In Ahmaud Arbery case, unexpected advocates for racial justice

Why We Wrote This

National narratives around race don’t change easily. But the moral clarity emerging after the killing of a black jogger in Georgia is setting up to be a defining moment for conservative ideals and racial justice.

John Amis/AP
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, shown on opening day for the state legislature in Atlanta Jan. 13, 2020, is among the Republicans calling for justice for Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed while going for a run.

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Something unusual has happened in the aftermath of the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting of Ahmaud Arbery: The entrenched political lines around Black Lives Matter cases have not held. Conservative voices – particularly in Georgia government – are joining the chorus calling for justice.

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, came out early to condemn the killing, calling for justice for Mr. Arbery. She was joined by a chorus of major conservative voices, including some prominent evangelicals. While some think it’s too soon to say the national narrative has shifted, some black Georgians interviewed welcome white conservatives stepping off the sidelines.

“Black people in this nation have spent more time in involuntary servitude than in freedom if you add it up over time,” says James Yancey, a Brunswick attorney, who is African American. “It didn’t get that way overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. It will have to come down to a divine change from the hearts of people.”

White people, including evangelical Christians, speaking up for that change is important, he says. “Words have meaning. Words mean something.”

Ben Davis is a self-described Christian conservative and a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights. He also believes citizen arrest laws have solid roots in common law.

The one-time campaign chief for former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is also a former long-distance runner.

And what Mr. Davis saw in the video showing the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black runner in Brunswick, Georgia, was jarring.

To him, the video offers moral clarity, and he says that standing up publicly for a fellow runner’s constitutional rights doesn’t negate his conservatism.

“It seems like conservatives are always kind of Johnny-come-latelies with some of these really important issues, instead of speaking imaginatively about how being conservative applies to the whole sphere of public and collective life together,” says Mr. Davis, who wrote an Op-Ed about the shooting for The Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas. “Many say, ‘Oh, this is just a leftist issue so we’re going to sit very comfortably in our own little narrative. We’re going to wait it out and keep ourselves silent.’

“I think that’s wrong.”

Something unusual has happened in the aftermath of the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting of Mr. Arbery: The entrenched political lines around Black Lives Matter cases have not held. Conservative voices – particularly in Georgia government – are joining the chorus calling for justice.

Mr. Davis and other conservatives see the killing of Mr. Arbery – in which armed white men in a pickup truck chased down a black man wearing shorts and sneakers – as a defining moment for conservative ideals and racial justice.

“To see someone killed before one’s very eyes is horrifying, but ... there’s also a sense of weariness and lament that I find in the country after so many cases of this sort of horror happening,” says Russell Moore, author of “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.” “There may be some ambiguities about some of the questions here, but there certainly is no ambiguity about the end result: that private citizens do not have the authority to kill someone. There’s just not a Christian justification nor an American justification for this sort of action.”

A consensus across party lines

While some think it’s too soon to say the national narrative has shifted, some black Georgians interviewed welcome white evangelicals stepping off the sidelines.

“Black people in this nation have spent more time in involuntary servitude than in freedom if you add it up over time,” says James Yancey, a Brunswick attorney, who is African American. “It didn’t get that way overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. It will have to come down to a divine change from the hearts of people.” And white people, including evangelical Christians, speaking up for that change is important, he says. “Words have meaning. Words mean something.”

Two months after a prosecutor deemed the chase and killing legal under the state’s self-defense and citizen arrest laws, two men – father and son Greg and Travis McMichael – were arrested on May 7 by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on charges of assault and murder. A fourth prosecutor has now been assigned to the case. The Department of Justice is probing the incident as a possible federal hate crime. A judge denied bond.

The men say they were chasing a burglary suspect who turned violently on them. Mr. Arbery was shot three times at short range with a shotgun. The elder Mr. McMichael’s attorney said the facts will present a different series of events than the public has seen so far.

For now, the current picture “fits into the worst impressions that people have, that Georgia is still ‘Mississippi Burning’ – that this is still the 1950s, where lynchings take place,” says Charles Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, in Athens.

