For Ahmaud Arbery's killers, his Blackness was transgression enough

For Ahmaud Arbery's killers, his Blackness was transgression enough
Comment: Gunned down while out for a jog, Ahmaud Arbery's death is a dark reminder of the racism that still permeates America and its justice system, writes Khaled Beydoun.
5 min read
12 May, 2020
Arbery, unarmed and out jogging, was shot dead by two white men [Getty]
Friday 8 May marked Ahmaud Arbery's 26th birthday. 

His mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, stared at the empty dining table where she envisioned a birthday cake, a circle of family and friends gathered around it, and her son - Ahmaud - in the middle of it all ringing in another year of life with loved ones. 

That day would never come, and that scene would never take place - shot down by two white men, just miles from Arbery's Georgia home. Instead of remaining unknown, and alive, Arbery's face was plastered across social and mainstream media, his name reduced into a hashtag that is the most recent addition to a rapidly growing list of slain Black men and women.  

Yet, more than 70 days stood between Arbery's killing and the world's knowledge of it and his name. While jogging in Satilla Shores, Georgia, Arbery was followed by two men in a pickup truck. The truck finally caught up to Arbery, and Travis McMichael ultimately shot and killed the 25-year-old Black male, while his father, Gregory McMichael, stood watching from the bed of the truck. Another man captured the homicide by video, which was leaked by the Arbery family lawyer, and went viral on 5 May 

Neither the elder or younger McMichael were arrested or charged by local authorities after the February incident. The two white men were free for the 74 days after the homicide, and ultimately arrested two days after the video leaked, a day before what would have been their victim's 26th birthday.

The 48 hours after the video leaked spurred a firestorm on social media. The vivid images of yet another unarmed, Black American killed while going about his daily life, revitalised the rage that gripped the country at the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Running, for a Black man, is non-threatening when he's competing on a basketball court or a football pitch

Yet, the pandemic confined this rage and the possibility of a robust grassroots response, to social media platforms, where millions venerated Arbery's name, and pointed to his demise to highlight the persistence of racial profiling and the perils of "running while Black." 

Even during the peak of a global pandemic, racism - and namely, anti-Black violence - could not be quarantined or kept off of the state's streets. The video vividly demonstrates this, but the events that followed testify to the resilience of racism even more potently and powerfully than before.

Had the video remained hidden from the public, the McMichaels would very likely still be free men. Even more disturbingly, had it not garnered the mass viral outrage that it did during those explosive two days, arrests and charges may not have followed.

One Twitter user commented after the McMichaels were arrested and charged for murder, "Always remember, they didn't make arrests because they saw the tape; They made arrests because we saw the tape." 

Read more: Me and White Supremacy: Giving white people the tools to see their own white privilege

The video leaked on 5 May, and had been viewed nearly two million times on YouTube in less than a week. It was picked up by mainstream media outlets, posted and disseminated through a myriad of social media platforms, shared on WhatsApp groups, and viewed by captive audiences stuck inside and glued to their gadgets. The virus that confined people to their homes, created a landscape where more eyes gravitated to the video, and subsequently, galvanised an avalanche of indignation that demanded justice for Arbery. 

What they saw, in real time, drove them to action. And what could have remained unseen, if the tape remained underground, would have continued the venerable American tradition of burying evidence when the victim is Black, and the culprits white.   

Writing for Rolling Stone, Jamil Smith called Arbery's killing a "modern lynching". And Charles Blow pointed to the conflation of Blackness with criminality - a longstanding stereotype that not only triggers the murder of unarmed and innocent Black men and women, but also feeds the recurring post mortem narratives that their deaths were somehow justified. 

Running, for a Black man, is non-threatening when he's competing on a basketball court or a football pitch, where the very bigots that naturally shoot slurs from their mouths - and sometimes bullets - deem him worthy and in his rightful place. In the racist American imagination, a Black man running in most other circumstances signals criminality and deviance - a stereotyped threat ascribed to Blackness since the American advent of the racial category.

Their whiteness, particularly in rural Georgia, was evidence enough for them to walk free for 74 days

Jogging in plainclothes instead of an athletic uniform, in a predominantly white neighbourhood left Arbery in the wrong place at the wrong time, for the final time. 

His untimely death, on a run cut short at 2.23 miles, is inspiring individuals across the country to run that
distance in his honour, and sends another warning to Black Americans that engaging in such an innocuous activity could also spell death for them. 

In his article, E-Racing the Fourth Amendment, law scholar Devon Carbado used his own experience with racial profiling to write broadly about how Black people are associated with deviance when engaged in the most benign and mundane activities, and how these perceptions can easily invite the greatest peril. Carbado writes:

"Perhaps we needed time to recover our dignity, to repossess our bodies. Perhaps we know that we were in America… Perhaps we understood that we were already black Americans, that our race naturalised us. Perhaps we knew that this naturalisation was fundamentally about race and place, a project in social positioning that rendered us the racial embodiment of social transgression."

As further investigation reveals new details about the Arbery homicide, two entwined facts will remain unchanged: that Arbery's Blackness was a transgression enough and alone for his killers. And their whiteness, particularly in rural Georgia, was evidence enough for them to walk free for 74 days until the video raised the popular call for justice that the system, time and again, defers and refuses to deliver.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. He sits on the United States Commission for Civil Rights, and is based out of Detroit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.