On April 25th, shortly before his birthday, a young man was murdered as he went for a jog on a pleasant road in a good neighborhood. Two men sat in wait for him in their parked pickup truck. The young man was shot with a shotgun, at least once at point-blank range. He bled out in the pleasant suburban street. The incident took only a few minutes. A friend of the assailants was present, and he recorded the killing on his cell phone. The video has since gone viral.
It could have happened here. It could have happened anywhere. But instead it happened in Satilla Shores, Georgia, a neighborhood outside Brunswick, a town just a bit smaller than Sedalia. The dead young man’s name was Ahmaud Arbery. He was black. The men who shot him are father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael. They are white.
The elder McMichael insisted to the news website The Daily Beast that he “never would have gone after someone for their color.”
So why did all of this happen?
The McMichaels, who were not initially charged with a crime, reported to police they believed Arbery was a serial trespasser and burglar. So when they saw him running in the neighborhood, they followed him, attempted to confront him, and then shot him after he began, in Gregory McMichael’s words, to “violently attack” his son Travis.
Another video, shared widely on Facebook this past weekend, shows a man believed to be Arbery trespassing inside an open construction site.
“See!” said some viewers, even some in our own community. “This proves it! We don’t have the whole story.”
“He was where he shouldn’t be.”
“He was committing a crime.”
Let me tell you all a story, one I think many of you will recognize.
I have lived almost my entire life in a rural area, on woods and farmland. I have seen people walk, hunt and pick mushrooms on other people’s land uninvited. On my parents’ land, in fact. Countless times. I have even known a few who intentionally poached, dumped trash, sprayed graffiti, or damaged the land or possessions of others. I know so many people–children, teens, grown adults, family, friends–who have done at least one of these things, that I can’t even remember them all. I bet you do too. Sometimes they were acting in revenge or malice, but most of the time their motivators were simply rash youth or even innocent curiosity.
In my thirty-two years I know of one or two incidents where someone was injured by the property owner as a result of their trespass. These incidents were generally regarded as outrageous. One of them was prosecuted as such.
Never have I known of a death as a result of a trespass. Never would it be considered an acceptable way to deal with a simple trespass crime, even in the unwritten law of rural justice.
Even more shocking and heinous to my rural peers would be the idea that if they or their children mushroomed or hunted on someone else’s land that they might be shot down not even by the property owner (the wronged party), but by his neighbors.
The justice of these scenarios does not change when “hunting land” is replaced with “construction site” and “white rural neighbor” is replaced with “black suburban neighbor.”
Your son does not deserve to be followed in a truck if he cuts through a backyard or hikes over a corner of the neighboring field .He does not deserve to be confronted with a shotgun if he stops to peer into a construction site or ducks under a fence to look at some cattle. He does not have to stop and answer to strange men about his whereabouts while he jogs down the street. He owes them nothing as a free American in a public place. Not even a polite wave.
We know this. We know that our sons and daughters, even the wayward ones, have a right to the protections and the punishments that the law prescribes. In our state, even first degree trespass carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine or six months in jail. Not execution
If you have forgotten about the law, about your own children, and your own stupid youth, if you think that “this proves it!” or “we don’t have the whole story,” then remember this:
If you could sit back and let it happen to a black man in Satilla Shores but not a white man in Sedalia, you have nothing. No integrity, no honesty, and no moral claim on the justice the law provides.
We can have a society where trespass is punished with a $500 fine. Or we can have a society where it’s punished with a quick shotgun blast in the middle of the street.
You, a free American, can decide which one you want to promote.
This article originally ran in the Saturday, May 16th weekend edition of the Sedalia Democrat newspaper.