The Stalking of Human Prey
The story of Ahmaud Arbery offers a tragic reminder that vigilante justice can not only lead to the murder of an innocent man, but tear apart the promise of a better America
What does racial prejudice and ultimately fatal white privilege look and sound like? Consider the testimony of Travis McMichael, on trial for the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, 2020.
McMichael, a 35-year-old white Georgia man and former mechanic in the Coast Guard, was convinced—without evidence—that Arbery had stolen from a nearby construction site in his mostly white neighborhood of Satilla Shores. McMichael testified that he wanted to talk to him after his father, ex-cop Gregory McMichael, saw him run by his house.
Grabbing his 12-gauge, 870 Remington shotgun, Travis McMichael and his father jumped in his white Ford F-150 pickup truck and began to chase Arbery, to stalk him, to make him talk—even though Travis would later testify that Arbery wasn’t carrying a weapon or a bag or backpack. He drove his truck up beside Arbery as he ran, but Arbery didn’t say a word.
McMichael told him to stop, claiming in the courtroom Thursday that it was a request, not an order. But Arbery, a former star high school football running back, kept running.
“I want to talk to you,” McMichael said he told Arbery. Yet Arbery didn’t answer, instead reversing his course, running back the way he came.
McMichael was not about to let it go. He put his truck in reverse and tried again to make him talk. As if this young man, this young Black man out for an afternoon run, was obliged to answer.
Three times he tried to get Arbery to talk to him, but Arbery was clearly trying to run away. “He was mad,” McMichael testified. “Which made me think that something has happened.”
Something must have happened. Not that Ahmaud Arbery was in danger and hoped to get away safely. Not that he just wanted to get home, alive. To be with his family. To see his girlfriend. To live his life.
McMichael had more to say about what he was thinking: “This guy is obviously—something is not right. He seems dangerous to me.”
Lead prosecutor Linda Danikowski asked McMichael if his father—who was armed with a .357 Magnum—had yelled at Arbery, "Stop or I'll blow your fucking head off." McMichael denied it Thursday, said he never heard it, even though he had told this to police earlier.
After Arbery ran off, Travis and Gregory McMichael continued their pursuit. So did another man, William “Roddie” Bryan, who was driving a black Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Eventually, the McMichaels parked their truck.
Soon Travis McMichael, now outside his truck, saw Arbery cut off by Bryan’s truck and running toward him. He pulled out his shotgun and aimed it at him. "I was under the impression that I was—at this point this guy could be a threat and he is coming directly to me," McMichael said. "Yes, I pointed the shotgun at him to deter him from coming directly to me, which was effective at that point there."
How effective was this vigilante with a gun? Within minutes, Ahmaud Arbery was dead, shot three times, twice in the chest, once at point blank range. When the police showed up, McMichael was splattered with blood. But after questioning, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan were free men, only taken into custody over two months later after a lawyer leaked a video of the murder.
In June 2020, these three men were indicted for nine criminal counts, including felony murder and aggravated assault. Closing arguments in their murder trial are scheduled for Monday.
Every crime is unique, especially every murder. I don’t want to zoom out and end simply by asserting that there remains a deep and tattered wound in America whenever a Black man is assumed to be guilty and dangerous without facts—whenever such prejudice is exacerbated by white supremacy, a nation drowning in guns, and an intensifying mindset that violent assaults are not only acceptable but a reason for pride by the growing population of extremists. Look no further than the parallel case of Kyle Rittenhouse.
Where I think we must end is to remind ourselves that every one of these cases involves real people who lost their lives because someone decided to take up arms and pursue a form of vigilante justice. As writer Mitchell Jackson noted in his Pulitzer-prize-winning story about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery, “Twelve Minutes and a Life”:
“What you must know about Maud was that when Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan stalked and murdered him less than three months shy of his 26th birthday, he left behind his mother Wanda, his father Marcus Sr., his brother Buck, his sister Jasmine, his maternal grandmother Ella, his nephews, six uncles, 10 aunts, a host of cousins, all of whom are unimaginably, irrevocably, incontrovertibly poorer from his absence.”
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There are no words to speak of this tragedy other than your last paragraph.