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‘This was supposed to go away’: The battle to shape how the world viewed Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

A white and orange cross in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed young black man, was fatally shot. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Akeem Baker could barely see straight as he finished reading the Brunswick News article about the shooting death of his best friend, Ahmaud Arbery.

The Feb. 28 story offered scant details about what had led to the 25-year-old’s killing five days earlier, but it included a full account of Arbery’s criminal history — including the time he brought a gun to a high school basketball game in 2013.

“It was like they were saying Ahmaud was just a terrible person that just deserved to die, like his death was justified,” Baker said. “His past was brought up — it had nothing to do with what happened on February 23.”

The narratives surrounding the death of Arbery began to diverge before his body was removed from the residential street where he was shot — narratives that intensified Thursday with the arrest of a third man in the killing.

To a local official overseeing the case, Arbery was a violent criminal apprehended by a retired police detective and his son, who acted in defense of their community and their own lives in pursuing a citizen’s arrest. To those who knew Arbery, the avid jogger was the victim of an overzealous former law enforcement official and a corrupt local criminal justice system that found him suspicious in part because he was black.

The competing narratives would come to define the national debate over the shooting. The fatal encounter, once shrouded in local politics, exploded into a nationwide conversation over racial justice after cellphone video of Arbery’s final moments went viral more than two months after the incident.

For 74 days, the men accused of pursuing Arbery went free, enraging both black and white residents of this southeast Georgia city. It was only after NBA players and television celebrities tweeted about Arbery’s death — and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation picked up the case — that Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested on charges of murder and aggravated assault. William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., whose cellphone video changed the trajectory of the case, was arrested two weeks later.

“I would like to believe that we played a role in these arrests by just . . . making everybody aware and demanding justice,” Baker said Friday. “But I have guarded optimism. Every time a small victory like this happens, it’s bittersweet, because I believe all of them should have been arrested February 23, 2020.”

The opposing narrative continues to loom. A Facebook group that swelled with support for the McMichaels called them “God-fearing men [who] were only trying to protect their neighborhood” from a man who “did not comply with simple commands.” And as surveillance video showing Arbery entering a partially constructed house shortly before his death has circulated online, the din of doubters of the innocent black jogger narrative has become louder.

Last week, conservative commentator Candace Owens called it “pointedly ridiculous” to argue that no one should be suspicious of “a jogger wearing khakis who decides to stop in the middle of a jog to go onto a property that isn’t his.”

Owens, who is black, noted Arbery’s arrest history and said, “From what I’m hearing, there’s a lot more to this story that people don’t understand.”

Even attorneys for Gregory McMichael sought to distance the killing from others that have sparked scrutiny of the use of deadly force against minorities, saying at a recent news conference, “While the death of Ahmaud Arbery is a tragedy — a tragedy that at first appears to many to fit into a terrible pattern in American life — this case does not fit that pattern.”

Challenging the narrative

Gregory McMichael’s hands were still bloody when police pulled up to the tree-lined scene moments after the shooting, according to the police report. He told an officer that he had recognized the man “hauling a--” down his street — the man now dead at their feet — from a surveillance video related to break-ins in his neighborhood.

But when McMichael rolled over Arbery’s body to check for a weapon, he found nothing.

Minutes earlier, Arbery had been walking through a half-constructed waterfront ranch down the street from the McMichaels’ house. The structure had become an attraction to passersby, including children on bicycles and a couple captured on surveillance cameras checking out the web of wooden beams.

Arbery wasn’t armed and no stolen goods were reported on his body, but soon after his death, investigators told his family that he had been killed during a possible burglary, friends and relatives said.

The shooting fell in the jurisdiction of District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who had been Gregory McMichael’s direct supervisor for 20 years until his retirement in June. According to a county statement, the prosecutor’s office told police that “the McMichaels were deemed not to be flight risks and officers were advised by the DA’s office that no arrests were necessary at the time.”

Ex-detective charged in death of Ahmaud Arbery lost power to make arrests after skipping use-of-force training

Johnson denies the county’s claims that her office shielded the McMichaels from arrest. Within days, she had officially recused herself from the case and neighboring District Attorney George E. Barnhill took over.

As days passed with no arrests, friends and relatives were at first flummoxed, then outraged. The information they were receiving from investigators and reading in news articles did not reflect the Ahmaud they knew.

“Quez,” as they called him, was an amiable athlete who honored his older brother by wearing his jersey number. He was quick with a joke and, as his obituary would later say, “never departed from his loved ones without an ‘I love you.’ ”

Jason Vaughn was also unsettled. He had coached Arbery as a standout high school football player and remembered the character of a teen who sought to uplift his teammates. Between the lines of the prosecutors’ words in the Brunswick News article, Vaughn worried that a narrative that mentioned Arbery’s mistakes but omitted his many redeeming qualities served a purpose.

