Blacks and Hispanics in America may be bearing a disproportionate brunt of the coronavirus pandemic’s effects, in terms of deaths and job losses, but ultimately, all Americans will pay a heavy price. For one, the extremely high rates of deaths in those minority communities, which have led to America having by far the highest number of pandemic-related mortalities globally, are heavily influencing the decision as to when and how to reopen the country’s economy. The longer the lockdowns continue, the greater the socio-economic damage will be for all of us.
Deep racial divisions continue to prevent Americans from adequately and objectively confronting the myriad factors at the root of the economic and health disparities laid bare by the pandemic. It is in our general interest therefore, as a nation, to maintain and build on the many positive efforts made over the last several decades to improve race relations. Tragically, there are some who purposely continue to act in ways that inflame racial tensions.
The cold-blooded murder of the unarmed black man, Ahmaud Arbery, by a father and his son in Georgia last February is a case in point. Arbery had been jogging on a residential street when the duo confronted him, claiming that he resembled the suspect in a series of burglaries in the area. After a brief struggle, one of the men shot Arbery dead.
It took two months, and only after a huge public outcry triggered an intervention by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, before the two were taken into custody for the murder. The prosecutor who initially handled the case was reported to have found insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants for the men, citing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and the right of the men to defend themselves.
Whichever way one looks at it, the prosecutor incorrectly applied the statute, which requires Arbery to have committed a crime in the presence of the two men, or that they had “immediate knowledge” of a crime he had committed. Neither of those conditions was met in this instance. The law clearly does not permit any ordinary citizen to confront another person, in the manner that the men did, based on mere suspicion.
Arbery was murdered almost exactly eight years to the day that a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in eerily similar circumstances. After having purchased some items from a nearby convenience store, Martin was walking home to the townhouse in Sanford, Florida, where his father lived at the time, when a neighborhood watch volunteer from the housing complex confronted him on suspicion that he was involved in the string of recent robberies in the area. The watchman, who had called a non-emergency police line to report his suspicion, reportedly ignored the police dispatcher’s instruction not to follow Martin. During the brief altercation that ensued, the watchman shot Martin, who was unarmed.
As in Arbery’s case, the police initially opted not to arrest the watchman, saying he had shot Martin in self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. But several weeks later, after mass protests across the country, the governor of Florida appointed a special prosecutor who later charged him with second-degree murder. Quite surprisingly, however, he was found not guilty after a jury trial.
These citizen’s arrest and stand-your-ground statutes are problematic to begin with. They seem to provide license to people like the father-son duo and the neighborhood watchman to act on their racist impulses to attack—and sometimes kill—innocent black men. Arbery and Martin were subjected to those deadly confrontations for no justifiable reasons other than the fact that they were black.
In any case, common sense should dictate how such statutes are applied. It is perfectly acceptable for an ordinary citizen to attempt to subdue an active shooter in a crowded public square in order to prevent a mass killing of defenseless people, until law enforcement personnel arrive. A homeowner should, in the same vein, be allowed to use whatever means necessary to confront an intruder to protect his or her family. No such clear and present danger existed in the Arbery and Martin cases.
The prosecutor should indeed have bestowed the right to self-defense on Arbery, not the other way round. When asked in a television interview whether he had ever spoken to his son about Trayvon Martin’s killing, Arbery’s father said that he had. It is something that the overwhelming majority of black parents with sons, including me, have been forced to do, or will do at some point. Knowing that history, Arbery must have feared for his life when the two men cornered him on that street, and thus had perfectly valid reasons to do whatever was necessary to protect himself. It is absurd for people like this duo to be allowed to launch unprovoked attacks on unarmed black men, and then turn around to claim self-defense.
I have read a few online comments in recent days suggesting that Arbery had a criminal record. Nothing that I have read thus far in the mainstream media confirms those claims. But, even if that were true, the two men could not have known that when they confronted Arbery. Their actions were completely based on mere suspicion. In America, no ordinary person is allowed to act as the police, judge, jury, and executioner, which is precisely what the men did.
As opponents of the death penalty often argue, it is far better to let a guilty person walk free than to mistakenly execute an innocent man. If there is good reason to believe that someone has committed a crime, the justice system should be relied upon to determine guilt or innocence. There are some of us who believe to this day that the jury in Martin’s case reached the wrong verdict, but we accept and live with it because the judicial process ultimately took its proper course.
Somehow, the two men and the neighborhood watchman felt they needed to act quickly to prevent “suspected” criminals from escaping. There are numerous black parents who have to wait for years to get justice, if any at all, when their sons are wrongfully harmed or killed.
What if the pain from the death of his son had driven Arbery’s father to exhibit the same impatience? He could perhaps have tried to ambush the two men and shoot them dead at some point during the two months it took for them to be arrested. Would we as a society tolerate that type of vigilante justice? That is not the kind of society any of us should want to live in. That is why all Americans should speak out forcefully against these despicable acts, and the police and prosecutors whose inaction seems to enable them.