Georgia and bigotry have a long and enduring relationship. Even with a white shooter facing hate crime charges and the possibility of the death penalty after killing six women of Asian descent and two others in the Atlanta area, anti-Black racism remains firmly entrenched.
This week encapsulates Georgia’s slow progress against hateful bigotry. Consider the citizen’s arrest law that Georgia’s governor repealed on Monday. Enacted in 1863, the law was initially used to allow white Georgians to detain enslaved people fleeing north, and later to justify hundreds of lynchings. After Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan followed and killed a Black man named Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., last February, the McMichaels invoked the citizen’s arrest law to defend themselves. On Tuesday, all three men pleaded not guilty to federal charges.
Arbery was jogging when the McMichaels blocked his path with a pickup as William Bryan filmed the encounter. The McMichaels, who claimed Arbery resembled a man suspected of break-ins in the area, pulled guns. After a brief struggle Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery. Citing the citizen’s arrest law, a local prosecutor initially declined to charge the men. That is, until video of the shooting went viral. Then a Glynn County grand jury indicted all three men on felony murder and related charges in Arbery’s death. Last month, a federal grand jury charged the men with hate crime and kidnapping charges.
Call me cynical, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp decided to repeal the citizen’s arrest law the day before the McMichaels and Bryan appeared in federal court and entered not guilty pleas. I think Kemp’s decision to work with legislators to change the law after 158 years is an attempt to pretend that Georgia has suddenly become enlightened on matters of race, and I’m not buying it.
Georgia remains a hotbed of racism, as evidenced by the state’s decision to pass a voter suppression law targeting Black residents and others in the wake of Donald Trump losing the state to Joe Biden, and Democrats winning both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats. But the state’s line right now seems to be: Let’s not deal with reality. Let’s live in the world of swirling political lies where Donald Trump can falsely claim he won an election he lost by millions of votes, where Georgia can pretend that fixing a 158-year-old law fixes racism, and where Brian Kemp can pretend that justice for Ahmaud Arbery is a priority.
“Ahmaud was the victim of a vigilante-style violence that has no place in our country or in our state,” Kemp said when he signed the legislation that overhauled what he called “a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse.” He said the new language “balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward.”
That’s nice. But isn’t Kemp the same guy who ran for governor of Georgia while he was the sitting secretary of state, overseeing the gubernatorial race while removing 560,000 voters from the rolls to beat out Stacey Abrams? Isn’t he the same guy who sat beneath a picture of a plantation where Black people were once enslaved while signing a voter suppression measure that targets Black voters? Wasn’t it while knocking on his door that a Black female legislator was arrested for trying to bear witness to him signing away Black voting rights? Yep, that’s the guy.
That’s why I don’t believe that Brian Kemp has had a sudden change of heart when it comes to racism in the state of Georgia. It’s more likely that Kemp is trying to burnish Georgia’s image after its voter suppression law caused Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game out of the Peach State, costing Georgia an estimated $100 million. And now, with federal prosecutors bringing renewed attention to the Arbery case, the man who has overseen Georgia’s racist approach to voting is trying to refocus the world’s attention by tossing us crumbs.
It won’t work. In a state that has carved racism into the land with a gargantuan image of Confederate generals at Stone Mountain, changing a law that should have been abolished long ago is not enough to erase the ongoing legacy of racial discrimination. It’s not enough to stop the demands for systemic change. And most heartbreaking of all, it’s not enough to bring Ahmaud Arbery back.