Our criminal justice system has reached a horrifying new peak of racism. We have required the public to witness the brutal shooting and lynching of a black man for his death to receive recognition.
America has indoctrinated the need to capture black people being killed on film — from hangings in the nineteenth century to modern-day shootings — in order for their deaths to be perceived as legitimate. It appears that, until and unless everyone has seen the death of an innocent black person, they will not be deemed worthy of justice in the U.S.
On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man, was attacked and shot to death while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, by two armed white men in a pickup truck. The next day, Waycross district attorney George Barnhill, whose son had previously worked alongside one of the charged murderers, viewed a video of the slaying before writing in a memo to the Glynn County police captain that “it was [the murderers’] intent to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived” and that “under Georgia law, [the stopping] is perfectly legal.” Barnhill’s failure to recognize that killing a suspected criminal is grounds for arrest led to no arrests being made and no charges being filed.
On May 5, attorney Alan David Tucker released the video of the shooting to the public, after which it proliferated across social media networks, resulting in widespread outrage. Amid the shock and devastation of COVID-19, Arbery’s horrific killing demonstrates that even during a global crisis, racial injustice persists. When stay-at-home orders end, we must create a stronger, intersectional coalition to fight back against a ubiquitous, entrenched system of racism.
Arbery’s tragic death is a stark reminder of the United States’ continued maltreatment of minorities. That an innocent man was killed while jogging in his own neighborhood is heartbreaking enough alone, but our elected officials’ failure to fight for justice in his name defies understanding. We must confront the fact that our alleged arbiters of peace and justice were fully aware of this situation and completely dismissed it until the public viewed the video and demanded answers.
The widespread viewing of Arbery’s murder has caused a public outcry and inspired citizens to demand action from legislators. However, we must not forget that Barnhill watched the same video before deciding that Arbery’s murderers were acting within the law.
Arbery’s death epitomizes systemic racism in the 21st century.
While some leaders, such as Barnhill, still do not recognize the magnitude of racial injustice that Arbery’s murder illuminates, others do.
“It’s 2020, not 1920, but nothing has changed for black people since the Dred Scott case … When you can’t have slavery in a formal plantation, what do you do in the 21st century? See them walk down the street and kill them,” Southern Christian Leadership Conference board member and activist Denise Hunt said in an interview with the Wheel.
To hear an African American woman speak with deep pain about the U.S.’s continued oppression of black people was visceral and palpable. She emphasized that, even if we have convinced legislators that justice for Arbery is necessary, we have not necessarily convinced them that justice for all black people is necessary.
Arbery’s death has angered the public, and rightfully so. However, if his story is to result in any kind of systemic, sustainable reform, we must translate our rage into action on his behalf. National leaders and Emory students alike must ensure that Arbery did not die in vain.
I am calling upon whomever will listen — refuse to allow such injustices to happen. We must collectively refuse to accept that viral videos of black people being murdered is the only way they can receive justice. The systemic inequities of the U.S. justice system are vast, so our frustrations and demands for justice must be strong. We must fight hard to break the horrific cycle of unarmed black people dying in the streets as their killers escape punishment. We must recognize that our unethical and socially irresponsible leaders cannot ensure justice. So we, the people, must do so ourselves. When our leaders fail, we must make sure that the world knows that they have done exactly that. If they act irresponsibly, we must hold them accountable.
Like the original leaders of the civil rights movement, we must push, yell and fight for our people to have the basic right to live freely. Arbery will not be the last unarmed black man to be murdered by a white man in the name of self-defense or vigilante justice. We must turn our outrage into action and move towards ensuring that all black lives matter. Events such as the recent “caravan protest” in Brunswick and the ongoing social media outcry are a step in that direction and should set the standard for public responses to future injustices.
Civil rights leaders died to create a country where black people have the unfettered right to liberty. Freedom entails the right to jog without fear of being lynched, the right to purchase items without fear of being slaughtered and the right to drive without fear of police brutality. As people who live in the U.S., it is our duty to ensure that no one encroaches upon these fundamental rights to which every black American is entitled.
Shivani Kumar (23C) is from Tallahassee, Florida.