Today, people all around the country will be walking, rolling, and running 2.23 miles in honor of Ahmaud Arbery.
Ahmaud was murdered on February 23–hence the 2.23 miles–by the father-son vigilante duo, Greg and Travis McMichael. They thought he matched the description of a burglary suspect.
That was enough for the McMichaels to rob Ahmaud of a his life.
Today is Ahmaud’s 26th birthday. And while we run a solemn 2.23 miles together, something will be weighing on my mind: Ahmaud Arbery will not get justice because the criminal justice system isn’t designed to give it to him.
Our “criminal justice system” rarely does its job justly.
Especially for black men killed by white men in a “stand-your ground” state like Georgia.
Do we really believe that a state that built its economy on the backs of slaves would build its legal system to serve their ancestors?
The laws in the state of Georgia–and the systems in place to enforce those laws–have been both thoughtfully and ignorantly designed to believe that justice is being served, even though we don’t even know what justice means. We have to understand that this system is hundreds of years old.
It was brought here on ships from a country that often persecuted the very people who carried them.
Once it arrived on the shores of North America, the laws and systems were gradually altered by people who held African slaves. If they didn’t hold slaves, they often held racist beliefs that were put forth by religious leaders, business leaders, and scientists at the time. Primarily, that Africans were beasts.
The tools of suppression slowly shifted throughout the centuries, but the suppression of black people never went away.
The tool of choice today is our criminal justice system.
We march, walk, roll, and run 2.23 miles as we cry out for justice. But what are we asking for?
Is justice about equality? Fairness? Getting what we deserve? Or getting what we need?
If justice were about equality, then we’d see justice reflected throughout the entire system. We wouldn’t see the outrageously unequal outcomes that it produces for different races. The prison population would have a population that better matched the country’s population. Our judges and lawyers would reflect that too. But black and brown people outnumber white people in prisons, and there are hardly any black lawyers, especially black prosecutors.
Is justice about fairness? Is it about getting what we deserve? How about what we need?
Let’s think about this through the eyes of Ahmaud.
What would be fair to Ahmaud? It’d be fair to live. What does Ahmaud deserve? Ahmaud deserves to live. What would Ahmaud need today? He’d likely need a nice jog and a birthday celebration.
Can we give any of those forms of justice to Ahmaud? Of course not, because now Ahmaud is beyond our futile reach of justice.
Justice for Ahmaud must mean that we work for a criminal justice system that doesn’t criminalize black boys the minute they learn to walk.
Justice for Ahmaud must mean that we tirelessly run towards a criminal justice system that never puts law enforcement (or ex law enforcement) on the same “team” as the DA’s.
And Justice for Ahmaud must mean that we fight for a criminal justice system that fully recognizes that “standing your ground” as a black person is more difficult and more dangerous than it is for two armed white men who believe that any black male could fit the description of a burglar.
The McMichael duo believed Ahmaud Arbery matched a description of a burglar. What do burglars look like?
In the police report, Greg McMichael stated that Ahmaud matched the description of someone caught on a security camera committing a break-in in the neighborhood.
To The McMichaels’ minds, what do burglars look like?
The McMichaels probably believed they were doing the right thing. Most vigilantes believe themselves more than they believe the reality. The reality is that in virtually every moment of every day, crimes are not being committed. But when vigilantes sniff even a hint of “justice,” it becomes impossible for them to resist.
In the moments that led up to Ahmaud’s murder, The McMichaels had many chances to understand and change their reality.
They had the upper hand, after all. The McMichaels were in a truck, while Ahmaud only had running shoes to carry him. The McMichaels had weapons, while Ahmaud had only his running shoes to protect him. There were two McMichaels, while there was only one Ahmaud. But the most important advantage The McMichaels had over Ahmaud wasn’t anything tangible like a truck, weapons, or each other.
The McMichaels’ most formidable advantage was that Greg McMichael had relationships with law enforcement. That’s because he had just retired from the system.
That fact dramatically changes the way the McMichaels could measure risk and reward. When you know the system and believe you can’t be touched by it, then you act untouchable.
That’s when it makes sense to chase a jogger down who looked like every burglar you have ever fantasized about bringing to justice.
Now Ahmaud Arbery’s face will match the description of yet another murdered black man, convicted of a crime in a vigilante’s mind.
And this story will follow an all-too-familiar pattern:
- The facts will be gathered haphazardly (like they were).
- The video comes out (like it has).
- The video contradicts the official account (which it appears to have done).
- The camps will form, and you’ll see gatherings supporting the murdered black man (like the run).
- The people who support the shooter(s) begin to put their case together. They’ll separate the killers’ actions from their “right to self-defense.” They’ll begin to lump in issues about gun rights, then put their stakes in the ground. They will continue to look at black people with suspicion. Their arguments will justify their fears.
- The conversation will begin to take racists undertones.
- People will await the grand jury’s decision.
- There will be hope that this time is the last time. That this time they’ll get it right.
No matter what happens, there’s an ugly truth awaiting us.
In every possible version of the outcome, there will be more Ahmaud Arberys and more Greg and Travis McMichaels. At least for the foreseeable future.
Ahmaud Arbery could be swallowed by the shadows of injustice. But we don’t have to lose him to the darkness.
We don’t have to lose him to the collage of all the other unarmed black men who have fallen, many of whom we know but many of whom we don’t.
We can choose what to illuminate despite the shadows. We can choose what to do, despite the rigidity of the system.
Movements that lead to change have many components. Chances are that if you care about justice, then you are already one of those components. Don’t ever get tired of marching, walking, or running towards a better system.
The system can change, but hearts and minds must change first.
Lady Justice holds a scale and a sword. She wears a blindfold.
How can she see if the scale is tilted in the wrong direction if she’s in darkness? How can she know that her swift, heavy sword brings the correct type of justice if she’s blinded?
I don’t believe that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that Ahmaud’s jog was pre-destined to be his last. And I don’t believe that he became a martyr because we needed yet another martyr.
However, now that he’s become one, you and I have a responsibility to remove Lady Justice’s blindfold.