Rector's Ramblings May 6, 2020
If you don’t already know the name Ahmaud Arbery, you need to. Many of us, myself included, were only vaguely aware of a shooting in Brunswick back in February; such things don’t always garner our attention right away. Shootings don’t happen every day, but they happen enough that we are unfortunately a bit numb to them. It also happened at a time when we were shifting into pandemic mode and there wasn’t as much reporting or public response as there might have been otherwise. On February 23, 2020 the unarmed Arbery, running near his home, was chased down by two armed men in a pickup truck. A struggle ensued and Arbery was shot and killed. What happened that led up to Arbery’s death is rightly getting more attention. As I have learned more about the incident, I agree with so many others that justice has not yet been served in this case.
I am aware that this case could quickly become controversial, as such things often do. Especially when the shooter is white and the unarmed victim is black. Incidents like these generate controversy as we “choose sides” and fill in missing gaps in the narrative so that our choice can be a comfortable one. Any time we find race in the mix as a potential factor, people begin to move to the extremes. I fear this will be no different, and yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to pay attention, to pray, or to sit back and do and say nothing. The local public response to the news has grown quickly this week, largely boosted by an article about this shooting in the New York Times. That article and the national attention that followed, has brought the spotlight back to this case and it is now getting more attention. (To be fair, the case did get some attention right away, but for a variety of reasons, it didn’t garner a widespread response, while so many were distracted by the pandemic.) At the end of the day, I hope we all want to see justice served, and if there were those who wondered if there was a need for more investigation, recent developments indicate that there is.
Yesterday, a cell phone video of Arbery’s shooting was made public by a local radio station that has said it received the video anonymously. As hard as it was to watch that video, I can unequivocally say that what is captured on that video makes it clear that the man, or maybe both men, who were responsible for Arbery’s death, probably should have been arrested, at least initially, pending a full investigation. For me, the video makes that clearer, but the initial police report alone raised questions about why there were no arrests pending a broader investigation. The story in the police report given by the men does not completely align with the video, and it calls into question the application of the “stand your ground” defense for the shooting. It also raises troubling questions about the role of citizens that take it upon themselves to do police work, when no obvious crime has been committed, only suspicion of a crime. Without the video, it would have been much harder to refute the claims made by the aggressors (and by aggressors, I mean they initiated the aggressive encounter, which is clear and undisputed, even by them).
To date, no report of a serious crime, certainly not one that warrants an armed chase, let alone death, has been reported with regard to Arbery. The shooter and his father have claimed that they thought Arbery looked like someone seen on security cameras and suspected of being involved in some neighborhood thefts (it is unclear if there was more than one theft or that video evidence was reviewed). At the point these two men chased Arbery, they had not seen Arbery do anything wrong. There was a separate 911 call, just before the encounter, about a man looking into the windows of a home under construction, but the caller did not indicate a further crime on the call, and regardless, it seems the shooter and his father did not see Arbery looking into the home, or know of the 911 call. I know a lot of folks who have walked onto a construction site to look at a home under construction. I’ve done it. I’ve seen my neighbors do it. Never did it occur to me that I, or anyone else, deserved to be confronted with guns as a result.
As of now, the case has been referred to the Glynn County Grand Jury, which can’t be convened until at least mid-June due to COVID-19 precautions. The District Attorney for the case thinks the Grand Jury should weigh whether criminal charges should be brought in the case. I hope charges are brought, so that there will be a full and thorough investigation that can lead to justice for all involved.
Let me be clear here and now that I recognize the complexity of this case and cases like it. Even with the video in hand, there will be debate about what constitutes a justifiable armed encounter by civilians. Even if race didn’t play an explicit role in this event or the way it was handled, it’s in the mix, nonetheless. We will also need to once again assess the application of stand your ground laws. Each of these aspects is troubling in its own right, independent of any particular case. I hope we can evaluate such things without retreating to worn out foxholes from which we will defend our opinions without listening to others.
Ahmaud Arbery did not deserve to die. He did not have to die. There are a myriad of things that could have happened differently that would have allowed Arbery to still be alive today. Life is precious. It is not to be ended too easily or arbitrarily or dismissed when it is. This is a complex case in one sense, but not in the sense that a man died unnecessarily. He deserves justice and so does his family. Our community also needs justice for the sake of healing and unity. Please join me in praying for Ahmaud and his family, for the shooters and witnesses, for the law enforcement and judicial officials, and for the grand jury. Pray for our community as well, that this would not tear us apart through anger and hatred.
I am adding my own voice, alongside the voices of many local faith leaders, to this community’s call for justice for Ahmaud Arbery. I don’t want any of us to rush to judgment, but we shouldn’t shy away from a rush to investigation. There are a lot of unanswered questions and certainly shades of gray in this case. If the justice system hasn’t satisfactorily dealt with this case thus far, it can still do so. It needs to, and if our community stands together, it will.
Almighty God, who sittest in the throne judging right: We humbly beseech thee to bless the courts of justice and the magistrates in all this land; and give unto them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, that they may discern the truth, and impartially administer the law in the fear of thee alone; through him who shall come to be our Judge, thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Collect for Courts of Justice, BCP p. 821