Ahmaud Arbery Holds Us Accountable
On Sunday morning February 23, 2020, I walked into darkness to the creek behind my home to watch the daybreak, new in all its glory. It’s a habit of mine. The sun rose in streaks of color over the vast spartina marshes somewhere beyond the distant waves, lapping the shores of this barrier island deep in the recess of the Georgia bight where I was raised, where my wife was raised, where her people have been raised for generations as far back as folks can remember — where together we are raising our two young sons. The tide was coming in at that golden hour, creeping across the fecund mud flats, sending fiddler crabs scurrying for cover. By the time Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered on a mainland street that afternoon at the southern end of our county, the tide had fallen again. Our dramatic tidal changes are shocking to those who aren’t accustomed to them. The murky saline water ebbs and flows, rising and falling, pulsing with the ancient rhythms of the moon.
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Ahmaud Arbery was from here. He descended from one of the oldest families in coastal Georgia, one of the oldest families in America for that matter. I know his relatives, personally, and I know their history. As we say in the South, “I know his people.”
As a young graduate student, before attending law school, I studied and documented African American folkways, specifically the 20th century folkways of the Georgia Sea Islands. For almost two years, I walked freely in all-black neighborhoods, knocking on doors, peeking into backyards and empty buildings, introducing myself, generally making a nuisance of myself — and yet, I was always welcomed with a hospitality the likes of which I have not known since. For months at a time, I lived in an electric blue, single-wide trailer on an isolated island in the front yard of one of the families who supported my research and treated me like a son. Together we fished, hunted, and combed the beaches for conchs. We foraged for clams, saltwort, bay leaf, sassafras, wild grapes, wild herbs, and traditional medicines. They taught me sweetgrass basket-making and how to knit cast nets — skills I never quite perfected.
We worshipped and prayed together, ate smoked mullet and deviled crab together, drank cold beer and moonshine together, danced, laughed, and cried together. Mine was a strange white face intruding into their intensely private community, and yet not once did anyone demand me to explain what I was doing there or threaten my life because I was different or because they thought I didn’t belong there. They treated me like a neighbor. Because of the friendship, love, and nurture they gave to me, I know exactly who Ahmaud Arbery’s people are.
We can accurately trace Ahmaud’s roots in the United States directly to the late 1700s when plantation owner Thomas Spalding, purchased captive Africans for forced labor on his rice and cotton plantation on Sapelo Island, the northernmost of the now loosely defined “Golden Isles” of the Georgia Sea Islands, which variously include St. Simons, Sea Island, Jekyll, Cumberland, and the mainland towns of Brunswick and Darien. The community of Hog Hammock on Sapelo is one of the few places left where direct descendants of enslaved people fastidiously preserve many of their West African words, syntax, roots, music, crafts, mythology, and traditions in a distinct Creole culture known as Geechee — a word etymologists believe derives from the Kissi (pronounced Geezee) ethnic group of what today is known as coastal Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
During the War of 1812, Ahmaud’s Geechee ancestors from Sapelo fought for the United States, even as we alienated all of the unalienable rights endowed upon them by their Creator and so extolled in our country’s founding documents. After the Civil War, Ahmaud’s ancestors bought their lands here as freedmen and paddled from the islands to the mainland in hand-hewn bateaus once every year to dutifully pay their taxes. Despite relentless attempts to steal their land, beat them down, and drive them out, Geechees like Ahmaud’s ancestors thrived and settled throughout the Golden Isles and the mainland, living in harmony with this delicate estuarine ecosystem — fishing, hunting, clamming, crabbing, oystering, and farming — for more than a century before the first industrialists showed up to poison our waters with chemical plants and long before the first snowbirds arrived to convert our community into a sun-soaked playground for the rich and the retired.
Ahmaud’s birthright to this particular place is strong. His people’s fight to maintain their ownership of this particular place is resolute. The dignity and kindness and richness of culture that they have imprinted on this place is indelible. And while that doesn’t give him any greater right to life and justice than any other human anywhere, it does highlight the depravity of any argument that white men had a right to confront him with guns and end his life simply because he was a black man who stood his ground in their neighborhood, because he didn’t explain and supplicate himself to them.
But nobody belonged to this particular place more than Ahmaud Arbery.
“There’s a black male running down the street!” a voice shouted to a 911 operator as Travis and Greg McMichael, armed, drove out to block Ahmaud’s path in their pickup truck. How could they — or anyone — really believe Ahmaud’s right to life ended when he entered the neighborhood where they lived?
