Father and Son Arrested for Death of Jogger
The Wired Word for the Week of May 17, 2020

In the News

May 7 saw the arrest of two white men who, back on February 23, confronted an unarmed 25-year-old black man, Ahmaud Arbery, while he jogged along a road in Satilla Shores, a community near Brunswick, Georgia. A struggle of some kind ensued, and one of the white men shot and killed Arbery. Many observers now want to know why it took 74 days and the release of a video of the incident going viral before the arrests were made. The pair have since been charged with felony murder.

At the time of the killing, the white men, Travis McMichael, 34, the shooter, and his father Gregory McMichael, 64, said they intended to stop Arbery from their pickup truck and make a citizen’s arrest because they thought he was responsible for recent break-ins in the neighborhood. They also said they killed Arbery in self-defense, shooting him with two shots from a shotgun. (It’s not clear from the video how the struggle over the gun began; scenarios for either Arbery or Travis McMichael to be at fault can be developed. However, it was the McMichaels who brought guns to the scene.)

The shooting was captured on video by William “Roddie” Bryan, from a vehicle following the McMichaels’ truck.

Despite the McMichaels’ claim that they suspected Arbery of burglaries in the neighborhood, the only theft reported to police involved a gun stolen from Travis McMichael’s unlocked truck, according to reports from the Glynn County Police Department.

It was later determined via a surveillance clip that although minutes before the shooting, Arbery had entered a house under construction which was not locked and looked around, he had not taken anything or caused any damage. A neighbor called 911 and reported someone in the building.

Following the shooting, the owner of that house, Larry English, issued a statement through his attorney, saying: “In the months prior to February 23, a motion-activated camera had captured videos of someone inside the house (which was and remains a construction site) at night. Mr. English has never said that Mr. Arbery was the person or persons in those videos, and he does not see a resemblance now. After the first time that video captured someone in the house, Mr. English contacted local law enforcement on a non-emergency number and made them aware of the unauthorized entry onto his property. He never used the word ‘burglary.’ He never shared any of this information with the McMichaels, whom he did not even know. Nothing was ever stolen from the house — which, again, was a construction site. Even if there had been a robbery, however, the English family would not have wanted a vigilante response. They would have entrusted the matter to law enforcement authorities. …  The only crime that the homeowner has seen captured on video is the senseless killing of Mr. Arbery.”

A CNN article about the shooting commented that Arbery’s killing “raises a host of troubling concerns in a country where jogging while black must be added to the outrageous list of hazards facing black men.”

Because the older McMichael was a retired investigator who had worked with the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office from 1995 until May 2019, and was in law enforcement before that, two different DAs recused themselves from charging the pair. It took the appointment of a third DA before the arrests were made.

The second prosecutor, George Barnhill, defended the actions of the McMichaels. In an April 3 letter recusing himself, addressed to a Glynn County police captain, Barnhill said the pair had “solid first-hand probable cause” to pursue Arbery, a “burglary suspect,” and stop him. 

A third prosecutor, Thomas Durden, the district attorney for Georgia’s Atlantic Judicial Circuit, was appointed “on or about” April 13. On May 5, the video of the shooting was uploaded on the website of WGIG, a local radio station. The video was uploaded to YouTube and went viral. In a letter released that same day, Durden announced his intention to present the case to the next available Glynn County grand jury “for the consideration of criminal charges against those involved in the death of Mr. Arbery.”

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a well-known commentator in the evangelical Christian world, characterized the McMichaels’ actions and subsequent attempt to justify them as a failure to observe the rule of law. Noting the McMichaels’ claim that they had tried to detain Arbery because they believed they had probable cause that he was a suspect and they were going to hold him for authorities, Mohler said, “In a nation under the rule of law, in most jurisdictions there is some power for individual citizens who are not law enforcement officials to arrest or detain someone until the police or law enforcement can get there if two … very important things have taken place. For one thing, they in most cases have to observe the crime in process, and secondly they are not to start a confrontation that can lead to violence.” 

The Wired Word is not vetting Mohler’s statement — like him, we are not lawyers — and the second of his points is open to interpretation since any confrontation can lead to violence. Nonetheless, that point is likely held by a large number of people.

The McMichaels failed by both of those standards, Mohler said: “They did not see any crime undertaken by Ahmaud Arbery or anyone else, and they most importantly did start a confrontation that eventually led to the death of an unarmed citizen. 

