Opinion: The stench of vigilantism in Georgia
"The foul odor one encounters when passing through the Low Country town of Brunswick, Ga., hasn’t been lately caused by local pulp mills but emanates instead from the Glynn County Courthouse, where three White men face murder charges in the shooting death of an unarmed Black man.
It’s the same abominable story we’ve heard too many times before. This time, however, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by citizen vigilantes rather than by cops. Arbery died on Feb. 23, 2020, three months before the police killing of George Floyd and the start of a national movement.
Arbery, just 25 at the time of his death, was guilty of nothing more than jogging when he caught the attention of a father and son, Greg McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, who pursued him in their pickup truck, allegedly because they suspected he might be responsible for a rash of burglaries in their Satilla Shores neighborhood.
The third defendant, William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor, also pursued Arbery in his own pickup truck and recorded the video footage that police ultimately used to make the McMichaels’ arrests.
The local police department said there had been only one reported burglary in the neighborhood for seven weeks before the shooting. And although I’ve never been a burglar, I don’t imagine that if I were, I’d go jogging midday to review my work and begin plotting my next caper. Arbery was killed at 1 p.m. on a Sunday.
In the final two days of testimony, which ended Thursday, the younger McMichael took the stand in his own defense. He didn’t help himself. In essence, Travis McMichael testified that Arbery had said nothing threatening to him or to his father when they began following him. In fact, Arbery reportedly never spoke at all. Also, he never reached for anything resembling a weapon, Travis testified.
The prosecutor summed it up this way: Arbery wasn’t a threat to anyone, based on the shooter’s own testimony. He had been stopped by the two McMichaels, one of whom threatened to “blow your f---ing head off” — a nice greeting played to the background tune of dueling banjos, as I imagine events.
The father-and-son team, by the way, did not at the time resemble the well-groomed, coat-and-tied “church deacons” we’ve seen in court the past two weeks. Everybody puts on their Sunday best for court, of course, but the mug shots of those two, as well as of Bryan, are likely more accurate representations of what Arbery was seeing that day.
As a White Southern woman all too familiar with the gun-and-pickup culture, I can tell you that few sorts are more frightening if you happen to be alone in the wrong place, such as driving on one of the many back roads crisscrossing the rural South. While I have scores of friends, male and female, who drive pickups and use shotguns for bird or target shooting, there’s a certain kind of White troublemaker who haunts those routes; and everybody around here knows exactly what I mean.
I can’t imagine Arbery’s fear when, having encountered Bryan and seeing no way out at one end of the street, he reversed directions and ran toward the McMichaels. In those next seconds, Arbery apparently decided to be proactive and lurched toward Travis, as can be seen in the video. Travis, the self-styled citizen-hero, after chasing down his quarry, was finally scared: “We were face to face,” Travis testified. “I’m being struck and that’s when I shot.”
So, he fired three times at close range. With a shotgun.
The prosecutor pointed out that Travis could have gotten back in the truck, if he was so afraid, but Travis said doing so would have allowed Arbery to get away.
If only. We can’t know what went through Arbery’s mind in those final desperate moments, but let’s borrow a page from John Grisham’s “A Time to Die” and reverse roles. Imagine you’re a White man jogging on a Sunday afternoon when two Black men in a pickup truck, one with a shotgun, stop and interrogate you and say they’ll blow your head off if you don’t stop — while a friend of theirs waits at the end of the street. What would you do?
Now there’s a conversation starter for Thanksgiving dinner.
Here’s another: Why is it that armed White men who shoot unarmed Black men always say they’re acting in self-defense?
Because the law in too many places lets them off the hook when they do.
Noxious odors in Brunswick, Ga., are nothing new. Locals wary of industrial pollution have a phrase they like to use when the air is worse than usual: Smell something, tell something.
Let’s hope the next time someone witnesses armed White men stalking and threatening a Black man, they’ll think to report it. Evil has a particularly foul stench.