By Julia Demskie, Assistant Editor-in-Chief
On February 23, 2020, the American tradition of murdering innocent black people was observed once again when Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot while on a jog. A video of the incident was released by lawyers for Arbery’s family on May 5, 2020; by the time this incident reached my world, Ahmaud had been dead for 72 days.
I wish I could say I was shocked the first time the video emerged on my Instagram feed, but I have been on social media, and lived in this country for too long to be surprised by such news. How many times had I heard of a black man being killed for just being, for existing in the presence of the wrong white person?
Instead, what I felt was dread. It is impossible enough to grapple with racially motivated murders in instances of police brutallity, but what I found particularly disturbing about Ahmaud’s death was that the crime was commited by ordinary citizens. Arbery’s death quickly became sensationalized, his name intertwined in the chants of protesters throughout the nation during the summer of 2020.
2020 was a year full of hopelessness, isolation, and hardship for everyone, but this was something that ran much deeper than just an unlucky year. Black Americans have been waging this war for much longer, and suffered more pain than I can ever understand. As a young person, I found myself with little power or influence, with outrage I felt I had no outlet for.
Arbery’s murderers, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan, saw the victim jogging through their neighborhood on that Sunday afternoon, and decided that they had sufficient reason to chase him in two pickup trucks and shoot him three times. Those men were convicted of felony murder and federal hate crimes, among other charges, with the conclusion of the November 2021 and February 2022 trials.
Watching these events unfold evoked every emotion from anger, to anxiety, to long awaited joy. It seemed so simple to me that what those three men did was wrong, and that no one should ever be allowed to get away with such evil, but I knew that justice was not always served in cases of violence against black Americans. I had feared that everything so many passionate people had worked and fought for over the course of a year and a half would be ignored.
The announcement of the guilty verdict was a collective sigh of relief and gratitude from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement; victory, in a fight where wins have historically been few and far between.
But why were we so uncertain throughout the trial? Is it not a given that chasing down an innocent person and killing them will have repercussions? Morally, the issue is as clear and concise as seemingly possible. Historically, however, the outcome has not been so consistent with what is just.
What first came to my mind when the news of Ahmaud’s death had gone viral were the similarities in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 by George Zimmerman while walking home to his father’s house from a trip to the store. By just existing in a wealthy Florida neighborhood as a black teenager, Martin was perceived as a threat by Zimmerman, the self proclaimed “neighborhood watch.” Despite the warning of a 9-1-1 dispatcher not to advance on Trayvon, Zimmerman chased him down and fatally shot him.
In both instances, the murderers claimed that they had fired their weapons out of self defense. In both instances, the victims were unarmed.
Both Martin and Arbery had been keeping to themselves at the time of their deaths, and had been doing nothing illegal at all. That is not to say that if they had been committing a crime, they deserved this fate, but it is a fact of each case that further invalidates the self defense claims.
If an individual brings a firearm into a situation where no conflict exists previously, it is obvious that their goal is to instigate some form of violence. For what other reason would a gun be a necessary precaution? The victims had both felt threatened enough to attempt to evade their attackers and avoid being injured. It is undeniable that their sense of fear and danger was palpable; they were taken by complete surprise, and had no means to defend themselves. So how can self defense be a legitimate legal claim made by the only individuals who were armed, and the ones who incited the violence?
To reasonable people, the answer is simply that it is not legitimate. In the eyes of the law, however, it is not always so black and white. Due to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, Zimmerman was not found guilty of Trayvon’s murder, and walked free.
Evidently, being legal is not the same thing as being morally right.
This past ruling is what made me so uncertain of the outcome of the 2021 trial. Having faith that the promise of “liberty and justice for all” will prevail has become all but impossible in a country that has such a devout history of contradicting its supposed core values.
In the end, the defendants’ claims of attempting a “citizen’s arrest” did not hold up against the Georgia jury. But that is not where this story truly ends. As the next generation of Americans, it is in the aftermath of such tragedies that we must do our most grueling work. The doubt ridden nature of this trial is just one example of how desperately the existing justice system needs reform.
Another thing we need to recognize is the role of social media in this call for change. Had the footage of Ahmaud’s death not gone viral, his murderers would not only walk free; they never would have gone to trial.
This is why it is so important, as young people, that we push for these conversations at every opportunity. This is why it is so important to say that being legal is not the same thing as being morally right, but it should be.
It is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the world and the issues that become so apparent in moments like these, but remembering the weight of our voices is the one strength that we can always rely on.
It is our responsibility to observe, listen, and amplify; it is the way in which we will remake the world.