The lasting trauma of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting

Before going for an occasional jog, Akeem Baker makes sure to wear something shiny. Traces a familiar course through neighborhoods where he is known. And he looks up at the sky and nods to his best friend, Ahmaud Arbery.

The ritual is painful for Baker. He finds it disconcerting that he is forced to follow a list of precautions reserved only for black runners to preserve their safety. It also hurts because it was the tragic murder of Arbery – his friend since they were 6 years old – in Brunswick, Georgia, a year ago that unleashed security measures, which he did not impose before February 23.

Ahmaud Arbery in a family photo.Courtesy of the family

“I used to run for health reasons,” said Baker, a 2016 Morehouse College graduate. “Now I run for a sense of therapy, like I’m chasing some kind of freedom.”

Baker’s life and running inspirations were changed when Arbery’s sister called him while he was in New York, the night his brother was chased in a pickup truck, shot and killed while running. Two white men await trial. A third man, who was also arrested, recorded the shooting on cell phone video.

“Since February 23, 2020, I think of my friend and pray that his life has not been in vain,” Baker said. He met Arbery on an elementary school bus and they quickly became friends for the next 20 years.

He said he was “stunned” when he read a text message from Arbery’s sister, who shared what she was told at the time: the false information that Arbery had broken into someone’s home and been killed. “I cried all night in the bathroom,” Baker said. “They broke my heart. And I’m still in bad shape.”

Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael chased Arbery, who had stopped during his jog to wander inside a home under construction in their neighborhood, prosecutors say.

The image is lodged in the brains of black runners who spoke to NBC News: Arbery, 25, tripped before crashing to the ground after being shot.

Kevin O. Davis running in Washington, DCCourtesy of Kevin O. Davis

“His tragic death changed everything for black runners,” said Kevin O. Davis, a member of the Plano Running Club in Texas, which has 2,000 members, almost all white. “I’ve changed everything. I’ve seen people in their car slow down as I run and look in the rear view mirror to make sure I wasn’t breaking into their house. I’ve come across white women screaming just because they see me running for them.

“Once when I stopped running at a stoplight this white guy rolled down his window and sprayed insecticide on my face, for no reason. I thought I was going blind.

“But Ahmaud Arbery is something different, something horrible. So I don’t jog as much when it’s dark, and when I do I make sure to wear reflectors. I’m nervous about running in black jogging clothes,” he said. . “Everything is different. We have to be aware of ourselves.”

Black runners also make adjustments for safety, said Kim Backey of Buffalo. Backey, an avid runner who takes to the streets even in the snow, took Arbery’s death as a signal to change her jogging patterns.

“We as black runners have to worry about what we wear and where we go,” said Backey, 55. “Now I wear brighter colors. I have told my kids not to wear a hoodie because they will be judged. Now I have to take my own advice when I go out and run, and it’s a shame.

Kim Backey running in the Buffalo snow.Courtesy of Will Holton

“We have to run smart, but at the same time we shouldn’t have to give up our running freedoms because of our race,” he said.

With that thought and the spirit of Arbery in mind, the 2:23 Foundation was established last year to raise awareness of the shooting and advocate “to help young men and women follow paths to help avoid similar occurrences and instances of injustice. “. The group, which has more than 82,000 followers on Facebook, has scheduled a 2.23-mile national run in memory of Arbery on the anniversary of his death.

Tyrone Irby, owner of The Choice Fitness and Sports Performance Center in Durham, North Carolina, has memories that help him understand the fear Arbery felt a year ago. Irby said that growing up in Brooklyn, New York, two young white men chased him after he missed the school bus home. “They were yelling at me while I was running,” he said. “I ran fast enough to avoid them. But I remember the fear I felt and I can only imagine what Ahmaud felt.

“As black runners, we have to keep our eyes in the back of our heads. It’s part of being black in America. It’s sad to think that every day we have to think about the shoes we wear, the times we run, the colors. What to choose, where to run. And now, during a pandemic, wearing a mask, wearing a hoodie, running at 6 am … can be problematic. “

Tyrone T. Irby and Crystal Irby wear shirts honoring Ahmaud Arbery.Courtesy of Tyrone T. Irby

But it hasn’t stopped Irby and others from continuing to hit the pavement and raise awareness about Arbery’s death. He created #TogetherWeStandNC, a group that sparks discussions about race, with the Arbery murder as the topic of conversation.

Irby, a member of the huge social media group #RunWithMaud, has more than 100 runners committed to another race in Arbery’s memory: the virtual Maud 2.23 race on Tuesday 23rd is sponsored by Fleet Feet Carrboro, a clothing company in Durham.

“Everyone should be safe when they run. But that’s not the case,” Irby said.

He added: “When I leave the house at 3 am, I have my registration handy in my car, my identification handy, and I handle the speed limit. Now we have to take similar precautions when we run. Every day is an emotional cost. pay to be black. We have to be aware. It’s a bad way to live. “

For Dr. Terrell Holloway, a black psychiatrist at Yale University, Arbery’s murder will resonate.

“It’s fascinating because we think about the trauma and stress of soldiers in a combat situation,” Holloway said. “But what about the stress of … what happened to Ahmaud Arbery? It’s about how you process a situation that impacts you. But the fact that black people have those kinds of instances and thoughts of ‘it could happen to you ‘speaks of the prominence of racism. “

Baker said the trauma of Arbery’s death prompted him to seek counseling. Every two weeks he visits a therapist to help him cope. “It’s been a lot,” he said. Kobe Bryant “died on my birthday; I was a huge fan. Less than a month later, my best friend died. Ahmaud was my go-to person.”

Augustus Turner, 37, a commander of the Army stationed in Madison, Alabama, wrote about the psychological trauma of Arbery’s murder in a Facebook post that went viral. It said, in part: “Sometimes in the back of my head, I think foolishly to myself: I’m just a running black man!

“Why would someone shoot me just because I am black and unfamiliar? I am a former EMT. … I have been a licensed attorney and active duty military officer for nine years. I have represented and assisted over 60 victims of sexual assault. ” .. I helped justify the destruction of hundreds of enemy targets in Iraq. I have cleared the names of wrongfully convicted criminals. Who would want to hurt me?

“Well, none of that matters because … I’m still a jogging black man. If I scare the wrong white person, or match the description of a threatening person … I don’t become any different from Ahmaud Arbery.”

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Turner said he did not intend to publish about the shooting. But then he saw the video.

“I only got to see it once,” he said. “Having to protect ourselves from being killed just for jogging … takes another portion of our lives away from us. We have to constantly live in fear or be vigilant. I have taken seriously my wife’s concerns about me running alone. She had always done this fear. So now I propose to go for a walk around the neighborhood with my family so that people can see that I am a husband and a family man and not a threat. Maybe they will remember me. Maybe. “

Backey, who wept upon watching the video of the shooting, said: “As a runner, I understand how Ahmaud would stop and look inside a house that is being built. That’s what we do, we take our surroundings. Running is freedom. I recently took one. different route in my career and I stopped and thought about Ahmaud. And I said, ‘Let me get out of here.’ It shouldn’t be this way. “

And yet few brokers expect it to be any different soon. Arbery’s life and especially her death will resonate for quite some time.

“Ahmaud and I ran a lot together,” Baker said. “He kept a better pace than me, but he always encouraged me and pushed me to try harder. He might have dark skin, but he was the brightest light. His smile and energy were always bright. And we have to make sure that people always I know that “.

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