BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Jason Vaughn stepped out of the locker room, and already his phone was buzzing again, another citizen-turned-activist calling about another young Black man who had died in police custody.
“All of these people are calling about cases,” Vaughn said, and even though he wanted to help bring exposure to all of them, first he needed to deliver a speech to the players on his high school football team.
They had already dedicated their season to the memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who like them had worn the blue and gold of Brunswick High, but that would never be enough. So they waited in the school’s auxiliary gym before practice, as they did every Tuesday, to hear Vaughn speak about the injustices surrounding Arbery’s death. Vaughn arrived and took off his Nikes before walking to the middle of the gym in his socks. Today’s lesson: leadership.
“Who is going to be that lawyer, when somebody is accused of a crime they didn’t do?” Vaughn asked his players. “Who is going to be the next police chief to make sure the police handle business correctly?”
He was now always challenging them with ideas such as this, because over the past six months, Vaughn has become much more than a football coach in his hometown. He has emerged as a leading advocate for justice for Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man — and his former linebacker — who was shot and killed after being chased by armed White men while jogging in a local neighborhood in February.
As some local leaders and institutions fell silent after Arbery’s death — no arrests were made for more than two months — Vaughn, a longtime assistant coach at Brunswick, helped amplify exposure around the case, which led to wider recognition and eventually the arrests of three men on murder charges. Arbery’s case would go on to become one of the focal points of the broader nationwide reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality, which was again reignited in recent days following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
Vaughn, 39, has been racially profiled himself as a Black man in Brunswick, he said, and now he often wonders about his future in the community as a teacher and coach, because some in this small coastal town have warned him to tone it down. Yet even with outside interest in him — he said schools in Atlanta and Savannah recently have approached him about administrator jobs — he refuses to leave the kids.
“People on the low have told me I could lose my job for this. A lot of people told me not to do it. People told me to stop stirring trouble. I became an agitator in my hometown, for talking about a guy who was murdered in his community,” he said. “But one of the great things about coaching: I got more support from the community than I got threats.”
That support has deepened his resolve as a leading advocate for Arbery and victims of racial violence and as a mentor to teens at his school who represent a chance to change the town’s leadership that he believes failed Arbery.
“What people don’t realize is, I still lost my player,” Vaughn said. “I’m still dealing with grief. I’m doing something a football coach shouldn’t have to do.”
‘He latched on and wouldn’t let go’
The last time Vaughn saw Arbery was on a Friday morning in November. Vaughn was stressed the morning before a big game, so he went for a run in his neighborhood. A few minutes into the workout, he saw Arbery running in the distance. Vaughn called out for him and tried to catch up with his former player, but Arbery was running too fast. He turned the corner of a block and disappeared.
“He moved with great speed,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn knew Arbery loved to run. Arbery lived in the neighborhood of Fancy Bluff, and his route would often take him about two miles across U.S. Route 17 — a bustling four-lane highway connecting Brunswick and the sandy-beach resorts of Jekyll Island on the Atlantic Ocean. He would cross into Satilla Shores, a small subdivision composed mostly of 20th-century ranch homes nestled beneath towering oak trees cloaked in thick Spanish moss.
That’s where Arbery was the afternoon of Feb. 23 when he was shot and killed after being chased through the neighborhood by three White men.
After spotting Arbery from his front yard, Gregory McMichael, 64, alerted his son, Travis McMichael, 34, according to the police report. The men armed themselves with a .357 magnum and a shotgun and hopped into a white truck to give chase. Gregory McMichael told police that a third man from their neighborhood, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., had also attempted to block Arbery with his vehicle as the men gave chase.
Gregory McMichael, a former investigator in the local district attorney’s office, told police that he and his son believed Arbery was a suspected burglar in the neighborhood and that Arbery attacked his son before he was shot and killed. A surveillance video later showed a man believed to be Arbery entering a house under construction in Satilla Shores moments before the shooting, though the property owner said nothing was taken.
The Glynn County district attorney’s office did not bring charges against the McMichaels or Bryan.
None of it made sense to Vaughn. As an African American studies teacher, he had long taught his classes that the killings of unarmed Black men rarely resulted in justice. He made up his mind to be a crusader for Arbery.
“This small guy had a huge heart,” Vaughn said of his former player. “We had built a bond.”
Vaughn had little idea of where to start. He had heard about Arbery’s death through social media that night. He read the initial story in the local newspaper, the Brunswick News, which cast Arbery as a burglary suspect, and Vaughn cut and pasted the story into his own feed so people could read it. Within an hour, more than 100 of his followers had commented. Vaughn’s brother, John Richards, a pastor and lawyer based in Little Rock, called and told him “they were set up to get away with it.”