Mohler also said the rule of law makes the McMichaels’ claim of self-defense problematic. He referenced former United States Attorney in Macon, Georgia, Michael Moore, who said that under the Georgia code, a citizen can use force if they fear for their life, but they cannot create a confrontation themselves and then claim self-defense after harming someone.

“We can summarize this issue in the law very easily,” said Mohler, “by saying that it is a precious, important right for every single American not to fall victim of two men in a pickup truck who simply decide that we look like someone who might be a suspect and then start a confrontation that leads to our death.”

Beyond matters of rule of law, however, the fact that it took authorities 74 days to arrest the suspects, and only after the video was leaked, has caused many observers, regardless of their own racial identity, to view the killing of Arbery and the subsequent inaction on the part of authorities as the result racial profiling.

On May 11, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would consider a request by Georgia’s attorney general to review the shooting and assess whether federal hate crime charges should be pursued.

More on this story can be found at these links:

Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case. NBC News 
DOJ Considering Federal Hate Crimes Charges in Ahmaud Arbery Killing. National Review 
Homeowner’s Attorney, Arbery Family’s Attorney Respond to New Video. WTOC 11  
The Death of Ahmaud Arbery: Big Questions about the Rule of Law and the Death of a Young Black Man in Georgia. Albert Mohler (Briefing for Monday, May 11, 2020, Part II. Both audio file and transcript on the site) 
Ahmaud Arbery Died for the Indefensible Principle of White Control. Religion News Service 
Ahmaud Arbery and the Trauma of Being a Black Runner. Christianity Today 

Applying the News Story 

Today’s lesson gives us an opportunity to think carefully about racism. It has become common to label any shooting incident involving a black person and a white person as racially motivated, but unbiased investigations reveal that such is not always the case. In some situations, the racial identity of the individuals involved is incidental to other factors in the confrontation.

Nonetheless, it’s hard in some other situations, including the one in today’s news story, to rule out racial profiling. While none of the news reports have stated a racial motive, some published opinion pieces about the incident have. Still, we have no way of knowing what was in the hearts and minds of any of the three men involved in this tragic incident.

So our aim with this lesson is to consider the kinds of questions we ought to ask ourselves when we suspect — or are told by third parties — that racism is a factor in tragic incidents. We can also use such questions to examine the everyday assumptions we make about others who are unlike us.

The Big Questions

1. In what ways, if at all, might the reaction of the public and the subsequent actions of law enforcement officials have been different if all three of the individuals involved in this shooting were white?

2. In what ways, if at all, might the reaction of the public and the  subsequent actions of law enforcement officials have been different if all three of the individuals involved in this shooting were black?

3. In what ways, if at all, might the reaction of the public and the subsequent actions of law enforcement officials have been different if the victim had been white and the two men with the guns black?

4. Are there other reasonable explanations that fit the circumstances that don’t assume racism is the primary (or the only) motivation?

5. In what ways, if at all, do your answers to questions 1-4 help you decide if racism was likely a significant factor in this shooting incident? More importantly, what do your answers indicate about your own views and prejudices — and the views and prejudices you presume others have — concerning race and relations between people of various races? In what ways might your own views actually be wrong — and how do you account for that possibility?  

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Deuteronomy 19:15
A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. (For context, read 19:15-21.)

The need for more than one witness to convict someone is part of the Law of God as given to Moses. This verse is not an exact fit to the shooting of Admaud Arbery, since the McMichaels had not even one witness that Arbery had done anything wrong. They had only suspicion and that was based on what? A stereotypical assumption that a stranger in their neighborhood must be up to no good? A stereotypical assumption that a black man in a white neighborhood must be up to no good? There’s no way of knowing, but clearly, they were acting on suspicion rather than observation and evidence of a crime.

Questions: Why do you think this rule was included in the Law of Moses? What principles for how we act toward others can we extrapolate from this verse?

Ruth 2:5-8
Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.” Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.” (For context, read 2:1-13.)

Ruth, from Moab, had come to Israel with her widowed Israelite mother-in-law Naomi. No doubt Ruth was recognizably a Moabite (a group despised by most Israelites), through her facial features, manner of dress and accented speech. Although she knew that the Israelite owner of the field, Boaz, was a relative of Naomi’s by marriage and she hoped to be favorably received by him, her decision as an outsider to join the other indigent gleaners had potential dangers. She could not be certain of any protection from harassment or even rape. 

Fortunately, Boaz became her protector, and thus her story turns out much better than Arbery’s, who was also an outsider in the neighborhood.

