Ahmaud Arbery and the Legacy of Inaction, Injustice and Tragedy Porn for Black People

So, the past week has been interesting. I say interesting because everything that’s been happening should have already happened on or immediately after February 23, 2020. That’s the day Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while taking a jog in Georgia.

But it was only this week that his murderers, father and son Gabriel and Travis McMichael, were actually arrested. Huh? You may be asking. Exactly. Why did it take two and a half months to arrest those two when there is a video of them — I wouldn’t dream of sharing it — in their truck committing the crime?

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

According to one article I read, “the district attorney who previously led the investigation told police he did not see grounds for an arrest of the McMichaels or the man who recorded it from his vehicle, according to a memo obtained by USA TODAY.

“Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George E. Barnhill said in the memo that Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan were in “hot pursuit of a burglary suspect” when they shot Arbery, 25, as he jogged through the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Georgia. Barnhill sent the memo to Glynn County Police Capt. Tom Jump

“It appears it was their intent to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived,” Barnhill wrote. “Under Georgia law, that is perfectly legal.”

Hmm. Okay. Sounds like something to review since they’re not the police, and there was no mention or record of them actually calling the police, or holding Arbery, like by the arms. What you see — or what I saw — in the video is Arbery fighting off attackers, then being shot and falling to the ground.

Surely, the relevant facts aren’t what they intended to do, but what they actually did — murder an unarmed man with a shotgun. Unlike holding a criminal suspect until law enforcement arrives, that is illegal. So, why no charges?

I think we all know, but for the sake of the blog, I’ll say it: There were no charges — at least not until there was a national outcry and a flood of high-profile social media outrage — because Arbery is black. Black people aren’t always considered people, so killing one is neither here nor there.

Pick the bones out of that statement all you want. It didn’t feel good to write it, but that’s what I believe. If you consider how often this or something similar happens all over this country, what other logical conclusion can one draw?

I’ll say it again. An unarmed black man went for a jog, and two white men killed him. There is a video of the crime, but no charges were filed until everyone and their mother started tweeting and posting and asking why are there no charges? An arrest was made quite promptly after that. After all, it’s not like they didn’t know who killed Arbery.

It’s crazy. Completely ridiculous, and it happens so often, as much as I know it’s horrible, as I sit here writing this, I’m relatively unemotional. Certainly not as emotionally torn up as the first time I blogged about something similar, many, many years ago.

It was only after I watched a video of matter of fact commentary from Arbery’s mother that tears welled in my eyes and I cried. That’s fucked up.

I am a black woman. I have black male friends, a brother, a father, uncles and male cousins. I understand why this entire situation is revolting, but because I see these images, and hear this story so often, told in different places about different black people, I’m becoming immune to it.

Me. A black woman. A journalist. An empath of sorts and certainly someone who believes that people should be allowed to walk and run unmolested in the towns where they live, and that criminals should be punished for their crimes.

Even now, the new DA on the case is only sending the crime to a grand jury to consider criminal charges. Not to file them, but to consider criminal charges.

There’s a video of a murder. A man is dead. But the men who killed him may not be charged for the crime. My skin is crawling.

Five years ago, Luvvie Ajayi wrote an article titled About Images of Black Death and the Groundhog Day of Police Brutality. This was around the time the hashtag trend started, and we began to routinely memorialize slain black men via social media. She introduced a term to me that I had never heard before. It refers to the prevalence of grotesque pictures and video of black bodies being killed, left to rot in the street, choked out with two and three police officers knees in their backs and on their necks – she called it tragedy porn.

It’s not a new idea, certainly. A good chunk of us have seen pictures of 14-year-old Emmett Till in our history books. The smiling picture of him young and plump cheeked, and the last one of his near unrecognizable body after being retrieved from a prolonged stay in a watery grave in 1955. But you know what you won’t see in the media? White bodies in the same condition.

First, racially motivated hate crimes, or murders by police, don’t really happen to white people. But they do die. We’re all human. They get hurt. They bleed. They run from the police. They get shot, not usually by police though.

But the media doesn’t show it. The media doesn’t routinely pass around images of their degradation, last gasps of air, humiliation, disgust, fear, tears. You only see that humiliating reveal visited upon black bodies. That’s wrong.

It’s all wrong. But the media censorship that preserves white dignity in times of crisis, the bias that protects one class of Americans and lays bare another, well. Tragedy porn is the perfect name for it.

It’s like Luuvie said. We’re being desensitized to black death because it’s treated too frivolously. Instead of video being a tool with which to capture and logically thereafter to prosecute a crime, it has instead become a window through which the world can watch — with the same investment one might give a poorly made, insincerely acted porno – black people die. It’s like a modern day snuff film, only you don’t need to get past a pay wall to view it. It’s free and readily available.

On a personal note, I’m not afraid of dying. I’m in no hurry, of course, and I really hope I don’t go out like a hashtag. But there is one thing that I want after I’m gone. I want a closed casket. Please control my last narrative. Present dignified, beautiful, happy images of me at my best.

Mr. Arbery was not given that respect. The last image anyone will see of him is his attack, his shooting, and his senseless death on a Georgia street.

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