In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, we once again see how nothing changes a crime narrative like a video.
Georgia authorities arrested and charged a white father and son Thursday with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, a black man they had pursued in a truck after seeing him running through their neighborhood.
The charges of murder and aggravated assault against Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, came more than two months after Arbery, 25, was killed on a residential street just outside the city of Brunswick, Ga.
Protests over what appeared to be a stalled investigation heated up after a copy of a cellphone video of the incident, which police possessed but had not revealed, was released to local media.
The video, which went viral, turned on its head the narrative spun by initial police reports. Gregory McMichael, a retired investigator for the Glynn County district attorney’s office, had claimed self-defense. According to the police report, he told police that he and his son had chased Arbery because they suspected him of being a burglar after they saw him “hauling ass” down the street.
But the video shows Arbery, a former high school football player whose parents later said regularly exercised by running through the residential neighborhood, casually jogging down the side of the road until he passes the parked pickup truck where two white men are waiting.
The younger McMichael appears to be riding in back in the truck bed. They apparently shout for him to stop but he keeps running. A confrontation unfolds on screen and off. After a gunshot and apparent scuffling, the black man is seen grappling with a white man over what appears to be a rifle or shotgun.
After a scuffle and a second shot, the runner can be seen punching the man. After a third shot, the runner staggers a few feet and falls face down.
Suddenly the case that had seemed dormant came alive. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation made the arrests within 36 hours of beginning its investigation into the case. The GBI had been called in after one prosecutor recused himself and a second argued that arrests were not warranted because the father and son were acting within Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense statutes.
In a Friday news conference after the arrests, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director, Vic Reynolds wasn’t buying that. There was “more than sufficient probable cause,” he said, to charge the McMichaels with felony murder in the case.
Where did the video come from? Alan Tucker, a local defense attorney, identified himself Thursday as the person who shared the video with the radio station. The arrests came hours later. In a statement, Tucker said he wasn’t representing anyone involved in the case, but he wouldn’t reveal how he got the tape.
He released it, he said, “because my community was being ripped apart by erroneous accusations and assumptions.”
So was much of the nation. The case immediately drew comparisons to the death of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old whose death stirred national fury after he was killed by 28-year-old mixed-race George Zimmerman in Florida. The neighborhood watch coordinator shot Martin in a scuffle after stopping him because, as Zimmerman said later, he suspected the youth was “up to no good.”
Charged with murder, Zimmerman was acquitted. There was no video to back up the case against Zimmerman, just as there was no video of another police shooting victim, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked days of protests in local streets.
But I think a closer comparison can be made to the shooting death of Walter Scott in 2015 in North Charleston, S.C.. He was shot and killed by Michael Slager, a North Charleston police officer who had stopped the black man for a broken tail light. A nearby witness’ cellphone video showed the officer shooting Scott in the back, and the officer later was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In racially charged cases like these, the sad question lingers: Why does it take video evidence before black victimization can be believed? It’s not that simple, of course. There are some cases in which the nonwhite suspect is guilty of a crime and using racism as an excuse — or, in some cases, even making up a hate crime that never actually occurred.
But those sins are not limited to any one race. Every time injustice is exposed through the fortunate presence of video, it should not bring us relief. It should make us ask, why aren’t we doing better?