The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

Let’s go step by step here. Step one is Georgia’s statute authorizing citizen’s arrests in certain cases:

A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.

Note well: “[I]f the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” If you’re going to make a citizen’s arrest instead of phoning the cops, you’d better be very, very sure that your man is guilty of the offense he’s suspected of.

Step two is the police report. Back in February, Greg McMichael and his son Travis were on the lookout for a suspect in a rash of burglaries in their neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia. Ahmaud Arbery was spotted running through their neighborhood. McMichael, a former cop — repeat: former — thought Arbery matched the description of the suspect. So he and his son, along with a third person, took off after Arbery. Here’s how McMichael described what happened to police:

By his own description, McMichael hasn’t seen Arbery commit any crime and yet has two cars not only in pursuit of Arbery but attempting to cut him off in the middle of the road. According to the Times, “In a recording of a 911 call, which appears to have been made moments before the chase began, a neighbor told a dispatcher that a black man was inside a house that was under construction on the McMichaels’ block.” Was that Arbery? Was the man inside the house there to steal something or for some other reason? No idea. Arbery did have a minor criminal record for shoplifting and was indicted years ago for bringing a gun to a high-school basketball game, but of course McMichael didn’t know any of that. And he had a good reason to be running through the neighborhood: “Friends and family said he liked to stay in good shape, and he was often seen jogging in and around his neighborhood.”

Now let’s watch what actually happened. This video shows a man dying, so stop here if you’d rather not watch.

McMichael’s caught in at least one lie. You can see at 0:10 that he and his son didn’t “pull up beside” Arbery before the fatal confrontation. They were waiting for him. Arbery appears to have been running in their direction because the third man with them, “Roddy,” who may be the one recording the dashcam video, was chasing him from the other side. Imagine being Arbery, having two cars following you and trying to cut you off in opposite directions so that you can’t escape, then seeing one man in the truck in front of you step out with a shotgun in his hand.

At 0:15 it looks like Arbery was planning to jog left past the McMichaels’ truck but is confronted by Travis McMichael, so he veers right and runs around the truck along the right side. At 0:20, he comes around the front of the truck to find Travis McMichael brandishing a gun and lunges at him — as a shot goes off. Greg McMichael, standing in the truck’s bed, appears to have taken a potshot at him judging by the wisp of smoke over the truck. Arbery’s already under fire even though he’s the one being confronted with weapons, not confronting them with a weapon himself.

McMichael would say that he was just protecting his son as a suspected burglar made a move to grab his son’s weapon. Arbery would say that his life was being threatened by a group of men and he defended himself by trying to disarm them. Maybe he was a burglar who was trying to get away, or maybe he was just a black man out for a jog and terrified that he’d run into a group of the wrong white men on the wrong day.

Here’s the point: It doesn’t matter. There’s no reason why the McMichaels should have confronted Arbery even if he’s guilty of everything they suspect him of. They’re not cops. They didn’t personally witness him commit any crime. The risk that they would misidentify an innocent man as a criminal was perfectly foreseeable, especially to a former cop like McMichael. They should have called the sheriff, who could have stopped Arbery lawfully and used the surveillance video mentioned in the police report to determine if he really was the burglary suspect they’re looking for. Why didn’t they do that?

If they can get away with this then the “citizen’s arrest” statute is license for legalized vigilantism. Indict them.

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