By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in the City of Brunswick, which is located in Glynn County, GA. While Brunswick is about four hours away from Cobb County, GA, history would set in motion a set of circumstances that would draw a straight line from Arbery to Cobb County’s namesake Thomas Cobb. A former U.S. senator, representative, superior court judge and slaveholder, in 1858 Cobb also wrote the book, “An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America.”
Cobb peddled all of the usual Black racist tropes of the era, to include mental inferiority, excessive physical strength and the idea that Black people lacked moral character. His views weren’t just limited to literary endeavors, but were actually used to frame much of Georgia’s legal code on issues of race and slavery. In fact, it was Cobb that also worked to codify into law, in 1861, a practice that would help end Arbery’s life some 160 years later.
During the period of slavery, African Americans were thought to be enslaved unless they could prove their freedom. White residents were empowered with citizen arrest powers. This power gave them the ability to stop, detain, and take African Americans into custody they believed were runaway slaves. Even though the 13th Amendment ended slavery the citizen’s arrest provision has remained a legal construct in Georgia law.
It was this obscure law that was invoked by three white men, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, after they killed Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood.
His crime was being Black.
After cornering him and using their vehicles to box him in, Ahmaud was shot at close range with a shotgun. As he lay bleeding on the ground, law enforcement arrived and decided that Arbery was a criminal. No real investigation, no evidence secured, and no arrests for more than two months. After video surfaced and community outcry, arrests and charges were finally leveled. It would then take three prosecutors to get the three defendants to trial. After the seating of a nearly all-white jury and a defense team that infused race every step along the way, it all came down to a claim of “citizen’s arrest.” It was a racially charged and flawed law in 1861 and it has no place today, in Arbery’s death. The jury agreed and found the trio had wrongfully murdered Arbery.
Immediately after the guilty verdicts, a number of social media posts had captions like “the justice system worked.” Let’s be clear, it didn’t initially work for Arbery. Had there not been a bumbling defense attorney, who was confident that leaking video of Arbery’s death would help his clients, we would likely not be breathing a sigh of relief at the convictions. The initial law enforcement officers and prosecutors decided that Arbery didn’t matter. They told his mother that he was a killed committing a robbery. They had planned to do nothing. Truth be told, this guilty verdict almost never happened.