Local NAACP on Arbery murder

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It is a sad commentary on this nation and this culture that many of the same conditions that precipitated the creation of the NAACP still persist one-hundred and twelve years after its founding. In fact, these conditions have persisted far longer than that. As Rev. Jim Wallis suggests in his book, America’s Original Sin, the problem of racism is embedded in this nation’s fabric. And this is not the unfounded accusation of a liberal Democrat; Condoleeza Rice once opined that racism was America’s “congenital birth defect.” Theologians and philosophers would say that racism is part of the ontological essence of America.

We are forced to address this issue in light of the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. The twenty-five year old African American was jogging in this suburban neighborhood near his mother’s house when two white men, father and son, decided that Mr. Arbery looked “suspicious.” They followed Arbery in a pick-up truck, armed with a 357. Magnum and a shotgun. Against the orders of the 911 operator (recall George Zimmerman?) the father-son duo pursued Mr. Arbery, confronted him, physically attempted to detain him, struggled with him, and ultimately shot him three times, killing him.

The killing went unprosecuted for over two months. Gregory McMichaels, the father involved in the killing, is a former law enforcement officer. He was stripped of his authority to arrest recently by Glynn County. There was no legal rationale for any “citizen’s arrest” by either person, since there was no evidence of any crime committed by Mr. Arbery. There is still no evidence of any crime committed by Ahmaud Arbery, but he is dead nevertheless. The McMichaels had no right to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.

There are too many inconsistencies surrounding the handling of this case. As someone has well noted, they didn’t arrest the perpetrators because they saw the video, they arrested them because we saw the video. Like the Springfield riots, this incident did not happen in isolation. This is just another in a long series of events involving the deaths of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials and by people who think they are empowered to enforce the unwritten law of presumption of guilt by race. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Keonte Spencer, and too many others to mention belong to a list of American citizens killed for (fill in the blank) while black.

You can’t listen to your music while black. You can’t wear a hoodie while black. You can’t drive with a broken headlight while black. You can’t walk home from a snack run while black. You can’t wait for a school bus while black. You can’t play in a playground while black. You can’t live in your own apartment while black. You can’t be in your own back yard while black. You can’t seek help after a car accident while black. You can’t sell cigarettes on the street while black. You can’t jog while black.

Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker writes that we are now living in the age of the “Black panic defense.” The mere presence of an African American, regardless of age, gender, or dress, is enough to create a sense of endangerment. This is incomprehensible in a country that touts itself as the home of equality, democracy, and justice. It is unthinkable in the self-touted land of the free and the home of the brave. Unless we have been mistaken about what America really is, we must correct this unacceptable abuse of power and privilege. As Jelani Cobb writes, “There was no conviction in the trial of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, and no charges were brought in the deaths of John Crawford and Tamir Rice. But no one can seriously believe that if two armed black men chased down and shot a white man in Glynn County, Georgia, they would walk around freely for more than two months.”

This cannot be another case of trying to put the victim on trial. This cannot be another case of, “Yes, but what about black-on-black crime?” This cannot be another case of, “It’s not my (race’s, community’s, social group’s, etc.) problem.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

America is beset by multiple ills, all deserving of our collective attention. There are issues related to the current pandemic. There are issues of climate change and environmental justice. There are issues related to our crumbling infrastructure. There is access to affordable health care, continued funding for Social Security and Medicare, affordable higher education, mass incarceration, income and wealth disparities, and a litany of other issues that all of us need to work together to solve.

However, this issue of unarmed African Americans being killed with impunity ought to be a matter of profound shame. It ought to be, but it is clearly not, at least to not enough citizens of this supposedly Christian nation. Black bodies remain disposable. Black lives do not matter to everyone. This fact was demonstrated recently right here in Roanoke when Gene Gallimore was given an effective slap on the wrist for the hit-and-run death of 58 year-old Linda Pierson. Gallimore was driving without a license at the time of the incident, but he plead guilty to the hit-and-run charge and the misdemeanor charge of driving without a license was dropped. He will be released from jail in four months. His sentence of eighteen months includes the time he has already served awaiting sentencing. This in exchange for a human life? There is apparently no justice for people of color in the court system.

Colin Kaepernick was excoriated by many for taking a knee to protest this kind of injustice. Perhaps all of us need to take two knees, or whatever your posture of prayer happens to be, and ask God for forgiveness. All of us, either through our apathy and silence, or through our active complicity, are guilty of perpetuating this stain on America. The time is now to work for justice for ALL. If we truly desire to be a nation that regains its global prominence as a leader in the fight for justice and equality – in spite of whatever failures we will have – then now is the time to begin to reclaim that mantle by speaking out and speaking up. “Stand your ground” laws and the “black panic defense” must be eradicated.

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy described civil rights as a “moral issue” as “old as the scripture and as clear as the American Constitution.” On July 19, 2013, President Barack H. Obama asked, “Now, the question is . . . where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?” To quote the title of Dr. King’s last book, “Where do we go from here? Community or chaos?”

This is our time, if we will, as a community, seize it. If we as a nation can somehow come to grips with our own scarred history, our delusions of grandeur, our illusion of moral perspicuity, and at long last recognize that we are not what was advertised. Perhaps we never will be.

Bono of U2 (an Irish citizen) once said that America is not a great nation. America is more than a nation. America is an idea. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come. Perhaps we shall never achieve the idea, but the pursuit of the idea is perhaps its own reward. This pursuit must include the pursuit of safety, security, and justice for all. One final quote from the classic 1951 science fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the words of Klaatu, “There must be security for all, or none are secure.” Peace and justice. Amen.

Dr. Brenda Hale, President of the Roanoke Branch, NAACP
Dr. Alonzo Smith, Religion Chair
Dr. David Jones, Political Action Chair