Satilla Shores sits like a postcard on a picturesque bend in Fancy Bluff Creek on the far southern end of unincorporated Glynn County. Folks in the media have reported the sleepy little neighborhood as being in the City of Brunswick, but it’s actually a few miles outside the city on Highway 82, between Interstate 95 and the Colonel’s Island terminal of the Port of Brunswick where huge cargo ships import thousands of cars from Europe every day. I’ve driven by Satilla Shores many times — mostly on my way to go hunting or fishing — and I’ve always admired the moss-draped oaks hanging over the many docks jutting out from the bluff over the marsh out to the creek, each one with a flats skiff or jon boat moored alongside and crab trap lines disappearing into tea-colored water below. As a kid, I visited Satilla Shores for fish fries at my father’s office manager’s home, where laughter hung in the humid air like the smell of smoke and hot peanut oil. It’s the kind of place anyone would enjoy living. It’s the kind of place where — if you were the jogging type — you’d love to go for a run.
“Running was Maud’s meditation,” one of his high school football coaches, Jason Vaughn, told me as we talked about who Amhaud was and what our community lost when he was taken from us. “When Maud finished playing football, he never finished being an athlete — it was run, run, run — running became his new sport, his new release, his meditation.”
Coach Vaughn repeats that word — “meditation” — drawing out each syllable slowly and deliberately. “And he never got tired … all the years I coached him and ever since he graduated, I never saw him get tired. Not once. His endurance, man, was a thing of beauty.” Vaughn tells the story of Ahmaud Arbery the All-State linebacker, intercepting the ball and running it back 81 yards for a touchdown before strutting back to the sidelines like nothing had happened.
“As a coach, you get to see incredible athletes make amazing plays like that,” Vaughn told me. “But doing it without getting tired, without being out of breath afterward — man, you just don’t see that.”
People around our coastal community say that seeing Ahmaud run through their neighborhood was a highlight of their day — that he smiled and waved at them, and that they looked forward to it because it made them feel better. One mother says that when Ahmaud ran through her neighborhood, he always stopped in the middle of his run to join a basketball game with younger children, playing with them until the kids were worn out. Then, Ahmaud just picked back up on his run and kept going. She tears up, realizing Ahmaud will never run through her neighborhood again.
There is an overwhelming feeling here that we lost someone truly unique and vital to our community when Ahmaud Arbery was taken from us. One of his oldest and closest friendships was with Akeem Baker, who told me, “Ahmaud just had a pure heart and a pure soul. There was no hate in his heart. His happiness came from others being happy.” Akeem worries how he will get along without Ahmaud’s presence in his life and, indeed, how all of us get along without Ahmaud. “He was a person that this world needed.”
His teachers recall Ahmaud as a particularly respectful student, never failing to answer with the Southern address of “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” But they say he was always quick to make them laugh and had a mischievous talent for imitating them with pitch-perfect accuracy at just the right moment to cut the tension.
“His go-to was impersonations of, like, coaches, teachers, and friends,” says Baker. “We used to laugh till our eyes balled up with tears and our stomachs ached.”
Coach Vaughn says, “Whenever I would be real stern — trying to be the stern coach, you know — Maud would stand up and imitate me and sound just like me and move just like me … and then I couldn’t help it but to just laugh. It was like a weight falling off me.”
But when it comes to his teammates and friends, Ahmaud is remembered not only for his skill and endurance and his respectfulness and sense of humor but for his ability to encourage and motivate others.
“What I loved most about Ahmaud was that he held me accountable,” Akeem says. “He never spoke about ‘accountability,’ he just held me accountable.” It was Ahmaud who pushed Baker to study and graduate from prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta and continue on to graduate school at Boston University.
“He was always, always, always pushing his friends and players to be better,” says Coach Vaughn. “He didn’t have to use profanity like some players and coaches do or pitch a fit or anything like that: He’d just look at them. He’d stop and stare at them, and they would straighten up and try harder.”
Once during practice when the team was running wind sprints and struggling to finish together in the allotted time, Ahmaud ran the series of wind sprints out ahead of everyone else and then ran back and “practically dragged one of the biggest linemen you ever saw back across to finish on time,” Coach Vaughn remembers. It’s a particularly astounding image, because the 5-foot-10-inch, 164-pound Arbery was relatively small for a football player and far too small to manhandle a lineman more than twice his weight.
