Justice would be if Ahmaud Arbery could go for a run tomorrow, and afterwards, enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
“Even without overt discussion of race over 10 days of testimony, the overwhelming whiteness (and maleness) of the defendants has been on full display. Consider the defense’s main argument: that the defendants acted in self-defense. It hinges on the jury’s understanding of a series of perceived threats, threats that surfaced only after the defendants attempted to arrest Arbery for trespassing. “I knew that he was on me, I knew that I was losing this. I knew that he was overpowering me,” Travis McMichael said. ‘If he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life-or-death situation. And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.’
On the surface, his comments seem race-neutral. But his testimony highlights a commonly used defense of perpetrators of violence against unarmed Black people: fear. Never mind that McMichael and his father ran Arbery down with their truck. Never mind they were the only ones armed. Never mind that Arbery was outnumbered three to one. Never mind that he had been running for miles before the altercation. Never mind that the defendants went looking for a confrontation. Never mind all that. It was McMichael who found himself in a life-or-death situation that required him to make a swift, irrevocable action—despite his testifying that he had been trained in deescalation tactics.”
Emphasis mine. I’ve watched a fair amount of the trial. If I was a juror, I wouldn’t need to deliberate. I can’t begin to wrap my head around the possibility that McMichael is acquitted.
An interesting tension is building between two profound changes.
The first change is the privileging of marginalized people’s voices in debates about contemporary issues like policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice. Increasingly, this means silencing whites, especially wealthy, heterosexual males so that people of color, gender atypical people, heterosexuals, and the poor can be empowered in ways they’ve long been denied. This phenomenon is completely understandable if you know the history of policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice in the (dis)United States.
Despite knowing the history and understanding that impulse, some caution is in order, because in its most extreme form, a strict privileging of marginal voices can become a reverse silencing which is antithetical to a vibrant democracy. It’s understandable why people who have been silenced all their lives want to do whatever is necessary to finally “have the floor”, but completely silencing any particular group’s voices is not a viable long-term strategy for strengthening the common good.
The second, more recent change, is the notion that “silence is violence”, an idea that informs this essay by Mark Fraser, a Caribbean-Canadian hockey player. This is the idea that not speaking up about injustice makes one complicit in it. Here Fraser applauds “white peers” for speaking up:
“I cannot recall a time in my life when I have cried for a week straight. I cannot recall a time when I have been on such a roller coaster of emotions. But out of everything I’ve read or heard this week, what has hit me the hardest and has made me shed the most tears is seeing my white peers stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’
I cannot express the deep, deep emotion that is stirred up inside me seeing people who have only ever known white privilege stand up and join our cause. This is a moment in history that we should all want to look back on and think we contributed to forward progress in fighting against systemic racism.
. . . . The majority have to speak up and stand up for us.”
Fraser’s perspective contradicts the first trend, and in doing so, illustrates pluralism’s complexity. The take-away is that diverse thinking is even greater within ethnic groups than between them. Expecting people of color, or African-Americans more specifically, to think and act the same way because of similar skin pigmentation is among the most oppressive things of all.
It’s great that Fraser is finding strength in his white friends’ words of support, but many people of color spent the week getting even more angry as high profile whites in entertainment, sports, business, politics, and other industries made ignorant, insensitive comments that they then quickly apologized for in desperate attempts to salvage their personal brands.
If they had only uttered Fraser’s three words, “This isn’t right,” maybe things would’ve been different. But they were not nearly that succinct. And the more they wrote and talked, the worse things got. It was a week-long argument for intentional silence.
Maybe it’s time for people of my complexion, who share aspects of my privileged background, to consciously stop writing and talking. To press pause. Different than a forced silence, I’m advocating for a voluntary one marked by active listening.
And a week, or a month, or a year, after a change in administrations, let our first words form questions. About what it was like to be George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. Or what it is like to be Marques Brownlee or Mark Fraser.
Then maybe, we will rise above our differences, find commonalities, and begin building a more just and better future.
Stringer/Sputnik via AP.
I can run alone, anywhere in my Pacific Northwest county, even after dark. And I do. Without thinking twice. That is the ultimate white, male, runner privilege.
Women have to consider time and place. African Americans have to consider time and place and whether to ever run alone.
I’ve never been more aware of my white, male, runner privilege than this week when the story of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American who was killed while on a run in Georgia two months ago, broke wide open. Today would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday.
Only yesterday were the father and son who stalked Arbery and then killed him arrested. And only because a video of the incident was discovered. Had there not been video, they probably would’ve gotten away with murder. And they’re not convicted yet, only arrested.
Charles Blow draws on the police report which detailed the father’s explanation for why he and his son chased Arbery:
“McMichael stated he was in his front yard and saw the suspect from the break-ins ‘hauling ass’ down Satilla Drive toward Burford Drive. McMichael stated he then ran inside his house and called to Travis (McMichael) and said, ‘Travis, the guy is running down the street, let’s go.’ McMichael stated he went to his bedroom and grabbed his .357 Magnum and Travis grabbed his shotgun because they ‘didn’t know if the male was armed or not.’”
Blow then provides needed context:
“Arbery was not armed, and he was not the ‘suspect’ in any break-ins. He was a former high school football player who liked to stay active and was jogging in the small city of Brunswick, Glynn County, Ga., near his home.
Neither of the McMichaels was arrested or charged.”
And the ultimate context:
“Slavery was legal. The Black Codes were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. Chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect him a criminal is legal. Using lethal force as an act of self-defense in a physical dispute that you provoke and could easily have avoided is, often, legal.
It is men like these, with hot heads and cold steel, these with yearnings of heroism, the vigilantes who mask vengeance as valor, who cross their social anxiety with racial anxiety and the two spark like battery cables.
Arbery was enjoying a nice run on a beautiful day when he began to be stalked by armed men.
What must that have felt like?”
What must that have felt like? I have no idea.