I live in the panhandle of Florida, and my local news covers Tallahassee and a large area of rural Florida and South Georgia. Brunswick, where Ahmad Arbery was killed, is our neighboring region. I could drive there in about three hours. When the faces of the men who killed Arbery appeared recently on my news feed, in a short segment between new Coronavirus cases and the weather, I remembered that these were not cops in uniforms, these men are our neighbors.
“If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors.”
Malcolm Gladwell from Talking to Strangers
I don’t run. I don’t even jog. I am a walker, which mainly just means that I wander aimlessly around neighborhoods. When I was 15, I decided that I was chubby, and similar to the way Forrest Gump stood up, ran out of his front yard, and then across the entire country, I walked out of my house, down my driveway, and out of my neighborhood. I walked across the nearest main road and entered another neighborhood—a much nicer and more expensive neighborhood, where the houses are set so far apart, and with such established landscaping, that on foot you can often only see one house at a time. Unlike my little neighborhood, this fancier neighborhood has a hilly loop, a canopy of shade, and an active neighborhood watch. I know this because I read that information on a sign as I walked off the main road, not because anyone ever questioned me for being there.
I have been walking ever since. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I would drive to another part of town, park my car in a lot that said, “No Parking”, and then walk into a nearby neighborhood. It had great hills and the houses were charming and eclectic. It was one of those neighborhoods where young families who were just starting to make good money lived next door to empty nesters. I walked here regularly for two years—as a complete stranger. Some days, if it was especially hot, I would dip into a yard to get hit by the sprinkler. Maybe put my hands out and wait for the spray of cool water and then splash it on my face. On the way back to my car, I would often go into the office complex where I had illegally parked to sip from the water fountain and use the bathroom.
I have also lived in South Georgia. For most of the year in South Georgia, it is so hot that walking at any time when the sun is actually shining is not something people do voluntarily. I have had people offer to give me a ride because they do not understand that I might be out walking around on purpose. One day as I walked through a neighborhood, I started to feel lightheaded. I was hungover. It was 90 degrees. I stopped at a house with a car in the carport and sat on a ledge—on their property—but near the street. I sat for about 15 minutes looking haggard, red faced, and sweaty. I looked like a hungover loser who was about to pass out on the side of the road. I actually hoped someone might notice me so I could ask them to drive me home. A few cars drove by, the homeowner never came out. He did not call the cops about the woman in his driveway.
Some of my time walking in South Georgia was through a cemetery, located adjacent to a part of town with a higher population of Black residents because white people do not like fields of dead bodies in their own neighborhoods. I walked hundreds of miles, weaving through a maze of headstones on narrow paved streets. I considered the cemetery a safe choice because I have always, even as a woman walking alone, considered my biggest danger to be getting hit by a car. The cemetery had very few cars. I rarely saw any people. There were a few groundskeepers who would nod as they drove by in work trucks, and I would wave and smile back. Then one afternoon, a truck pulled off the main road and drove next to me as I walked. It was an older white man, he rolled his window down and told me I should not walk in this cemetery. That it was dangerous. There could be dangerous people.
I looked around. This man, who chose to change his route, to turn into this cemetery to warn me about dangerous people, was the only person I could see.
I recently watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery, as he walks into the home under construction. I watched this particular video with a certain kind of familiarity. There are people who view this video and painstakingly relate to the danger of being a Black man. There are also individuals who watch this video and relate to the white man who called the police and other neighbors for back up because he viewed Arbery as a dangerous threat to his community. I related to Arbery as someone who exercises out on neighborhood streets.
As I watched the video of him outside the construction site home, I noted how he contemplates going inside. The hesitation. There are probably countless black citizens who watch him walk in that house and think, you know that is a bad idea. As a white woman, I am infinitely more protected, and I am not trying to commodify our experiences, but I have probably done this with the same hesitation. I would be worried about getting in trouble or putting myself in danger, as a woman walking alone. But also, I would be thirsty. I would have gone in too. And as we see from the owner’s videos, other people—white people, a couple and some kids—go inside the site. The cops are not called on these other trespassers.
Once inside, he looks around probably because he knows what he is doing is a little dangerous. There is evidence that perhaps he goes to the back to get water at a dock. Then there is video of him standing back inside, hands on hips. As I watched this I thought, he is getting his heart rate down. Cooling off. His back is clearly covered in sweat. On February 23, 2020 the high temperature in Brunswick, Georgia was 63 degrees. That is not exactly heat stroke weather, but Arbery was running at 1:00 pm, the hottest part of the day, especially in February before the start of Daylight Savings Times. The sunset—that Arbery would never see—would occur by approximately 6:30 p.m. Also, he had likely already run about two miles—the reported distance from his mother’s house to this site.
When he leaves the construction site, he takes off running because that is what he was already out doing. Arbery did not know at this point, that a neighbor has already called 911 to report him, “A Black guy, white t-shirt.” The caller also alerts his fellow neighbors to help apprehend this neighborhood interloper. Now there are two trucks, three men—at least two of them armed—and a 25-year-old jogger who winds up shot and bleeding out right there on the street.
I am not an expert on Georgia law, although I know enough to understand that chasing someone down in a vehicle and yelling for them to stop should void the ability to claim that the shooter felt threatened. Also, I am not an expert on citizens’ arrest law, although I know Georgia has one, and I also know it does not state that the citizen may shoot the supposed perpetrator. Also, the citizen only has a right to hold someone who he thinks has committed a crime if it is a felony. If you are wondering if trespassing is a felony in Georgia—it is not.