The case, from the beginning, had been plagued by conflicts of interest through multiple district attorney’s offices. It had been under the jurisdiction of prosecutor Jackie Johnson, who four days after Arbery’s death requested to recuse herself from the case because she had worked with Gregory McMichael.
On Feb. 27, the case was passed to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. Shortly after being appointed to the case, Barnhill learned his son, an assistant district attorney for Johnson, had worked with Gregory McMichael in the prosecution of Arbery in a previous case. Barnhill remained on the case for several more weeks until early April, when he requested to be recused, citing his son’s relationship to McMichael and Arbery.
In the middle of April, the case was moved to a third prosecutor, Atlantic Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden.
The chaos around the case enraged Vaughn, who believed there had been a wall of silence established in his community and worried there would never be a thorough investigation. In early April, Vaughn and his brother held a Facebook Live event for anyone who wanted to learn more about Arbery. Vaughn choked back tears as he told stories about his player’s smile and his way of making people laugh.
At the end, Vaughn said, “I run with Maud.”
In the days after, those four words would become the slogan of their campaign to bring awareness to the case. There were others who would help lead; Arbery’s best friend, Akeem Baker, set up the Facebook page, and Arbery’s cousins, Demetrius Frazier and Josiah Watts, recruited local support and media attention, including a pivotal New York Times report in April that renewed national interest.
Vaughn and the group had drawn up a four-point plan for potential supporters, starting with an open-records request for the police report. He asked people to write the Brunswick News for a more complete article about the shooting. He rallied hundreds to inundate the phones of Johnson, Barnhill and Durden to make it difficult for their offices to get any work done until they listened to their pleas.
“He latched on and wouldn’t let go,” Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey said of Vaughn. “Some people don’t have the tenacity to hold on and push through things and keep pushing it, keep pushing it. … I admire him for having the tenacity.”
‘Somebody has to lead the charge’
On May 5, Vaughn was in the high school’s field house putting finishing touches on plans for a protest when he got a call. The video of Arbery being shot, which Vaughn had been hearing for weeks might exist, had been leaked. The footage was filmed by Bryan and later given to local attorney Alan Tucker, who had been in contact with the McMichaels before he sent the video to the local radio station.
The video shows Arbery jogging down a street and approaching a parked white truck in the middle of the road. A White man is standing by the driver’s side of the truck, and another White man is in the bed of the pickup. Both men are armed. Arbery tries to run around the passenger side of the truck, briefly disappearing from view. As he re-emerges into view and toward the front of the truck, Arbery is engaged in a physical altercation with the White man who had been standing by the driver’s side armed with a shotgun. Three gun blasts can be heard. Arbery eventually falls to the ground.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) would later say Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery during the encounter.
It remains unclear whether the McMichaels or Bryan pushed for Tucker to release the video and, if they did, what their reasoning was for doing so. Tucker told the New York Times, “It got the truth out there as to what you could see.” But Vaughn and Watts said they believe the video would not have been released were it not for the pressure their campaign was putting on stakeholders in the case.
“I’m not sure if it would have been an idea for these men, or this attorney who was a friend of these men, to feel it was necessary to put anything out if there was no public pressure there,” Watts said.
The video quickly went viral and prompted a national outcry, with prominent politicians, celebrities and activists calling for action. Two days after the video emerged, the McMichaels were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault, and the Department of Justice announced it was weighing whether to bring federal hate crime charges against the men. Two weeks later, Bryan was arrested and charged with murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Bryan would later tell a GBI agent that Travis McMichael uttered a racial slur as Arbery lay dying in the road after being shot three times.
Vaughn watched the video over and over, feeling the need to be an expert on the footage to talk with his supporters and the media. The night after it was released, he paced back and forth in his living room until the sun came up, unable to get the images of Arbery’s death out of his mind.
“There are leaders in this community who should be fighting for justice,” Vaughn said. “I am completely out of my element. I shouldn’t have to do an open-records request, a letter to the police. I shouldn’t have to rally people to vouch that Ahmaud was a runner. There are people we vote for to do these things.”
In May, the GBI announced it would investigate possible prosecutorial misconduct in the offices of Johnson and Barnhill. After receiving Johnson’s letter requesting recusal, the state attorney general’s office learned Johnson had contacted Barnhill and he agreed to accept the case, the GBI said. Along with holding on to the case for several more weeks after he and Johnson had learned of Barnhill’s son’s ties to McMichael and Arbery, the GBI also said that, days before his appointment to the case, Barnhill had provided an opinion to the Glynn County Police Department “that he did not see grounds for the arrest of any of the individuals involved” in Arbery’s death. Barnhill did not disclose that he had provided the opinion when he requested to be recused from the case.