Win McNamee/Reuters
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican, participates in the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on coronavirus response, in Washington, May 12, 2020. Senator Loeffler was among the first Republicans to condemn the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, came out early to condemn the killing, calling for justice for Mr. Arbery.

She was joined by a chorus of major conservative voices.

“The time for being silent ended last week,” Republican Senate leader David Ralston told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, also a Republican, said: “It’s important for people to know that Republicans value each and every human life. I think it’s important for everyone to understand that civil rights is not within the purview of any one party.”

The bipartisan outrage over the killing and how it was handled has jump-started a conversation about a Georgia hate crime bill that has passed the Republican-led House but has lingered in a Senate committee. A previous hate crimes law was voided in 2004, leaving Georgia only one of four states without such laws. Lawmakers may also revisit citizen arrest laws that one Glynn County prosecutor said protected the shooters from prosecution.

One of those supporting a probe into why it took two months to make an arrest is U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican whose district includes Brunswick.

“The American people and the people in the First District especially need to be assured not only that justice is going to be done, but that they have confidence in the judicial system and law enforcement,” says Congressman Carter. “I think a reassessment is essential. As damning as that video was, we want to make sure that ... these guys get a fair trial. But, I mean, let’s face it: This should never have happened.”

Is this really a new narrative?

Some historians are critical of purported “new narratives” based on a singular exception.

“Some of the other cases have been more ambiguous in part because the victim’s character gets besmirched pretty quickly in the process, or because of the authority of the person doing the shooting,” says Andra Gillespie, director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University in Atlanta, who is black. “But in this case you had an extrajudicial activity where the narrative quickly became an unarmed jogger gets shot by vigilantes. That was visceral and made this a clear black and white issue of right and wrong.”

Others caution that the outcry in this case may be more politically motivated than anything else. 

“The outcry and the movement in the criminal justice system, in a lot of ways that’s a response to negative publicity that the local community and the state of Georgia is getting about ... a lynching,” says historian Carole Emberton. 

But others see a difference this time – if of degrees.

Professor Bullock draws a parallel to the last American mass lynching, which happened in Georgia in 1946 when two African American couples were killed by a white mob at Moore’s Ford Bridge on the Appalachee River.

State and federal law enforcement poured in, but leads evaporated as the community closed ranks to protect the killers. The FBI investigation was finally and quietly closed a decade ago without any arrests. Historians point out that Georgia ranked second in numbers of confirmed lynchings through the Jim Crow era. There was no official recognition until 1999, when state officials erected a historical marker at Moore’s Ford.

“The governor-elect [in 1946], Eugene Talmadge, didn’t say anything condemning the lynching, and some people believed that the racist campaign he ran that year may have encouraged the lynch mob to think that there are no repercussions,” says Mr. Bullock.

But if the men who chased down Mr. Arbery believed the law and the community would protect them, adds Mr. Bullock, they were eventually proved mistaken.

A different kind of moment

For many white evangelical Christians, morality, race, and politics have long been wound into one tight cord through the South. The killing of Mr. Arbery has started a vigorous conversation within those Christian communities.

“If you think about Odetta’s song in the mid-20th century, ‘God’s Going to Cut You Down,’ speaking to the Klan and other white supremacist terrorists, the point of that song was to say that what you think is hidden will be ultimately revealed,” says Mr. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. “That means that Christians have a responsibility to seek to walk in the ways of a just God, and to bear another’s burdens.”

What may also be happening now beyond condemning hate on moral grounds is an understanding that conservatives may lose more broadly when they don’t demand equal justice in cases of racist violence.

“Racial violence often becomes a bifurcated thing on a narrow set of issues,” says Mr. Davis, in Wichita. “The idea of institutional racism ... has always either been used as a weapon or as a way of sidestepping the issue entirely.”

This is a different kind of moment, he hopes.

“When there are real, clear instances of racism such as what we have here, we should collectively speak out,” says Mr. Davis. “This should not be tainted by political ideology. We can be unified with one voice, condemn it and learn from it, and mourn it as a nation. ... It’s got to be citizens leading the cultivation of virtue and a spirit of reconciliation in this country. It’s got to happen among the people.”

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