Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder is on Tape
By Kelly Sampson, Counsel of Constitutional Litigation, Legal Alliance, and Racial Justice at Brady Legal
Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is on tape. I will not be watching it. I don’t need to see yet another Black person executed. I’ve already seen enough of this to last a lifetime. Laura and L.D. Nelson hanging by their necks from a bridge. Martin Luther King Jr.’s body on the balcony. Emmett Till bludgeoned in his casket. Ahmaud Arbery’s execution is disgusting, infuriating, and evil — but it is not “shocking.”
Please, do not call it shocking.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “[i]n America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” Let’s acknowledge that the United States, from the beginning, has dehumanized Black people. The Constitution, itself, “protected slavery by increasing political representation for slave owners and slave states; by limiting, stringently though temporarily, congressional power to regulate the international slave trade; and by protecting the rights of slave owners to recapture their escaped slaves.”
Let’s acknowledge that the United States, from the beginning, has dehumanized Black people.
A lot has changed since 1787. But whether it’s through Jim Crow, voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, or unjustified gun violence, racism in America is relentless.
So, I don’t need to watch two white men shoot Ahmaud Arbery dead.
But I do need to protest the notion that two armed white men wantonly shooting a Black man is shocking.
Again, it isn’t.
The same Constitution that accommodated slaveholders’ interest in subjugating Black people for profit, is also the same document that states, “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Remember, this was written in 1787. So, who, exactly, were “the people?” And what, exactly, was a “free state,” that also sponsored slavery? And while the historical interplay between Black people, racism, and firearms since 1787 is complex, one thing is consistent: The history of gun policy is one that caters to white people’s fears at Black people’s expense.
As Chris Hayes wrote in A Colony, In A Nation,”[t[hrough our shared cultural inheritance, Americans convert white fear into policy.” And, as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, people choose to own weapons for many reasons, but one of the biggest rationales is fear:
“Seventy-four percent of gun owners in the United States are male, and 82 percent of gun owners are white, which means that 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men, and this group accounts for 31 percent of the total U.S. population. The top reasons U.S. Americans give for owning a gun is for protection. What are the majority of white men so afraid of? Does anyone believe that centuries of racial and economic domination of the United States by white men have left no traces in our culture, views, or institutions?”
Further, a peer-reviewed study found that white people demonstrating greater symbolic racism and fear of Black violence are more likely to own guns and oppose gun policies. To be clear, not all gun owners, or all white gun owners own guns for these reasons. Even so, white fear all too often has led to Black death. We have all heard of trained police officers who shoot and kill unarmed Black men, and in some cases, unarmed Black children, claiming they “feared” for their life. Civilian vigilantes who hunt down Black people, then hide behind “Stand Your Ground” laws and their “fear” to go scot-free. The names of unarmed Black boys and men who have been killed by white men who claimed to act out of “fear” are too many and all too familiar.
We cannot ignore this history when we consider debates over gun policy and laws today. “Stand Your Ground” laws may sound neutral, but in a country that devalues Black life, these laws make it even easier to kill Black people with impunity. The gun lobby today is pushing the Supreme Court to enshrine in the Constitution a right to engage in armed “confrontation,” an interpretation that is wholly unsupported by the history or intended meaning of the Second Amendment. Such a radical reading of the Constitution could be explosive, especially when combined with weak gun laws, “Stand Your Ground” sanctioning of vigilante (in)justice, racism, and race-inspired “fear” of Black men.
We cannot ignore this history when we consider debates over gun policy and laws today. “Stand Your Ground” laws may sound neutral, but in a country that devalues Black life, these laws make it even easier to kill Black people with impunity.
I don’t know if the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery will claim that they were legally entitled to “stand their ground,” or that they were exercising their Constitutional rights when they chased him down and fired. But I am fairly sure the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery will say they were “afraid” — it’s the oldest trick in the book.
I don’t care about their fear right now. What I care about is Ahmaud Arbery’s fear.
I did not know Ahmaud Arbery. That’s why I am using his first and last name. We were never introduced and I owe him that respect.
I did not know Ahmaud Arbery, but as a fellow human being, I can imagine he was terrified to find himself jogging one minute and chased by vigilantes the next. How unspeakably chilling. So, no — I’m not going to watch a video of Ahmaud Arbery’s final fear-filled moments.
I did not know Ahmaud Arbery. I do not know what his favorite color was, or the type of music he liked, or what he hoped to become. I do not know how many miles he’d set out to run that day. Or what he liked to eat for breakfast. So, I am not going to watch the intimate and horrifying moment two men stole his life. I will not further dehumanize him in death, since racism and violence so thoroughly dehumanized the final moments of his life.
I did not know Ahmaud Arbery. But I do know that he is not the first Black person to lose his life, as the logical result of our nation’s century-long affair with racism, lax gun access, and unequal justice. So, I won’t watch Ahmaud Arbery die. But I will work towards an America faithful to its ideals of equality and freedom — including the freedom to live — so we can prevent other people from meeting his fate.