Later that month, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide reckoning on police brutality and racial injustice, casting an even brighter spotlight on Arbery’s case. Thousands of videos poured in of people completing a jog of 2.23 miles, which the group started to signify the date Arbery was killed. The I Run With Maud movement had become an international effort.
“Somebody has to be out front, and somebody has to lead the charge,” Brunswick City Commissioner Vincent Williams said. “And [Vaughn] was one of the ones … that was divinely chosen to be in the position that he is in.”
‘Let’s get our community right’
As Vaughn took a leading role in bringing attention to Arbery’s death, he received plenty of anonymous calls and messages urging him to stop speaking out. “The silent want me silent,” he said.
“Sometimes people don’t want to confront that thing that is right there in your face,” said Harvey, the mayor. “This community sometimes did not want to hear all he had to say, but he said it very professional, very eloquently.”
Vaughn said he is the only Black male instructor to teach a core class at the school, where the student body is 43 percent White, 38 percent Black and 12 percent Hispanic, according to 2019 figures. He criticized the school district for not putting out a statement on Arbery’s death, even though other schools from across the country had sent condolences to the family. He wondered whether he would be allowed to teach his class about Arbery during his African American studies course.
“We’ve talked to our principals and our teachers and just said: ‘Let the kids talk and listen to them,’ ” Glynn County Schools Superintendent Scott Spence said. “ ‘It’s not the time for you to voice your opinion; it’s time for you to listen to the kids … and try to be understanding.’ That’s most of what our message is.”
Arbery’s No. 21 jersey, which he wore during his senior season of 2011, is in a shadow box near the office of the team’s current coach, Sean Pender, who took over in 2016. He is the first White head coach at the school since 1979, he said, and the gravity of that distinction has hit him in the months since Arbery’s death. He oversees a team with several players who have told Vaughn they have been racially profiled by police and several players with family members who work in law enforcement.
“We have to get this right,” Pender said. “I knew if we took it on a national level, that couldn’t be our focus. Our focus had to be on our community. Let’s get our community right.”
In June, the staff decided to empower the players and planned a march around the school. The city didn’t initially give the team a permit, Vaughn said, and players were worried they wouldn’t be supported by the community. Vaughn mobilized support through the I Run With Maud effort, and hundreds showed up to rally behind the team.
“Last year, we were kind of divided,” senior Amarion Whitfield said. “After the Ahmaud situation, we got closer. After our little walk, things started changing.”
In Brunswick, where a mural of Arbery is painted on a downtown building, the case has brought renewed criticism of a police department that reportedly has had a history of troubling responses to cases — and prompted many to call for action that will take the lesson of Arbery’s death and create lasting change.
“It’s making sure that we honor his memory as in a line of people that became victims to this racial violence,” Watts said. “This racial injustice in a country, in a local community, too, that has been willfully ignoring what is sitting right in front of them. … The climate that murdered Ahmaud Arbery, it was always there. It did not pop up in the few weeks before his death.”
‘Create real change’
The tension of the past few months has reminded Vaughn of the profiling he endured in Brunswick. A white van had followed him while he was on a run. A woman had approached him and his daughter at a neighborhood pool and asked him repeatedly whether he was a homeowner. He and his wife were pulled over by police for driving too slow on a dark road with no streetlights, and three or four police cars surrounded him. One of the officers recognized him.
“Oh, that’s Coach Vaughn,” he remembers an officer saying. After they were let go, he turned to his wife and said, “What if I wasn’t Coach Vaughn?”
But he is still Coach Vaughn, even though his role now extends far beyond the football field and the classroom. Gregory and Travis McMichael have requested bond hearings, and Vaughn said his group will continue to fight against their release. They have been contacted by other families who are hoping they can help push for exposure in cases of racial violence, and Vaughn plans to rally more support against certain laws in Georgia — including the citizen’s arrest law — and inundate political offices with phone calls.
“We have got to figure out a way for people to take that energy, that extreme intense energy, and use it to create real change, which in America doesn’t happen,” Vaughn said. “Ahmaud Arbery is a unique case because actual change occurred.”
When he’s on the field, Vaughn doesn’t miss chances to remind his players of what they’re fighting for. After a recent practice, the players took a knee and didn’t head for the locker room until Pender spoke to them about their lackluster effort. Standing on a swampy field in 90-degree heat, sweat sticking to his neck, Vaughn related the practice back to the bigger picture.
“We’re trying to raise you up as the new leaders of Brunswick,” he said, and after leaving the field, he eventually returned to his classroom and called his brother. He wanted to talk about their campaign and see what they could do next.