“Black people know what White people mean when they say, ‘law and order.’” — Fannie Lou Hamer
About two weeks have passed since video footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder spread throughout social media and beyond, resulting in public outrage and a demand for the arrests of his killers. Since then, both Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael have been taken into custody, facing murder and aggravated assault charges for Arbery’s death. While this seems like a step in the right direction, additional videos concerning the Black 25-year-old have recently begun circulating online.
One video apparently shows Arbery entering the garage of a home undergoing construction in Brunswick, on Georgia’s coast. According to a police report, the McMichaels claimed to be following Arbery — eventually killing him — because they suspected the 25-year-old of being linked to several recent home burglaries in their neighborhood prior to his death on February 23rd. This claim is what makes the video showing Arbery entering a house garage relevant to the investigation of his murder. Despite the McMichaels’ assertions, however, local police stated there were no reports of burglaries in the area for nearly two months beforehand. Additionally, the video of Arbery does not show him taking anything from the house under construction.
Adding to the 2020 footage of Arbery’s actions before his death are two newly released videos of him from 2017. One shows Arbery having an encounter with police, in which an officer tries and fails to use a stun gun on him. Though the interaction escalated to this point, he was not charged or arrested for the incident. However, Arbery was not as fortunate in the other video, which shows him being arrested for trying to steal a television from Walmart.
Trials and error
Despite Arbery’s past behaviors, his murder was unjustified. Even if he were a thief, the penalty for his actions should not have been death. Nevertheless, the videos that have circulated showing questionable occurrences in Arbery’s life seemingly paint a different picture. It is no secret that Black people, Black men especially, are considered criminals. This belief has led to the deaths and arrests of several Black men falsely accused of rape throughout US history. Moreover, the fear of being perceived as criminal has stopped many Blacks from wearing face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic, which is still ongoing. Showing the public videos of Arbery engaged in criminal activity or being accused of such may give off the impression that his murder was justified. Some might feel the McMichaels performed a public service, ridding US citizens of a nuisance or threat.
There is no reason for showing footage of Arbery’s past behaviors outside of, arguably, his dealings with the home undergoing construction on the day of his death. Arbery’s activity would have provided more context as to why the McMichaels felt he was robbing houses. However, thieves should not be followed and subsequently murdered by vigilantes. Furthermore, both the video footage and statements from local police in that area seemingly absolve Arbery of any criminal activity.
The aftermath of Arbery’s murder mimics how other wrongfully targeted Blacks have been portrayed by news media in the past. During September 2018, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean in his apartment after mistakenly entering Jean’s residence. Though Guyger was in the wrong, police searched Jean’s apartment and reportedly found 10.4 grams of marijuana. Lee Merrit, the attorney for Jean’s family, felt this search was done to justify Guyger’s actions by portraying the victim as a criminal. On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was killed by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo via chokehold. He was suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Despite Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” while on the ground, which was caught on video, Pantaleo refused to release his grip. He would later be blamed for his own death, with some claiming Garner resisted arrest while others felt his asthma, obesity, and heart condition was the cause.
Lastly, on March 13th of this year 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed in her Kentucky home by plainclothes officers executing a search warrant in a drug investigation just before 1 a.m. Both Taylor and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, both of whom have no criminal history of drugs or violence, reportedly believed their apartment was being robbed since the officers did not knock before entering. Walker, who is a licensed gun owner, grabbed his gun and shot one of the officers in the leg. A lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family stated that the officers in return began “blindly firing” more than 20 shots, striking Taylor multiple times in the process. Walker was subsequently arrested and charged with both assault and attempting to murder a police officer. The arrest of Walker, as well as a claim by Louisville Metro Police Department that officers began shooting after he shot at them first, seemingly criminalized Walker, a law-abiding citizen.
Ultimately, it appears being Black is unlawful. Time and time again, those who are wrongfully killed by police officers and others — as was the case with Arbery — are made out to be deserving of such fate. Blaming the actions of innocent Black people for their deaths is no different from telling a sexual assault victim to wear less revealing attire. Media outlets going out of their way to justify the deaths of Arbery, Jean, Garner, Walker, and countless other Black people, whether consciously or not, continues an ongoing cycle of minimizing Black lives. Instead of revealing details about the personal lives of those slain, why not focus on information relevant to their murder? In Arbery’s case, no other videos should be seen by the public other than that which shows the McMichaels’ crime — though an argument can be made that footage of Black death is also traumatizing.