Why We Must Replace The District Attorneys Responsible For Withholding Justice For Ahmaud Arbery
Even during great tragedy, we know that together we have the power to transform systemic ills.
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Written by By Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice Campaigns for Color Of Change
Black people are familiar with the story of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder; we have endured this terror for generations. Ahmaud was executed in broad daylight. An athlete who was jogging in his own suburban neighborhood in Georgia, he was targeted, followed and shot by Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael.
Supporting families and communities as they demand justice for Black life is the work I do every day at Color of Change, but repetition has not made me numb. Arbery's killing outraged me when it was a local story. The video of his final moments, filmed by a friend of the shooters, was practically unwatchable. As much as I didn’t want to see it, I chose to watch, as I have with countless other videos, because knowing the details of these cases informs the work and strategy of our team as we do the work of creating campaigns that advocate for justice. Still, the constant virality of images of Black death is a secondary trauma and spectacle.
What helps our team is to focus on ways to build long-lasting change while demanding justice in the present. Local prosecutors are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. They have the power to decide who gets charged and with what crime. Unfortunately, they have historically over-prosecuted Black people while letting police and white vigilantes off the hook for violence against us. The story was no different for Ahmaud.
It took 72 days to make an arrest of the McMichaels. Mapping justice in those two and half months means looking at the District Attorneys. Less than a week after the McMichaels shot Ahmaud Arbery, District Attorney Jackier Johnson recused herself. She'd worked with the murderer, Gregory McMichael, who was a former police officer in her Glynn County office. In addition to refusing to do her job, her office kept information from the public, letting the entire month of March pass before finally providing a local paper, The Brunswick News, with requested police records of the shooting.
After The McMichael’s murder of Ahmaud finally became news, a second District Attorney, George Barnhill, refused to press charges against his killers. In his recommendation letter to the Georgia police department, Barnhill sounded more like a defense attorney than a Prosecutor, arguing the McMichaels had acted in self-defense. In a statement, he wrote, “It appears (Travis and Gregory McMichael's) intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law, it is perfectly legal."
On April 13, 51 days after Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23, the case was finally transferred to a third prosecutor, District Attorney Tom Durden. 72 Days after the murder, on May 5, the video of what appears to so many of us to be a lynching, was released. Two days after the video went viral and 74 days after they stalked and shot Arbery, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichaels were finally arrested. During the coronavirus pandemic, a trial could take months to start, and we’ve seen injustice upheld by the courts. Since the arrest, the case has also been moved to a fourth prosecutor and the Department of Justice is considering a hate crimes charge.
So, an arrest isn’t justice. Because we've experienced this kind of racial terror for decades, we know that a lynching is not just the violent act, but the defacto way that public officials, like elected District Attorneys, sanction that violence.
This is the difference between interpersonal racism and systemic injustice.
So, Color of Change is calling on the State Bar of Georgia to intervene for this gross negligence and malpractice. More than 300,000 people have already signed the petition demanding these prosecutors be removed from office. If we are successful at getting the State Bar of Georgia to launch an investigation, then we will be one step closer to long-lasting justice. Already, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has taken notice and announced last week that he asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and federal authorities to investigate how local prosecutors handled the killing. It’s a first step and we need to keep up the pressure so we see follow through.
We've led campaigns that target prosecutors before. It is a strategy that lets elected officials know we will organize to demand consequences when they fail to do their jobs when Black people are the victims of racial terror. When they have demonstrated patterns of protecting the criminal behavior of police who think they are above the law, we organize to have them removed and support the campaigns of candidates who oppose them.
Even during great tragedy, we know that together we have the power to transform systemic ills, with petitions, on social media and with our vote when necessary. For Ahmaud and for every Black person killed by racist people who are protected by the criminal justice system, we will demonstrate this power today.