White justice, Black lives and the story of Ahmaud Arbery

OPINION: The sentencing of the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery to life in prison is a rare exception that proves America has a two-tiered system of justice.

Ahmaud Arbery thegrio.com
In this 2012 file photo provided by Yolanda Richardson, of FuzzyRabbit Fotos, Ahmaud Arbery poses for a senior photo on St. Andrews Beach, Jekyll Island, Ga. (Yolanda Richardson/FuzzyRabbit Fotos via AP, File)

On Friday,  Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced 66-year-old Gregory McMichael and his 35-year-old son Travis McMichael to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, earned a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for his part in the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. 

The end.

That concludes the story you have been hearing about since an impromptu three-man lynch mob chased Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Ga., and killed him. Some outlets may add context and color by explaining the recent rash of robberies in the neighborhood where Arbery died. They will say he “died” not that he was “shot three times.” They might say he was jogging but not that he was unarmed. Then again, the fact that there were only three burglaries or that they took place months before unarmed Arbery was killed is inconsequential. In white stories, three is “several.”

To the casual observer, it seems like this murderous gang of life-stealers who snuffed out Arbery’s physical existence got exactly what they deserved. Some might even consider this the end of the Arbery family’s quest for justice, which is a reasonable expectation, except for one thing. 

Ahmaud Arbery is not alive.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was a human being who lived and breathed. He had a mother, a brother and a sister who were also human beings. One day, when Ahmaud Arbery was living and breathing in a place where other people existed, a man decided that people who looked like Ahmaud did not belong in the place where he was blatantly existing as an alive human being. The man called his son and a neighbor, who all agreed that Arbery—who was as educated, as innocent and as alive as they were—should answer for his existence, so they grabbed machines made for killing things.

The only difference between Arbery and the men who were chasing him was the color of his skin and the history of America—a place where white men can hunt and kill Black people without cause. Arbery had not committed a crime. He had not stolen a thing. But Ahmaud Arbery began to change. He became a Black thing; his hunters became white. Arbery ran from the men who chased him with killing machines, and when he couldn’t run anymore, the men changed again. They were no longer as innocent as Ahmaud Arbery. The killing machines worked just as they had been designed to do. But, because they were in America, they were not yet killers. Ahmaud also changed. 

He was no longer as alive as he once was.

After the born-again murderers used their death tools to change their unarmed prey into a formerly alive human being, the people who were supposed to protect the life and safety of people like Ahmaud Arbery arrived on the scene. They helped Arbery’s killers change Ahmaud once again. They changed him into a criminal. They changed him into a thief. They reduced him to a Black thing so dangerous that white people believed the men who used killing machines to kill a person were not killers. They were heroes. They were alive. They were white. 

Then, they went home. 

Ahmaud Arbery
A demonstrator holds a sign at the Glynn County Courthouse as jury selection begins in the trial of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery on Oct. 18, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The person whose job it was to prosecute killers concluded that the men who killed a human being were not worthy of being labeled human-being killers—even though there was footage of them killing Arbery. The prosecutors did nothing. The other police officers did nothing. The judges did nothing. The white people in the neighborhood did nothing. In fact, they felt safer living in a neighborhood with human being-killers than they felt knowing a Black man who was not a thief was living and existing in their neighborhood. 

Ahmaud Arbery was still not alive. 

When human beings who looked like Ahmaud Arbery found out about the story, there was literally nothing they could do except ask that someone else decide whether or not the killers were actually killers. Through a set of extraordinary circumstances, the men were arrested and charged with killing a human being. And, even though they saw footage of the lynching, most people did not know if the men who killed a human being with machines made for killing would be found guilty of killing a human being. 

“Sentencing does not generally provide closure,” explained Judge Walmsley. “But closure is hard to define and is a granular concept. It’s seen differently by all depending on their perspective and the prism of your lives.”

Ahmaud Arbery was still not alive. 

The fact that so many people who watched footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder are shocked that these killers received sentences fit for murderers is an unflattering testament to the two-tiered justice system in America. We live in a country where white people get slapped on the wrist for attempting to overthrow the entire system of government and Black people are shot in the face for protesting the police officers who shoot Black people in the face. We live in a country where presidents, senators, congressmen, gun-toting teenagers and regular-degular white people in rural Georgia can elude justice simply by refusing to comply. They don’t have to explain why their toenails are long or they own killing machines. They don’t even have to run. 

Apparently, all it takes to convict a white murderer of murder is a chorus of Black voices pointing out injustice, a prosecutor who is willing to override another prosecutor, a three-week trial, two years, video evidence, surveillance video, a defense attorney who is allergic to Black preachers and a not all-white jury.

Ahmaud has a new home now. His killers do, too. They will likely serve the rest of their lives in prison. With or without parole, they still have life.

And from now until the end of the infinite unwinding of time, Ahmaud Arbery will not be alive.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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