SAVANNAH, Georgia (AP) – When white men armed with guns chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery As she ran through her neighborhood, few outside of the Georgia port city of Brunswick paid much attention at first.
A year later, as three men await trial for the February 23, 2020 murder, those closest to the 25-year-old black man sought to ensure that Arbery’s death is not overlooked again.
Arbery’s mother filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday accusing the men accused of her son’s death and the local authorities who first responded to the shooting of violating her civil rights. The complaint filed by Wanda Cooper-Jones in the United States District Court seeks $ 1 million. Attorneys for the men accused of killing Arbery say they suspected he was a thief and did not commit a crime.
Members of the Arbery family in Brunswick were expected to join a memorial procession Tuesday night in the Satilla Shores subdivision, where he fell bleeding in the street from three close-range shotgun shots. Other relatives planned a candlelight vigil at a church in Waynesboro, where Arbery is buried in his mother’s hometown. At the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Democratic lawmakers joined civil rights activists to mark the anniversary.
“It’s important to remind people of the origins, when it all started,” said Jason Vaughn, Arbery High School football coach and organizer of the Brunswick event. “For a long time, it was like we were screaming in the dark and no one was listening.”
Immediately after the shooting, police interviewed the men who chased Arbery and let them walk free. The first prosecutor assigned to the case saw no reason to press charges. The Arbery family’s pleas for justice went largely unheard as Georgia and the nation got locked into the coronavirus pandemic.
Arbery had been dead for more than two months when video of the shooting on a cell phone leaked online on May 5 and a national outcry erupted. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and promptly arrested the shooter, Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and neighbor Roddie Bryan on murder charges.
Outrage over Arbery’s murder was still boiling when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, sparking protests across the United States denouncing racial injustice.
In Brunswick, Arbery’s death served as a wake-up call for many residents, both black and white, that they need to be more active in holding elected officials accountable, the Rev. John Perry said. He was serving as the president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter at the time of the assassination. Now he is running to be the next mayor of the city.
“Previously, we elected people to the position and we were confident that they would do the right thing,” Perry said. “The fact that justice was not served in Ahmaud’s situation said that we had to do more as citizens.”
In November, voters angered by Arbery’s death toppled District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Greg McMichael had worked as an investigator for Johnson, whom many blamed for playing a role in the delayed arrests, an accusation she denies.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is calling on Georgia lawmakers to strike down an 1863 state law authorizing private citizens to make arrests.. The prosecutor first assigned to the Arbery case cited the law to conclude the murder was justified.
McMichaels’ lawyers have said they went after Arbery, suspecting him of being a burglar after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They say that Travis McMichael shot Arbery while in fear for his life while fighting for a shotgun. It was Bryan, the third defendant, who took the video of the shooting from the driver’s seat of his truck.
Prosecutors have said Arbery did not steal anything and that he was simply jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain incarcerated without bail.
The anniversary march and memorial run have been organized by the 2:23 Foundation, a group founded by Vaughn and Arbery’s cousin, Demetris Frazier, to fight systemic racism.
The foundation worked last fall to register 18-year-old high school students to vote. Now its members and other local activists are pushing for the creation of a citizen review panel for the Glynn County Police Department, which initially responded to Arbery’s murder.
Vaughn, who coached Arbery at Brunswick High School, said planning the anniversary has been exhausting. For him, Arbery’s murder is still painfully recent.
“You want to make sure you keep Ahmaud’s name alive, but it’s like reading an obituary over and over again,” Vaughn said. It’s like reliving the past all over again. You have to stay strong. “