The Current

Shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery shows 'culture of complicity' akin to lynchings, says activist

Ahmaud Arbery was an unarmed black man out for a jog in February, when he was chased down, shot and killed by two men. On what would have been Arbery's 26th birthday, we discuss why it took months — and intense public pressure — to bring charges.

'In 2020, we got black blood still draining in our streets': James 'Major' Woodall

Ahmaud Arbery was killed while out jogging in Georgia, on Feb. 23. (Marcus Arbery/Handout via Reuters)
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A civil rights advocate says the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man out for a jog in Georgia, shows some things haven't changed since Billie Holiday sang of lynchings in Strange Fruit.

"We have a culture of complicity in black violence that continues to allow — as the 1939 song says — that we've got 'strange fruit still hanging from poplar trees,'" said James "Major" Woodall, president of the Georgia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

"In 2020, we got black blood still draining in our streets," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Arbery was shot and killed while jogging in a neighbourhood outside the port city of Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, after an armed father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, pursued him in a truck.

"If this could happen to him, I'm afraid it could happen to anybody," Woodall said.

There are calls for criminal charges after video was released of the fatal shooting of a black man in Georgia after he was accosted by two white men who claim they thought he was a robbery suspect. 1:56

Following the killing, Gregory McMichael told police they had suspected Arbery of being a burglar, and no arrests were made. 

"We've got children who are in the parks who could be shot dead, because somebody is 'afraid for their life,'" Woodall said.

Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for Glynn County, recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael worked as an investigator in her office before he retired last year. A second district attorney, George Barnhill, wrote to police that he saw no grounds for arrest.

This week, a video purporting to show the incident was posted online, leading to a public outcry. The McMichaels were charged with murder on Thursday.

Woodall says the charges were the first step toward justice, but he also wants both district attorneys in the case to be removed.

"Ahmaud was murdered like a dog … and they should have been arrested immediately," he said.

A black man running becomes a criminal act.- Carol Anderson

He also wants a drive to get people in the community registered to vote, so that they can elect officials that represent their interests.

"That's what justice looks like, and we won't stop until we get it," he said.

Running while black 'will get you killed'

Gregory McMichael's statement to police that he thought Arbery was a burglar speaks to "the criminalization of blackness," said Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

"The fact that he was black and in that neighbourhood, automatically made him criminal," said Anderson, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

"A black man running becomes a criminal act," she said, and one that "will get you killed."

Demonstrators carried signs and called for justice in the shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed on Feb. 25 in Brunswick, Georgia. 0:37

What that means is that "our lives are always so precarious, because [in] the normal, routine, mundane things that everybody does, we become suspect," she said.

"The stress of that, the reality of that is mothers and fathers tell their children, be careful, be careful, be careful."

On Friday and what would have been Arbery's 26th birthday, activists are encouraging people to go out for runs and post about it online.

Woodall said he welcomes the pictures, videos and art being created in Arbery's memory, but also wants people to take it a step further.

"We're asking everybody to not only celebrate Ahmaud, but also commit to eradicating white supremacy in every shape, form and fashion," he said.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Samira Mohyeddin.

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