Hundreds of people filled the area surrounding the steps of the Glynn County Courthouse Saturday with a clear message: the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery will not be forgotten.
Arbery, 25, was shot and killed Feb. 23 while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood after a confrontation with Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 64. The McMichaels told Glynn County police the day of the shooting they suspected Arbery was involved in a string of robberies in the neighborhood. After a lengthy investigation that went through two district attorneys and was eventually taken over by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the McMichaels were arrested on May 7 and charged with murder and aggravated assault. They remain in the Glynn County Detention Center.
The rally was spearheaded by a statewide coalition, JUSTGeorgia, which loaded up a caravan from Atlanta and drove down to Brunswick. The mood of the crowd was a mixture of frustration over Arbery’s death, celebration for the life he lived and passion to make sure that the alleged perpetrators, and the system that allowed the investigation to languish, pay the price.
Chants of “justice for Ahmaud” and “I run with Maud” rang out from the crowd as music played before Francys Johnson, chair of the New Georgia Project and former president of the Georgia NAACP, kicked off the event that featured more than a dozen speakers from a variety of groups, churches and other affiliations.
“Today, witness from this courthouse step, all around the world, that what was done here will be answered. We will have justice for Ahmaud,” Johnson said to the approval of the crowd. “We want Brunswick to know that we are with you, we stand with you and that we run with Maud.”
The Rev. Timothy McDonald, a Brunswick native and pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, expressed frustration and exasperation that these kinds of incidents are still taking place.
“We were taught to stand up for what is right, what is honorable and what is pleasing in the shine of almighty God,” McDonald said. “We’ve been in this battle a long time. We didn’t just come to join a fight. Racism is real in America and racism is real in Brunswick, Georgia and Glynn County. We’ve come today to send a message to the racists and the (white) supremacists that we will fight you with everything we have, not just for Ahmaud Arbery, but all of the Ahmaud Arberys.”
Despite all the sadness and anger surrounding Arbery’s death, McDonald said God will bring something good out of this terrible situation.
“Because you are here, we’re going to rise up as a new nation,” McDonald said. “Because you are here, we’re going to start singing a new freedom song. Because you are here, we are going to see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In that same vein, Brunswick NAACP President John Perry said he sees the beginning of a great awakening in the aftermath of Arbery’s tragic death.
“This thing started a little while ago, but we’re still standing and still crying with the same voice that justice must be served,” Perry said. “There has been a lot of darkness for a long, long time, but Ahmaud’s death sounded off an alarm that makes us recognize we’ve got to wake up right now and demand of our justice system to be to us what it promised to be.”
Perry emphasized the importance of cleaning up what he described as corruption in the local justice system.
“We’ve got to clean up the house of Glynn County,” Perry said. “We have to have law enforcement and a system that will do right by all people.”
A lot of vitriol at Saturday’s rally was aimed at Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson and Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill.
Greg McMichael was a former Glynn County police officer, as well as a former investigator for the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office. Johnson told The News last week she recused herself from the case, but because the county police were still in need of legal guidance, she contacted an attorney from Barnhill’s office.
The state attorney general’s office officially gave the case to Barnhill a few days after the shooting, but according to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, his office was not aware that Barnhill had met with police before officially taking over the case.
Barnhill recused himself in April because his son works for Johnson in the Brunswick office, but not before he penned a letter to the Glynn County police saying he did not see the need to arrest the McMichaels.
The case was then assigned by the attorney general to Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden. Durden would eventually request the help of the GBI, which arrested the McMichaels two days after they began looking into the incident.
The case is now with the Cobb District Attorney’s Office.
Several speakers called for both Johnson and Barnhill to be removed from office and face prosecution for their handling of the case.
Carr has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how the case was handled.
“All across this country, people have chimed in on social media saying this isn’t fair,” Perry said. They’ve chimed in saying something has to be done. They’ve chimed in from all races saying this is unjust.”
The Rev. Jane Page with the Unitarian Universalists of Coastal Georgia called herself a white ally, but she said that wasn’t always true. She talked about how her parents didn’t have to teach her to be racist while growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. The society of the times taught her, she said.
She credited reading and making new friends with helping to break her away from the backward way of thinking that was common at the time.
“We have a new Jim Crow and it’s in our criminal justice system,” Page said. “Our children are still being brought up in a society that has systemic and pervasive racism.”
All those who spoke called on everyone to support Arbery’s family. Several family members were in attendance with some speaking to the crowd.
After the speakers concluded their remarks, family members led the crowd in a march to Mary Ross Waterfront Park.
“We stand in unity and solidarity with this mother and father who joined the club that no parent should ever have to join,” said Derrick Boazman, a radio talk show host from Atlanta. “Love on this family and remind them that he now belongs to all of us. Let’s take him everywhere we go in our heart.”
Attorney Mawuli Davis, who served as event moderator, said it is important to continue to lift up Arbery’s family in their time of need.
“Some of us are going to go home and wrap our arms around our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews while this family will still have to experience this loss,” Davis said. “So while we are mad, they’re hurting. We have to extend love to them in this space.”