break in the same direction, making a mockery of justice.
Setting aside the chicanery and political motivations of its founders, Black Lives Matter became a movement because it resonated, it hit on something that’s true about our criminal justice system. The hard truth is that being black in America means you don’t get the same treatment as white people do.
That should disgust and outrage all of us. Conservatives especially need to call it out, not to prove that we care about the plight of black Americans but because we hold fast to the rule of law, because we don’t believe in mob justice, because we really do believe that all men are created equal, and that you don’t lose your right to life and liberty and due process because a cop—or a former cop—thinks you committed a crime.
UPDATE: On Thursday evening, after publication of the above and amid public outcry, the alleged perpetrators Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. They were booked into a jail in Glynn County, Ga., where the killing took place.