The Criminalization of Blackness Itself: Let the Smearing Begin


 Screenshot of cops' earlier harassment of Arbery

The unfolding story of the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery, murdered in Georgia for the crime of jogging while black, just gets sadder and uglier, morphing into the portrait of a young black man who long endured harassment by both vigilantes and police before becoming the victim of what his family calls "a public lynching." On Thursday, Georgia law enforcement arrested a third man, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., 50, on charges of Felony Murder & Criminal Attempt to Commit False Imprisonment.  Bryan recorded the video that, once it spread on social media several months later, led to the arrest of father and son Greg and Travis McMichael on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. Bryan recorded the McMichaels stalking Arbery in their truck as he followed in his own vehicle; the footage shows Arbery try to run around the truck, be confronted by a man with a shotgun, and fall to the street from three blasts. The new arrest warrants charge Bryan "did attempt to confine and detain"  Arbery with his own vehicle, confirming earlier reports that all three men were in "hot pursuit" of Arbery and Bryan had also tried to block him because - black man alert - they thought he was a burglar. Bryan's lawyer insists Bryan "is not now, and has never been, more than a witness to the shooting," but Arbery family lawyers had argued "his involvement in the murder...was obvious to us."

So was, it seems, the involvement of many other shady characters in the lead-up to Arbery's final confrontation. In an apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree moment, Lindsay McMichael, sister and daughter of Travis and Greg McMichael, posted a grisly sport trophy image of Arbery's dead body on Snapchat -"Life's more fun when you live in the moment" - because she's "just a huge fan of true crime." It also turns out Greg McMichael, a former cop and investigator for the D.A. who lost his license for failing to keep up with training, was involved in an earlier prosecution of Arbery. He's one moving part in a revolving-door scenario of crooked cops and prosecutors - the police chief and three officers were just indicted on perjury drug charges - caught in so many often-racist scandals that a state ballot measure in the works calls for disbanding the police department and merging it with the country sheriff's office. After Arbery's murder, the same police department also started releasing reports of Arbery's several, earlier run-ins with them, including a 2018 charge he shoplifted a TV from a Wal-Mart though he produced a receipt. "We've been here before, whether it's Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin," said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Arbery's father. "When they kill our children, they then try to assassinate their character."

The most maddening instance of their harassment came in a newly surfaced 2017 video, obtained by The Guardian after a Freedom of Information request, showing Glynn County cops hounding Arbery for the crime of sitting in his car in a park one morning. The encounter, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, begins as officerMichael Kanago pulls up behind Arbery’s parked car and asks why he's there; Arbery says it's his one day off from working at a car wash, and he's rapping and "trying to chill." Kanago asks for I.D., searches him for weapons, finds none. Arbery, irritated, dares to ask, "Why are you fucking with me? You're bothering me for nothing....In the park chillin', that's a crime?" Too uppity: Kanago gets more pissed. He says the park's "known for drug activity" and "keep your hand out of your pocket!" and calls for a second cop, who roars in, pulls his taser, screams "Down. Warning, Down!", tries to tase Arbery obediently on his knees, but it doesn't work. In the police report, Kanago says the angry black dude got "impatient" and "jumpy" and, Hulk-like, "I observed veins popping from his chest which made me feel that he was becoming enraged and may turn physically violent toward me. Most poignantly, Arbery keeps trying to explain his black presence in their world: "I got one day off a week. One day...I like to rap to ease my mind." 

At a press conference, Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt said the scene, grim proof these guys never let him be, offered "a glimpse into the kind of scrutiny (Ahmaud) faced," both from local police and vigilante posses: “The reason Ahmaud Arbery was killed was the same reason he was stopped in that park. It was the criminalization of blackness itself.” He likewise savaged the too-familiar practice of racist police riling up public opinion against their victims. "That's where they want attention to be, but we aren’t going to play that game," he said. “As the media begins to portray our slain brother as a ‘criminal,’ understand that ‘criminal’ is the new n*****, and in the most ravenous criminal justice system in world history, they can take virtually any of our brothers and sisters, murder them, label them criminal and then conclude their life doesn’t matter." And it goes on. In Missouri, Marvia Gray, a 68-year-old (black) woman, just filed a lawsuit against four (white) cops after a video showed them throwing to the concrete floor, severely injuring and arresting her and her adult son Derek over a false claim they'd stolen a TV in Sam’s Club; as the cops beat him, she thought, “This is the way Derek is going to go." In Florida, Richard Demsick, a 34-yr old (white) former pastor, flipped the narrative with a peek at white privilege. One of thousands who joined #Irunwithahmaud to honor Arbery, he ran his 2.23 miles shirtless, baseball cap backwards, carrying a TV on his shoulders "like some episode of ‘Cops.’" The whole way, he thought, "Someone’s going to stop me now, for sure. 'Cause if not, what was the problem with Ahmaud?” He arrived safely. Several people smiled and waved at him. 


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Protesting murder. Photo by Stephen Morton/AP


Arbery's grieving mother Wanda at protest. Getty Image


Marvia Gray: "What are you doing?"


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