As I have rewatched the video of Arbery in the construction site, I think about what the white man on the street saw, the man who initially put the entire crime into motion, a man wearing overalls. I think about it as like in a novel where the same scene is told by a different narrator. He saw a Black guy in a white t-shirt. That was enough for him. Also, what is not often mentioned is that these men made an ignorant assumption. They were being dumb. And they have guns. It is a dangerous combination.
Then I thought about the perspective of the people who have defended the men who killed Arbery, especially on social media. What do they see as they watch these same videos? Perhaps they view Arbery’s clothes and don’t see him as a jogger. He does not look like the runners we see on television. He is not wearing expensive athletic gear. Maybe he just felt like going for a run, in whatever he was wearing. We accept that Forrest Gump just got up and ran in a button down and khakis, but for Black citizens, a white t-shirt and long shorts are a dress code violation. So are hoodies. What is the proper attire required for a Black man to walk through your neighborhood?
When the video was released and the public outcry led to arrests finally being made, that was the start of a tiny sliver of justice for Arbery’s family, but the only way to keep other innocent people from being killed is for all white people to make an effort to change the way we see Black citizens. Thinking about the case in Texas with the female cop who shot Botham Jean in his own apartment: if she had opened the door to what was not actually her apartment and saw a white woman sitting on what was not actually her couch, would she have shot that woman? Probably not. It might have been more like when a woman walks in on another woman in a public bathroom, it’s fine.
The death of Ahmaud Arbery was a battle between neighbors. So was the case of Botham Jean. Why wouldn’t someone recognize a person who lived so near to them? Maybe because white and Black citizens are walking through the streets of America in parallel universes. As I watched the man calling the police about Arbery and then looked at him driving in his truck, he reminded me of the man who stopped me in the cemetery. When that man warned me that I could be in danger, I was a 40-year-old adult woman walking in broad daylight. Why did he feel entitled to try to protect me? It was almost as if he wanted a dangerous person to appear because that supports his narrative.
That scenario also maintains his proximity to power. White people benefit from the myth of the dangerous, armed black man. We benefit by being able to walk down the street without being murdered, no matter what we are wearing, but also because as long as systemic racism continues to thrive, we have better access to jobs, networking, generational wealth, public education, housing, access to healthcare.
The truth is that Black citizens are less likely to be armed than white citizens. About 35- to 40% of white Americans own guns, compared to between 20 to 24% of Black Americans. Also, Black people in America only make up about 13% of the population. White men are more likely than any other group to be gun owners. Statistically, it is much more likely that a white man is armed than a Black man is armed, and there are many more white men than Black men in America. If people understood these facts, then maybe people would not feel so threatened by the presence of a Black person. Unless, the violence is not just a reaction to unbiased fear.
As a country, we are keeping this bias alive, like a four-hundred-year-old sourdough starter, passed down through generations. We still teach racism in our schools. Slave Owner is bolded in our textbooks in the same manner as Inventor or Astronaut. It is a title, not a condemnation. The way we teach American history occasionally borders on sympathy for the people who were enslaved, but rarely do our texts promote shame for the people who owned slaves. Classroom lessons about slavery promote racism more than they denounce it. Before my son started lessons on slavery in early elementary school, in a school with a 50% Black student population, he used skin color only as a way to describe someone if he did not know their name. “The kid on the monkey bars, the one with the red shirt and the brown skin.”
In January, every elementary school kid in America comes home with their report on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Often it is a cut out of the shape of his head with important facts about his life and most importantly, he is clearly labeled in the handwriting of all of our children as “non-violent”. Teaching our kids that if Black Americans want equality, it is best not to be too aggressive. Of course, King was arrested more than 30 times. His most famous written work comes from his time in Jail, and he was assassinated at age 39. Every January, our kids are also taught that even nonviolent protest of racism will not be tolerated in America.
We can tear down statues, we can remove the confederate flags, we can defund the police, but it is like chasing fire ants around the yard. We eliminate one mound and another pops up a few yards away. From slavery, to segregation, to redlining, to education discrimination, to police brutality, to prison pipelines, to voter suppression—these are all methods created by people, like ants working diligently little by little, to keep racism intact. While we the people are working to dismantle racism, we the people are working to strengthen its foundations.
Then we the people end up on the same street. In broad daylight.
We are all neighbors. I have spent considerable time trying to end this essay—to land the plane. I have typed a bunch of bullshit and then deleted it. Racism in America cannot be tidied up into a conclusion, especially not by me. I can only observe what I see in our neighborhoods. I will keep writing and walking and trying each day to learn how to be a better person. I will try to remain hopeful that we the people can rewrite this conclusion.
In the meantime, if you see a hungover lady walking in a cemetery, just wave hello, and if I pass by your house, feel free to spray me with the hose.
***When I first started studying the story of Ahmaud Arbery, I thought maybe the original police report showed a different portrayal of events and that is why there were no immediate arrests, but it does not. This is a link to the original police report.
This New York Times video is well produced and adds graphics to demonstrate what happened in the time between Arbery walking into the construction site and dying on his neighborhood street.
This is the letter from District Attorney, George E. Barnhill recusing himself and advising no arrests necessary.