“This was supposed to go away,” he said of the killing.

That would not be hard. The coronavirus pandemic was starting to dominate news coverage and kitchen table conversations in the closing days of February. Soon after Arbery’s Feb. 29 funeral, Glynn County began canceling public events over health concerns. Widespread social distancing would follow, potentially asphyxiating any large-scale demonstrations to shed light on the circumstances of Arbery’s killing.

Instead, those close to Arbery organized virtually. Dissatisfied with scant information from authorities about the circumstances of Arbery’s death, Baker started a Facebook group to swap news of developments in the investigation. Vaughn and his brother, John Richards, a lawyer who became a pastor in Little Rock, conducted an hour-long Facebook Live briefing for anyone who would listen, in which they painted a positive picture of Arbery that they felt had been kept out of the public discussion.

But lofty remembrances would not be enough: They also encouraged viewers to pressure the powers that be for more transparency about the case.

“A lot of people didn’t know all the details,” Baker said. “But once people began to hear about it, they began to question [authorities’] story just like I began to question it.”

The Brunswick area has a mixed record on race. Glynn County was lauded during the civil rights movement for avoiding the tumult and violence other areas experienced as they integrated, perhaps because of a desire to not scare away the tourism dollars that power much of the local economy in this coastal community.

In the decades that followed, economic inequalities persisted. More than half of Brunswick’s 16,000 residents are black, and the city has a poverty rate of 39 percent, double the state average. The surrounding area of Glynn County looks more like the rest of Georgia: 63 percent white and 27 percent black — with a poverty rate less than 20 percent.

Recent scandals with the Glynn County Police Department have bred distrust in the institutions that are supposed to keep residents here safe. A few days after Arbery was killed, the county’s police chief and three other officers were indicted on charges of trying to cover up a case in which a detective was accused of sleeping with a confidential informant. The department also attracted scrutiny for a fatal police chase in 2010.

That history fueled some residents’ concerns about the Arbery case. They sent hundreds of emails to Barnhill’s office demanding details about what led to his death. They called so frequently that Barnhill’s assistants asked them to stop.

Angry residents petitioned nationally known civil rights activists asking for outside help. They called on the local newspaper to write another story that said something — anything — positive about Arbery.

The movement’s first victory came when someone learned that Barnhill’s son was an assistant district attorney who had worked with Gregory McMichael. Arbery’s mother and other local critics leveraged the connection to demand that Barnhill recuse himself from the case.

After weeks of public pressure, Barnhill relented — but not without putting in a final bid for the McMichaels’ innocence.

'Apparent aggressive nature'

In an April letter to the Glynn County police chief, Barnhill characterized the fatal shooting of Arbery as justifiable. The McMichaels were “in hot pursuit” of a suspect with a checkered criminal history, the district attorney wrote, which helped “explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man.”

The McMichaels were making a citizen’s arrest of a person they believed to be involved in a burglary, he argued — and Arbery contributed to his own death by attacking Travis McMichael as he held a gun.

“Arbery initiated the fight,” Barnhill wrote. While McMichael’s finger was on the trigger, “we do not know who caused the firings. Arbery would only had to pull the shotgun 1/16th to 1/8th of one inch to fire the weapon himself and in the height of the altercation this is entirely possible.”

What Barnhill didn’t mention in his letters or newspaper articles were the times state authorities stripped Gregory McMichael of his badge and arrest powers.

McMichael’s law enforcement certification was suspended in February 2019 after repeated failures to complete required training, according to documents from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office, including a warning in 2014 that he had neglected to finish mandatory firearms and use-of-force courses.

The U.S. Justice Department is now investigating how local authorities handled the Arbery case, a review that Johnson and Barnhill have said they welcome. The prosecution is in the hands of Joyette M. Holmes, district attorney for Cobb County, north of Atlanta.

Attorneys for the McMichaels have said that their clients are being unduly vilified by an incomplete narrative driving public opinion about the case and say additional evidence will exonerate them — though they haven’t revealed what that evidence is. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, has not responded to requests for comment since his client’s arrest.

The heightened attention on the case has elicited cautious optimism from those whose efforts to change the official narrative about Arbery’s death might have gone unnoticed if not for the leak of a cellphone video. But some worry that the political debate threatens to overshadow their goal of getting justice for Arbery’s family.

As videos have emerged and arrests have been made, Richards, the brother of Arbery’s high school coach, said he has been troubled to see that people’s takes on Arbery’s final moments are based more on their biases and political views than on facts.

“We are bipolar in our nation,” he said. “And part of that is the political climate that we’re in. Everyone has to take a side, and there’s no room for the middle. And the middle has been missing for so long in this country that no one knows how to have an opinion that’s not extreme.”

Julie Tate, Nate Jones and Alex Horton contributed to this report.