Tony Norman: Chasing down a metaphor

Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

Ahmaud Arbery was a flesh-and-blood 25-year-old when he laced up his shoes for what would be his final run on his last day on Earth on Feb. 23, 2020.

In just a few short hours, he would be chased down and murdered by a Georgia lynch mob on a pitiless suburban road mere minutes from his home. He would end the day silent and unmoving on a slab at the morgue. Demanding answers, his grieving family was told a litany of lies from the beginning.

They were told Ahmaud was killed in the commission of a crime in the middle of the day and that his demise was his own fault for resisting arrest. The victim's family wasn't given straight answers to any of their questions because they would be incriminating.

Confident that the system would protect them, the trio of killers wouldn't break a sweat for another two months. They continued living their lives in the community, quietly basking in their untouchability.

Fortunately, suspicious reporters, skillful lawyers and righteous civil rights leaders prompted by entreaties from the family to figure out what really happened lit a fire under prosecutors.

The fact that all three defendants approved the leaking of a video shot by one of them before they were arrested shows how comfortable they were with the effort of the system to protect them. They assumed the odds of a conviction were slim, because, this is America and they are three white Georgians.

Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan had participated in an exercise of racial and territorial violence with roots in the antebellum period where Fugitive Slave Act-era vigilantism was sanctioned by law.

They were protected by two DAs who recused themselves from the case because they were acquainted with one of the accused killers — Gregory McMichael, 65, the father of Travis, the burly, redheaded 35-year-old who murdered an unarmed Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun.

The elder McMichael is a former investigator for the county prosecutor's office and an ex-cop. His word carried more weight than the video recording of the chase and murder taken by Bryan that ultimately helped to convict them.

The trio spun their midday lynching as a citizen's arrest gone awry. Gregory McMichael insisted that Ahmaud Arbery was the chief suspect in a string of burglaries in the community that were never reported to the police. When he saw the young Black man jogging down the road outside his house with the impunity of a free white man, something inside of him broke. He ran inside his house to grab his gun and to alert his son to get the truck ready for a chase.

As the McMichaels piled into their F-150 Ford pickup with Travis at the wheel, his 12-gauge shotgun by his side and Gregory in the truck's flatbed with a .357 Magnum, they quickly attracted the attention of their neighbor, Roddie Bryan, 52, who joined the pursuit in his Chevrolet Silverado pickup, no questions asked.

For reasons unknown, Bryan decided to film the chase and the lynching. In that way, he was much like the amateur photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who photographed lynching victims surrounded by their smiling torturers under trees and next to bonfires.

In those days, the images were savage keepsakes to be turned into postcards and shared with loved ones who enjoyed having evidence of human blood sport pinned on their refrigerators.

To the three Georgians who pursued Ahmaud Arbery for five minutes on that stretch of road, he wasn't a flesh-and-blood mortal deserving of the presumption of innocence. To them, Ahmaud was a shadow — a projection of their collective fears and moral panics. He was a stand-in for all the undesirables that threatened the integrity of their cul-de-sac of whiteness with blackness and crime.

"There's a Black man running down the street," the elder McMichael told the 911 operator who asked him the nature of the emergency. He believed that the mere sight of a Black man running through any white neighborhood signified enough of a reason to grab a gun and call for backup. His intuition as a Georgia cop had taught him that much.


Within minutes, Travis McMichael would be standing over Ahmaud Arbery's body. Ahmaud was dead after being shot at close range from a struggle that the McMichaels initiated. Even the slurs muttered over his body after the chase were no big deal. What happened to Ahmaud Arbery was simply how Georgia had treated Black people, who were metaphors for generations.

One prosecutor who declined to bring charges early on was indicted a few weeks ago on misconduct charges alleging she used her position to shield the three men. She claimed she saw nothing suspicious about the McMichaels' story, even after viewing the video of the chase.

It was a citizen's arrest. There have been thousands of such citizen's arrests in this country over the centuries, though you can probably count on a few fingers those citizen's arrests truly aligned with just outcomes.

As Ahmaud Arbery strained his lungs to capacity to stay ahead of two pickup trucks chasing him, he probably didn't feel like a citizen who could stop and have a rational conversation with three white men chasing him unprovoked.

Once he couldn't run anymore, Ahmaud stopped to face his accusers, who had a 3-to-1 advantage. At least two were armed. When the burly one jumped out of the truck with his shotgun, Ahmaud Arbery stood his ground. This caused Travis McMichael to "fear for his life" — the circular logic of every racist coward.

They tussled for the gun, according to the younger McMichael. He said he was afraid of the much more muscular man he had chased despite his enormous weight advantage.

Travis McMichael shot Ahmaud Arbery twice in the chest and once in the hand. Still, he sought to portray himself as the victim during his murder trial. While it was true the man he killed was unarmed and had not stolen anything, he had resisted their "lawful" attempts to do a citizen's arrest.

The lawyers representing the three defendants tried to make the jury of nine white women, two white men and one Black man feel that the only thing standing between chaos and the community were the lynchers. Though it was an absurd argument, it had always prevailed in previous lynching trials.

"Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails," Laura Hogue, the attorney for the elder McMichael said, continuing the defense's attempt to dehumanize Ahmaud.

It was the sort of dog whistle that would've gone unremarked upon during an earlier iteration of Georgia justice. Dehumanizing Black people has been the subtext of the state's laws since it was the lynching capital of America at the end of the 19th century.

Another defense lawyer wasn't satisfied with a nearly all-white jury. "It would appear that white males born in the South, over 40 years of age, without four-year college degrees, sometimes euphemistically known as 'Bubba' or 'Joe Six Pack,' seem to be significantly underrepresented," said Kevin Gough, Bryan's lawyer.

After 11 hours of deliberation spread over two days, the jury returned guilty verdicts for all three defendants. Despite a long history stretching back more than 250 years, it was the first time that a white lynch mob had ever been convicted in Georgia — and possibly all of the United States — of killing a Black man.

Ahmaud Arbery is no longer a metaphor who was running down the wrong road at the wrong time. He's a flesh-and-blood person who was lynched in America by men who thought they were a law unto themselves. He was not a demon with long dirty toenails. He was a man, too.

©2021 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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