SAVANNAH, Ga. — When white men armed with guns pursued and killed Ahmaud Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood, few outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick paid notice in the days and weeks that followed.
A year later, those closest to the 25-year-old Black man want to make sure his death isn’t overlooked again as three men await trial in Arbery’s slaying Feb. 23, 2020.
A memorial procession led by Arbery’s family was planned for Tuesday evening through the Satilla Shores subdivision, where he fell bleeding in the street from three close-range shotgun blasts. Organizers asked supporters outside Brunswick to participate in a virtual 2.23-mile (3.59-kilometer) run in memory of Arbery, an avid runner whose family says he was jogging when he got killed.
“It is important to remind people of the origins, when it all started,” said Jason Vaughn, Arbery’s high school football coach and an organizer of the anniversary events. “For a long time, it was like we were yelling into the dark, and nobody was listening.”
Immediately after the shooting, police interviewed Arbery’s killer and two others involved in the chase and let them walk free. The first prosecutor assigned to the case saw no reason to bring charges. Pleas for justice by Arbery’s family went largely unheard as Georgia and the nation entered lockdown as a the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Arbery had been dead for more than two months when a national outcry erupted after cellphone video of the shooting leaked online May 5. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and quickly arrested the shooter, Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and neighbor Roddie Bryan on murder charges.
Outrage over Arbery’s slaying still simmered when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, igniting protests across the U.S. denouncing racial injustice.
In Brunswick, the death of Arbery served as a wake-up call to many residents, both Black and white, that they needed to be more active in holding elected officials accountable, said the Rev. John Perry. He served as president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter at the time of the killing. Now he’s running to be the city’s next mayor.
“Previously, we elected people into office and just trusted that they would do the right thing,” Perry said. “The failure to carry out justice in the Ahmaud situation said we needed to do more as citizens.”
In November, voters angered by Arbery’s death ousted District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Greg McMichael had worked as an investigator for Johnson, who recused her office from handling the case. Many blamed Johnson for playing a role in the delayed arrests, an accusation she denies.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is asking Georgia lawmakers to all but eliminate an 1863 state law authorizing private citizens to make arrests. The prosecutor first assigned to the Arbery case cited that law in concluding the killing was justified.
Attorneys for all three men charged in the case insist they committed no crimes. The McMichaels’ lawyers have said they pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They say Travis McMichael shot Arbery fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun. It was Bryan, the third defendant, who took the cellphone video of the shooting from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck.
Prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain jailed without bond.
The anniversary march and memorial run were organized by the 2:23 Foundation, a group founded by Vaughn and Arbery’s cousin, Demetris Frazier, to fight systemic racism.
The foundation worked last fall to register 18-year-old high school students to vote. Now its members and other local activists are lobbying for the creation of a citizen review panel for the Glynn County Police Department, which handled the initial response to Arbery’s slaying.
Vaughn, who coached Arbery at Brunswick High School, said planning for the anniversary has been taxing. For him, Arbery’s slaying remains painfully fresh.
“You want to make sure you keep Ahmaud’s name alive, but it’s like reading an obituary over and over again,” Vaughn said. “It’s like reliving the past all over again. You’ve got to stay strong.”