Questions: Has there been a time when you were a stranger somewhere and found a protector rather than a predator? If so, explain the circumstances. When have you, or someone you know, assumed a self-appointed role of enforcer of law? What was the outcome? 

James 4:1-2
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. … (For context, read 4:1-10.)

These verses can be read as being about entitlement. 

From the news reports, it sounds as if the confrontation with Arbery was driven in part by an assumption that he wasn’t entitled to be where he was. 

Questions: Have you ever felt entitled, or even called, to determine who has a right to be in certain spaces, or who should be allowed to speak or act in those spaces? How would you explain that choice to someone who called you on it? 

When have you been wrong in your assumptions about people? When have people been wrong in their assumptions about you?

Acts 17:26 (The Message)
Starting from scratch, [God] made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. (For context, read 17:22-28.)

Questions: How should we hear this verse? Is it perhaps saying that there is only one race, the human race? If that is the case, what are the implications for you?

For Further Discussion

1. Respond to this, from a TWW team member: “Police officers (like most people) have a tendency to tunnel vision: Once assuming a guy is the suspect/perpetrator, it takes some doing to get someone to reconsider. Once ‘Hey, that looks like the burglar’ and/or ‘Yeah! Let’s go after him!’ gets said, vision narrows.”
    The same team member also commented that, given that the elder McMichael has a law enforcement background, in his opinion, it is more likely (should the McMichaels be at significant fault) “that the underlying problem is the increased assumed authority found within law enforcement personnel.” That team member has mentioned before the differences arising in the shift from police as “peace officers” to “law enforcement officers.”
    “I’m not denying that racism and animosity exists — in all directions” says our team member, “but not prejudging this particular case, I note that the “law enforcement” attitude is more universal.

2. Evaluate this, from Albert Mohler’s comments on the Arbery shooting: “It simply has to be conceded that this [delay in the arrests of the McMichaels] is over against the background of the fact that throughout much of American history there has been a danger of young black men being wrongfully detained and indeed lynched in extrajudicial violence. What does extrajudicial mean? It means outside the legal process, outside the courts. There is no honest person looking at American history who does not concede that that was a pattern that is simply a blight upon the nation’s history and it is in this case and in all other cases an impetus to make certain that justice is done. That’s why we have a Department of Justice. That’s why we have a justice system. And now every single American has to depend upon our justice system doing what it is assigned responsibility to do, and that is apply the rule of law justly.”

3. Discuss this account from Dante Stewart, writing in Christianity Today. “I was on my morning run as the sun was rising in the blue California skies. There was hardly anybody out at that time. You learn real young not to run too early in the morning or too late at night.
    “I guess I forgot the lessons, the safety agenda my parents taught me. They knew what would happen. I brought my identification like my wife tells me to every time I leave. During the run, I wasn’t worried about anything, and I felt good. I couldn’t wait to check my pace on my fitness tracker.
    “Then it happened. I looked in the distance, and there was this white man on his porch taking photos of me. Every shot he took, I got more confused. I said, ‘It’s a good morning out here, isn’t it?’ as if me being respectable was going to shield me in this situation or get him to finally see me as a human.
    “He didn’t answer. Here we go again.
    “My fear quickly turned to rage. I wanted to fight for my dignity in the face of being documented by a stranger and being told I didn’t belong here. Policed by a man standing on his front porch. Right there in Southern California, the ghost of Jim Crow’s ‘What are you doing here, n–r?’ showed up.
    “But ultimately, I felt powerless. I couldn’t even call the cops because they might’ve mistaken me for the aggressor.” 

4. Comment on this, from TWW team member Stan Purdum: “Arbery’s looking around in the building under construction reminds me that I did this very thing myself in the last place I lived. They were building a new house next door, and one day, after the workers had gone home but before any doors were hung, I went in and looked at the construction, just because I was interested in it. Don’t know if anybody saw me, but if they did, they would have been my neighbors who would know who I was. Also, I was a white guy in a white neighborhood, which may be apropos of nothing, but who knows?”

Responding to the News

This is a good time to consider the circumstances in which our vision becomes “tunneled” to the exclusion of what might be the truth of a situation.

We can also write out what other questions like those in “The Big Questions” above that can help us take a fuller view of matters where we tend to accept one-note narratives.

Prayer

O Lord, let us be quick to see the “family resemblance” between ourselves and those who are different from us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Copyright 2020 Communication Resources

In class, we will talk about some of these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.