“He was really way too small to play linebacker, you know,” says Coach Vaughn. “But his heart was just so big and his lungs were just so big that he won the position. He had pure endurance like I’ve never seen. We as coaches always try to push the whole team as hard as we can to wear them completely out. But we never could wear out Ahmaud. We finally gave up trying.”
Coach Vaughn says he has tapped into that endurance to get through the pain of Ahmaud’s murder and the fear for his community after local law enforcement tried to sweep it under the rug.
The phrase, “I run with Maud” has become an anthem for change — it was coined by Coach Vaughn who remembered an afternoon shortly before the day Ahmaud was murdered when he was out for a jog and happened to see Ahmaud round the curve, jogging ahead of him. “Here I am lumbering with my 300-plus-pound, big-man jog and I thought I might sneak up and catch him and surprise him. So, I start sprinting behind him, but I never could catch him and even though he was just jogging, I never could catch up to him and he never even realized I was there.” I could hear the deep regret in Coach Vaughn’s voice that he wasn’t able to catch up to Ahmaud that day.
“I started saying ‘I run with Maud’ because I know I don’t have the endurance to run this race by myself. People thought I was saying I was running for Ahmaud, but that’s not it. Ahmaud was running with me. I say, ‘I run with Maud,’ because I’m tapping into his spirit and his endurance to help me outrun this anger, this injustice, and to finish this race; because we have a long way to go before our children are safe. They have murdered our kids before. Now, they have murdered Ahmaud.” He pauses, searching for the breath that escapes him. “And you know as well as I do that they will murder again.”
Inevitably, there will be those confused minds who wish to debate whether “murder” is the right word to use for Ahmaud’s killing: For centuries, white people in America have balked at the use of that word in association with the killing of a black man. Let me put such talk to rest once and for all: Ahmaud was murdered. Period. This is not open to honest debate. While the McMichaels are entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, in both the common sense and in the legal sense of that word, Ahmaud’s death was murder. And it does not take a legal education to draw that conclusion. But as a lawyer and as a law professor, I can say with absolute confidence that even construing every reported fact and every conceivable inference in the McMichaels’ favor, the inescapable conclusion is that the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was cold-blooded murder. At least 24 heavy-gauge shotgun pellets, each as large and as deadly as a single bullet from a rifle or a handgun, were fired into Ahmaud, according to his autopsy report. Among whatever else they may be to their friends and loved ones, the McMichaels are heirs to a long, wicked legacy. White people for centuries have murdered black people, believing they would not be charged for their crimes.
It was April, nearly two months after the murder, when I first heard about Ahmaud’s death. I was lying in bed with my wife, Burch, reading. She was looking at Facebook on her phone and became agitated and began to read to me a long, agonizing plea from Josiah “Jazz” Watts, who grew up on Saint Simons Island playing baseball with me when we were kids and with whom I reconnected in my early 20s through our shared interest in the Geechee culture of our region. Burch read to me Jazz’s Facebook post, begging the world to take notice of his cousin’s murder. There had been only one story in the local newspaper and no coverage anywhere else, he said, and the thing that angered him the most was that even that one report never mentioned Ahmaud’s name.
“Say his name!” Josiah implored.
It haunted me all that night. The next morning, I searched the Internet and found the only news coverage of the shooting; it was a short piece that had run in our local paper based solely upon a grossly misleading police incident report and unjust speculation about the victim — insinuating possible mistakes of his past and dropping uncorroborated hints that he might have been a thief. Nevertheless, it was clear even from that terse first reporting that local law enforcement was at best doing nothing and at worst covering it up.
I immediately began scratching out a letter to the editor of our local paper as my two young sons walked into the room sleepy-eyed in their pajamas and asked me what I was doing. I stopped and explained to them what I had learned about Ahmaud’s murder. Even my young boys made short shrift of the paltry excuses reportedly given by the McMichaels to law enforcement in their ludicrous attempt to justify Ahmaud’s killing.
“It’s like Emmett Till,” my older son said.
“It’s exactly like Emmett Till,” I said. “Maybe worse.”
Turning back to the letter, I wrote that I was “deeply ashamed” for the first time in my life to be from my hometown, signed my name, and pushed the send button.
In the meantime, due to direct entreaties by Josiah Watts to a writer friend of his, Richard Fausset, a New York Times correspondent based in Atlanta, wrote a story asking questions about the murder, and those of us paying attention began to believe there might be a little traction toward justice.
