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Ahmaud Arbery and the fragility of optimism

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/23/2021 Robin Givhan
Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, is seen outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Nov. 23. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post) Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, is seen outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Nov. 23. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

This column has been updated.

The only thing that Ahmaud Arbery had with him as he ran through the streets of Satilla Shores was optimism. He had no weapons. Most everyone else on the scene, seems to have had an entire arsenal.

The three White men convicted in Brunswick, Ga. for killing Arbery carried with them the misguided certainty that the young Black man running through their neighborhood was up to no good. They had guns and pickup trucks and the unshakable belief that when they told Arbery to stop and submit to their interrogation, in what they later described as an attempt at a citizen’s arrest, he had an obligation to do so even though he was a free man. They had lawyers fighting for their freedom and lobbing grotesqueries.

Jury begins deliberating in trial of men charged with killing Arbery

Kevin Gough, who defended William “Roddie” Bryan, had the audacity to argue that Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, did not have the right to have the Black pastors of her choosing sit quietly beside her in the courtroom as she endured the gruesome telling and retelling of the events leading up to her 25-year-old son’s death. Gough even had the temerity to compare Black civil rights activists to the heads of organized crime.

Video: Mother of Ahmaud Arbery reflects on 'big victory' (Reuters)

Another lawyer, Laura Hogue, had the cruelty to question whether Arbery was even a victim, despite his having been shot by defendant Travis McMichael — a fact that has never been in question. And that same lawyer had such a callous disregard for Arbery’s humanity that she described for the jury his sockless feet as having “long, dirty toenails, ” as if she were offering up an anatomical assessment of some wild animal.

The stockpile of arrogance, ignorance and viciousness is massive. And yet, as Arbery ran through the mostly White neighborhood in coastal Georgia, a state whose recently repealed citizen’s arrest law dated to 1863 and empowered Whites to capture Black men and women fleeing slavery, he carried nothing with which he might have defended himself. He wasn’t running with a knife or a gun or a stick. He didn’t even have his cellphone, said prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. He couldn’t even call for help when the three men — Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and Bryan — followed and cornered him. Arbery jogged along like a man who believed he would be fine. Who had nothing to fear. He had optimism.

As Arbery trial draws to a close, Black Americans again ask if there will be justice

This trial has, as so many others have of late, thrust the darkness of the American soul into the light. It produced a just verdict with all three men found guilty of murder, but the trial also made it clear that this country doesn’t just overflow with an abundance of guns, it overflows with cynicism. Too many people are puffed up on the false belief that simply owning a gun is a testament to their citizenship and authority. To own a gun is to be imbued with the power to serve as a twitchy-fingered sentinel, not just over one’s personal domain but also over that random house down the street and around the corner and in the next town over. For too many civilians, gun ownership rarely means recognizing the danger you present to others. Instead, it often serves as a testament to the danger that cowards see in their fellow man. A gun isn’t a deterrent; it’s an accelerant.

So much fear. So much anger. So much suspicion. And in the middle of it all, there was Arbery, who might have been many things, but who, at least, briefly on that fateful day in February 2020, had enough optimism that he was out in the world without a phone. He was untethered. He was free of news alerts and text messages and calendar notifications. He was moving through the streets without a digital security blanket, a virtual army of contacts, an SOS lifeline. Arbery seemed to be the only person on that day, in this narrative, who did not overflow with fear or concern over whom or what he might encounter. Despite all that it means to be a Black man in America — all the challenges and dangers that they face — Arbery evoked optimism while all around him a storm was gathering.

Identifying danger in the Rittenhouse case

As Dunikoski laid out the state’s case in her final arguments, she noted that the defendants created a situation in which Arbery had every reason to fear for his safety. They were, after all, following him in their trucks and blocking his path. Scaring Arbery was evidence of their culpability in his death even if they were not the person who pulled the trigger. So Gough, trying to punch holes in this notion, had a question: If Arbery was truly afraid, why didn’t he shout for help? Why didn’t he raise his voice in hopes that someone from the surrounding houses would hear him and rush to his aid? It’s a reasonable query.

Why didn’t he call for help? It’s also reasonable to believe that any wailing and crying would only have been greeted by more of what Arbery was already getting. The McMichaels and their neighbor Bryan had appointed themselves representatives of their community. They were the guardians of the hearth. Hogue had argued that her client, Greg McMichael, was simply trying to protect his community from invaders and disrupters and possibly dangerous strangers who go jogging through the streets. His streets. A pessimist might reasonably assume that a cry for help would have gone unacknowledged, that it might even have riled the gang of three.

And so in that moment of truth, in the face of so much weaponry, Arbery ultimately had nothing. Not even, it seems, his optimism.


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