The musical ‘West Side Story’ was produced over sixty years ago, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim still strike a chord, most notably in the song ‘America’ in which Puerto Ricans look at both social sides of their New York district. One outstanding scene is when the female chorus sings “Life is all right in America”, to which the males riposte is “If you’re a White in America” — and so it has been for many non-whites since the slaves began to arrive before the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
In spite of the Declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” black people continued in slavery until 1865, when, at least notionally, they were granted freedom. But their status remained most definitely that of inequality for a very long time, and many would contend that much discrimination continues to this day — none more strongly, at the moment, than the family of Mr Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot dead by two white men on February 23. And there is widespread feeling in the world and even in the U.S. that racism is regrettably prevalent in America.
Of course, there have been dedicated U.S. citizens over the years who have tried hard to eradicate one of the most foul characteristics of mankind. Not the least of these was President Lyndon Johnson whose sentiments were, to put it kindly, ambivalent. He referred to blacks as “niggers,” yet pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying at the signing that “We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings. Not because of their own failures, but because of the colour of their skin.” It’s probable that he genuinely believed what he said, but in his day and age it was common for white people to use the word ‘nigger’ — and in many circles in the U.S., especially in the South, the word continues to be used.
Which brings us to the State of Georgia, where the black mayor of the town of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, had imposed limitations on movement in the area because of the spread of Covid-19, and was assailed by a tweet message reading “Nigger, just shut up and RE-OPEN ATLANTA!” (It is notable that most of the mainstream media refrained from reprinting or even referring to the word “nigger” as such, and ABC News, for example, reported that the mayor was “addressed by a racial slur,” although CNN was courageous enough to describe it as “the N-word.”)
Arbery was not killed in Atlanta but near his home in the town of Brunswick which has a population of 16,765 of whom 9,400, or 56 percent, are black. (6,300 whites.) Georgia is now solidly Republican, having ditched the Democrats in 1964 after approval of the Civil Rights Act by Democrat President Johnson (although voters supported Georgia-born Jimmy Carter and, very narrowly, Bill Clinton in their presidential campaigns). It might be wondered why the Republicans are to the fore in such a region, but the racial composition of the state as a whole is given as white 59.04% and black 31.46%, so not only is it unsurprising that the place is in Republican hands but also disturbing that of 305 COVID-19 patients in eight Georgia hospitals, 247 were black — more than 80%, as found in a study carried out by the Washington-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Understandably, Georgia State has “stopped reporting COVID-19 deaths by race” but it couldn’t stop the growing concern, locally and nation-wide, about the attempted cover up of the circumstances in which Ahmaud Arbery met his death. The two white men involved are Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, former policeman Gregory McMichael, 64.
The New York Times published a timeline of the shooting, and it is intriguing to examine the sequence of events. It all began just after one o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday February 23, when Arbery was jogging in the suburb of Satilla Shores and was shot. There was an investigation of the death by the police department, following which it was reported in the media that at the crime scene the police “encountered a former colleague with the victim’s blood on his hands. They took down his version of events and let him and his adult son, who had fired the shots, go home. Later that day, Wanda Cooper, the mother of the 25-year-old victim, Ahmaud Arbery, received a call from a police investigator. She recounted later that the investigator said her son had been involved in a burglary and was killed by ‘the homeowner,’ an inaccurate version of what had happened.”
The word “inaccurate” is not appropriate. The mother of the dead man was told a lie by a public official who had investigated a shooting on the streets of an American town. But the media weren’t interested enough to follow up, and the family of Mr Arbery were just ordinary people and thus of no interest to the media or the authorities.
Nothing whatever was done, and on April 1 a local newspaper, the Brunswick News, carried details of the police investigation, informing the public that the police report was based almost entirely on the responding policemen’s interview with Gregory McMichael. The records claimed that after the McMichaels pursued Mr. Arbery, Travis McMichael and Mr. Arbery “started fighting over the shotgun, at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot.”
Gregory McMichael (who was armed with a .357 magnum handgun) told the police that he thought Mr. Arbery looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area. The Brunswick News, citing documents obtained through a public records request, noted that there had been just one burglary in the neighborhood since January: the theft of a handgun from an unlocked truck parked outside Travis McMichael’s house. As the New York Times reported, “the case was taken over by George E. Barnhill, the Waycross district attorney, who advised the police that there was insufficient cause to arrest Mr. Arbery’s pursuers. He argued that they had acted legally under Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws.”
The whole affair would have been forgotten had it not been for the surfacing of a most disturbing video — over two months after the killing.
On May 5 Georgia’s WGIG local radio station released the video on social media then swiftly removed it, but another station, WGAC, then posted it on Facebook. The video, “taken from inside a vehicle, shows Mr. Arbery running when he comes upon a white truck, with one man standing next to its open driver’s-side door and another in the bed of the pickup. Mr. Arbery runs around the truck and disappears briefly from view. Then the man standing outside the truck tussles with him, and three gunshots are heard.” It is quite obvious what happened. And Gregory and Travis McMichael have at last been charged with murder.
But what will happen now?
It would be unwise to predict that justice will be done. But one thing is certain: it is only too often extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous to be a black in America.