Dahleen Glanton: White privilege and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery

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Trayvon Martin’s death could have taught Americans a lot about white privilege gone awry. But the moment his killer walked out of the courtroom a free man, it was clear there would be no lesson to learn.

So history did what it always does when mistakes are allowed to go unchecked. It repeated itself. Now, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery is dead, because he happened to be a black man in a place where a white man didn’t think he belonged.

This time, the killing occurred near the small coastal city of Brunswick, Ga., less than a three-hour drive from Sanford, Fla., where George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon in 2012. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges.

Trayvon was “just walking around looking about” while wearing a hoodie. Arbery was jogging in a subdivision where white people live.

The circumstances are eerily similar, but there is an important element that sets this killing apart. A video that surfaced online Tuesday shows the moment Arbery was gunned down. That’s the only way black victims get to tell their side of the story.

Though authorities had the video in their possession since the shooting occurred on Feb. 23, no one listened to Arbery’s parents’ pleas for justice. Glynn County police refused to make an arrest. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation wasn’t interested. The state attorney general was silent. And Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t say a word.

Now the world is paying attention.

There is no explanation for why Gregory McMichael and his 34-year-old son, Travis, have not faced any charges for nearly three months — other than they are white people living in a town that is run by white people. And Arbery is just another dead black man.

Though the men’s account of the shooting was flawed and unbelievable, they were presumed to be honest, while Arbery’s motive for being in the neighborhood was questioned.

If you have ever wondered what white privilege looks like when it’s abused, this is it. When vigilante white men shoot unarmed black men, it is nearly always twisted to become the black man’s fault. That’s what happened with Trayvon, when there was no video to prove otherwise. And the same was about to happen to Arbery.

It is no surprise that the video tells a different story than the one the 64-year-old McMichael told police the day of the shooting. His version, according to the police report, amounted to this:

McMichael was in his front yard that Sunday afternoon when he saw a black man “hauling ass” down the street. He thought this might be the person responsible for a spate of recent break-ins in the neighborhood. So he called to his son to help bring him in.

The father and son duo grabbed a .357 magnum and a shotgun, jumped into their pickup truck and went looking for him. They chased Arbery in the truck, yelling out to him, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you.” At some point, a third man joined the pursuit.

When Arbery had the gall to ignore them, they pulled up beside him and Travis got out of the truck with the shotgun and began doing his duty as a privileged white man. But Arbery didn’t go for it. McMichael told police Arbery tried to take the shotgun away.

After being “violently” attacked, Travis McMichael fired two shots, the elder man told police. The next thing they knew, Arbery was lying face down on the pavement dead. As privileged white men, they were the victims of a vicious attack.

The story sounded fishy from the start. But it had credence because it came from two privileged white men, one of whom is a former Glynn County police officer who later became an investigator in the district attorney’s office.

As far as authorities were concerned, it was a solid case of self-defense. If not for that little video that went viral online, that’s likely how it would have ended.

The video showed Arbery jogging in the neighborhood. He’s seen trying to avoid the approaching pickup truck by crossing the street. One man gets out, while the other stands in the pickup bed. Shortly afterward, Arbery is seen struggling with the man outside the truck. Three shots are fired, not two.

Arbery never had a chance to defend himself from this kind of blatant white privilege.

The case is now going to a grand jury, but due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it could take weeks before the panel convenes to decide whether charges are warranted. Police could still arrest the suspects, though.

But little in Georgia makes sense these days. The governor has basically declared the pandemic over in the state, and the stay-at-home order has been lifted. Hair salons, nail shops, tattoo parlors and movie theaters are up and running again. Under the circumstances, waiting until mid-June to impanel a grand jury is ridiculous.

The only reason these men are allowed to continue to elude arrest is if authorities think they had every right to track a black man down and shoot him in the street.

That’s the greatest perk of having white privilege.



Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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