But my letter still had not been published. I texted the owner of The Brunswick News — whom I have known since childhood — and asked him to please be sure that my letter got published as soon as possible, thanked him for giving free online access to his paper during the pandemic, and encouraged him that honest reporting by local newspapers — like his — is vital to our democracy. He enthusiastically promised to publish my letter right away, thanked me for writing it, and assured me that his paper would give critical reporting to the Arbery murder.
One of the most persuasive pieces about the case by any publication remains the April 29 headline — “Dispatcher: ‘What Was He Doing Wrong?’” — printed before the national media storm and before any audible public outcry. In the article, Brunswick News reporter Larry Hobbs made it abundantly and finally clear that there was no articulable reason for pursuing and killing Ahmaud. He printed the entire transcript of a call with a 911 dispatcher who repeatedly asked what Ahmaud was doing wrong and couldn’t get an answer.
The morning my letter was published, I began to get calls, texts, and emails. Some in our community had already heard about the murder and some had not. But every message I received — from black people, white people, liberals, and staunch conservatives — thanked me for speaking up. My response to each one of them was the same: “Please write to the Governor. Please write to the Attorney General. Write to the prosecutor. Use your influence. Demand action.”
The retired principal of one of our high schools sent me a note, “Just took my letter to AG to post office!” My across the street neighbor texted, “TRUTH!” and agreed to send letters to our state officials right away. I heard from lawyers, doctors, ministers, school bus drivers, teachers, chefs, business owners, and even a friend who is a former Miss America. Not one politician I know said a peep. I’ve never had a Facebook account, but my wife’s page got flooded with comments from within our community, proclaiming outrage and demanding justice. Then the video appeared on the Internet, and the world changed.
If you have not seen the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I do not recommend that you watch it. I hunched over dry-heaving when I first saw it.
In fact, you should consider carefully whether to skip the next paragraph, because the last thing I want to do is compound anyone’s grief and pain by writing the details of what the video shows. But, whether or not you read the next paragraph, please understand that I struggled greatly over whether to include it and ultimately decided that just as it has been important for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to document the details about every lynching that has occurred in our nation’s history at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, it is important for the world to know exactly what that fateful video recorded the day Ahmaud Arbery was lynched. EJI volunteers have collected dirt from lynching sites all over the United States, along with the details of each murder, and the Legacy Museum displays the soil from each individual site in a large jar labeled with the victim’s name, the location of the lynching, and the date each person was killed. Some of my law students at the University of Alabama have helped with that project. Because of what the McMichaels did in Satilla Shores on February 23, 2020, yet another jar of dirt now must be added to the shelf. But please know that if you choose to skip over the next paragraph, I understand.
The video shows a young man jogging down the middle of a quiet street, stenciled with the shadows of century-old live oaks. It shows the hood of a truck slowly following the jogging man from the perspective of the person shooting the video. Music from the truck radio plays softly in the background. The video shakes momentarily and there is a sound that some have described as a gun cocking before the video straightens and focuses again. Ahead in the distance another pickup truck awaits, blocking the road. A man stands in the bed of the truck with a handgun, ready to fire on the jogging man as he approaches. Another man with a shotgun steps out of the waiting truck. The jogger tries to proceed on his route by continuing to jog around the opposite side of the truck from the man with the shotgun, but immediately he is halted by a gunshot. The jogger appears again in front of the truck, charging the man with the shotgun. The man in the truck bed frantically points his pistol at the jogger in police shooter-stance. Another gunshot fires. The unarmed jogger desperately hurls a fist at the man with the shotgun as a third gunshot fires. The jogger stumbles weakly and falls face down in the street as the man with the shotgun shrugs him off and turns back to the camera, walking away from the dying man with what looked to me like a swagger. The man in the truck bed hops down to the street, pistol at his side. The radio sings softly. The video goes dark.
Georgia law traces its roots to English common law and holds, like most states, that killing another human being is murder where “no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.” There can be no more apt description of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery than that. And no amount of rank speculation that Ahmaud was in Satilla Shores for some purpose other than a jog that day or on any day prior will change that.
We can’t ask Ahmaud why he was there, because they killed him. There is no evidence that he did anything other than jog in that neighborhood, as he so loved to do, and perhaps stop and look into a house under construction as so many curious people, including myself, have done many times. There has been chatter about a mysterious string of break-ins but only one police report filed for one incident and that is an uncorroborated claim by one of the killers himself. There is no evidence or reason to believe Ahmaud was involved in any break-ins, ever. Regardless, it’s unconscionable to allow the discussion to even turn to what Ahmaud was doing on the streets of Satilla Shores that day when we know exactly what the McMichaels were doing — they were stalking a human being. That fact is undisputed. And there is no act in civilized society more contemptible than that.
Since the video surfaced, the outcry in our community has become deafening. Seventy-four days after Ahmaud’s murder, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation finally swooped in and indicted the McMichaels and began to investigate anyone else who may have been involved. The Georgia attorney general asked the United States Justice Department to investigate the killers’ ties to local law enforcement and potential crimes related to the handling of Ahmaud’s case. Locally, people here began to feel as if the sun was finally shining like midday. They started petitions calling for the resignation or removal of the two prosecutors who declined to indict and began gathering the required hand-written signatures (despite fears of life-threatening coronavirus) to get a new district attorney candidate on the ballot to challenge the incumbent.
I initially wrote that I was deeply ashamed to be from a place “where two men grabbed a shotgun and a pistol, hopped into a pickup, chased a young man down, and killed him in broad daylight.” That abiding shame now has been joined by a deep appreciation for the members of my community, just ordinary people, including some from the McMichaels’ Satilla Shores neighborhood who joined their voices in a chorus of protest. Even some early defenders of the McMichaels apologized and took down their ignorant “good people” and “two sides to the story” social media posts after the video became public. Our community marched on the courthouse demanding justice for Ahmaud and led a nationwide movement to run in his honor. Coach Vaughn challenged people through social media to jog 2.23 miles in remembrance of the day Ahmaud was killed, on the day Ahmaud would have turned 26 years old. People all over our coastal Georgia community and all over the world documented and posted their runs on his birthday, proclaiming, “I run with Maud.” My 9-year old ran his 2.23 miles and said, “Dad, it isn’t enough that we run today; we need to run 2.23 miles every year on Maud’s birthday for the rest of our lives, so we never forget.”
Out of the mouths of babes …
Ahmaud the young man now has become Ahmaud the symbol, and his death has become a moment in history, spawning anew discussions of race and “equal access to justice” — that woefully unfulfilled promise etched atop the marble shrine that hosts our country’s highest court.
Ahmaud Arbery’s cousin Josiah Watts and I have shared countless conversations about how our community failed Ahmaud and his family, about how we allowed insidious racism to permeate the DA’s office and to infect law enforcement’s handling of the case, and about how it is our community’s fault that officers responding to the crime scene approached the McMichaels apparently anticipating a reasonable explanation, even as two killers stood over a body with guns in their hands and the smell of gunpowder still lingering in the air. There can be no doubt that if officers had responded to a scene where two armed black men stood over a body, police would have shot first and asked questions later. It cannot reasonably be disputed that if the McMichaels had been black, they would have been immediately arrested or, much more likely, killed by police on February 23 for their crime — there would have been no chance to explain, and likely no presumption of innocence, no indictment, no trial, just swift and sudden death. Yet, the McMichaels were allowed to take their guns and go home. And while the immediate fault for those actions lies with the people who took them, we as a community and as individual electors idly allowed our leadership to believe that we would accept or expect them to allow this racial killing to go unpunished. That fault lies with us. Worse, the McMichaels’ intimate knowledge of how their crime likely would be treated by local law enforcement most certainly emboldened them to grab their guns that day and pursue Ahmaud. If the McMichaels had believed the police would arrest or kill them for their armed pursuit of Ahmaud, then they never would have left their homes in the first place. Accordingly, if we as a community had not been willfully blind to our institutionalized racism, Ahmaud might still be alive.
One of the most difficult moments for me since the murder has been speaking with Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud’s mother. It was such a disconsolate conversation. Josiah and I talked to her together. He talks to her all of the time. Since the story broke, the media, celebrities, activists, and lawyers have required her attention as she continues to mourn and navigate what to do next. As a member of this community, as her neighbor, I didn’t know what to say. I asked, “What do you want me to do? What do you want me to say? I’ll say or do anything you tell me.” She just said, “He had a spirit. He had such a spirit. He had such a kind and loving spirit.” Then, she trailed off. After an awkward moment where I was too choked up to say anything, she broke the silence, “I wish you could have known him.” I didn’t know how to respond. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. She asked if she could talk to me again sometime. “Yes, ma’am,” I said. And we hung up the phone.
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My phone continues to be jammed with text conversations from concerned friends, both black and white, dissecting and diagnosing the problem, allocating blame and proposing solutions. But everything that can be said about race in America has been said eloquently over and over again by some of the most prophetic voices of our nation. John T. McCartney’s Black Power Ideologies was published 28 years ago; I read it as a college student the year it came out. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read that — it may very well disabuse all of your prior notions of the organized struggle for racial equality in America. Then, go read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, published nearly 60 years ago, wherein a white man chemically changes the color of his skin in a journalistic experiment to see the American black experience through the eyes of a white man and is shocked that he finds it so much dreadfully worse than he ever imagined. Go read John Dollard’s Caste & Class in a Southern Town, published 83 years ago. And lest you begin telling yourself that the age of these prophetic books demonstrates that we’ve moved beyond the problem, then skip ahead to Chapter 15, entitled “White Aggression,” where Dollard writes in anachronistic prose a statement that nevertheless directly informs our understanding of the 21st Century lynching of Ahmaud Arbery:
The only protection the Negro has is the conscience of the individual white man, and, as we know, this barrier cannot be relied upon throughout the whole population. Some white people possess the necessary restraints, others do not. The asocial, sadistic, or psychopathic white person is a real danger, for few of the culture-old restraints on individual aggression apply to his acts against the Negro.
If the voices of dead scholars are too much for you, then read from the living prophets: go read Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound and Cornel West’s Keeping Faith. I had the honor of meeting Dr. West when I was a young, sophomoric sophomore at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and our brief encounter had a profound impact on me. At that moment, I was struck by the sheer verve of the man. He left me starstruck in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been since (and I’ve chatted with Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley, among others). Dr. West called me “Brother James,” choosing my formal Christian name, and even though his habit is to call everyone “Brother” and “Sister,” he does it in a way that makes you feel an immediate and unique familial bond with the man. It’s not a put-on. Brother Cornel has that rare gift that people say the beloved Fred Rogers had of stopping and looking you in the eye and calling you “Neighbor,” focusing on you as an individual, listening only to you, and letting the rest of the world fall away.
Brother West wouldn’t remember me, but I remember him; among my prized possessions is a simple note he wrote to me: “Bro’ James, Stay Strong & Prophetic! In struggle, Cornel.” And while he is a flawed human being like the rest of us, you don’t have to agree with everything he’s ever said or with his economic theories or even his politics to be challenged and motivated by his proclamation in Keeping Faith: “Ordinary people organized can change societies.”
If you’re going to read only one thing to inform your attitude and obligation as an ordinary person toward race relations, go find yourself a Bible and turn to the Gospel According to Mark, chapter 12, verse 31, where you will find this instruction from a first century carpenter, quoting ancient Hebraic law:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater — we are told it is like loving God himself.
We must love our neighbors, and we must expand our narrow definition of neighborhood. Ahmaud Arbery was a member of my community. He was a son, brother, and cousin of one of our own, which makes him by proxy a son, brother, and cousin of mine. He was my neighbor. He was a neighbor of everyone who lives in the Golden Isles of Georgia — including everyone who lives in the neighborhood of Satilla Shores. And in the most cowardly fashion, he was gunned down by angry, confused, depraved men, fueled by hate, emboldened by a flawed sense of entitlement, infected by a culture that glorifies gun violence, and enabled by the apathy and disinterest of the rest of us. I and all of the other people in my community and in this nation failed to protect our neighbor, Ahmaud Arbery. We failed to afford him the same protections that we so richly afford ourselves. In short, we loved ourselves more than we loved him.
But every day the sun rises afresh across our marshes and out across the ocean at the edge of the horizon. The Geechee word for this time of darkness erupting into color and light is “dayclean.” My dear friend and mentor — Cornelia Bailey, one of the former matriarchs of our Golden Isles Geechee community — took me into her home and into her world and taught me to approach every “Dayclean” as a new life unto itself, an awakening to which we are not entitled and for which much is required. As my preacher at St. Luke’s AME church on St. Simons Island says, “It wasn’t the alarm clock that woke you up today. It was God!” There is both a recognition and an obligation in that deceptively simple faith statement. As we demand justice for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, we must not lose sight of the fact we must also seek absolution for ourselves. We cannot bow our heads and call it “tragic” and leave it to the authorities and the politicians who will never protect our neighbors or us unless we require it of them. Rather, we must own responsibility for Ahmaud’s murder and its cover-up as both an individual and collective sin that stains us all. Then, we must humble ourselves by accepting forgiveness and vowing henceforth to do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again.
Jim Barger lives on Saint Simons Island in Glynn County, Georgia with his wife and their two children. Jim teaches White Collar Crime at the University of Alabama School of Law and represents whistle blowers nationwide as a private attorney general on behalf of the United States and the states against corporations that defraud government programs.