On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through a neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga., was chased by two men — father and son Greg and Travis McMichael, who suspected him of burglarizing a construction site. After a struggle, Travis McMichael fired a fatal shot at him, all of it caught on video by their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan.
A year later, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, is still trying to piece together why her son’s life was taken, but that his death became one of several that triggered several months of massive protests against police and vigilante violence involving unarmed Black people, gives her some solace.
“It still hurts that I lost Ahmaud,” said Cooper-Jones in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Knowing that Ahmaud was possibly involved in change tells me he didn’t lose his life in vain.”
But she said she also felt that law enforcement criminalized him when he had committed no crime. The McMichaels had followed him believing that he was the suspect in the burglarizing of several homes in the area that were under construction. There is no law in Georgia, however, that would allow them to take up arms against Arbery if they were not defending themselves or their own property.
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Cooper-Jones said the detective that told her Arbery had been killed said that he had been part of a robbery, although no such evidence was found on his body.
“This detective, this investigator was actually comfortable enough to come to my home to tell me something he knew that wasn’t true,” Cooper-Jones said. “So that says a whole lot about the department. It was horrible.” But she also feels that police would have taken him into custody even if he had not been shot.
“I often think that if they didn’t kill him, he was going to go to jail for lots of cases of burglary,” she said. “They were going to take him to jail for doing something, when he hadn’t done anything.”
It took months of agitation to get an arrest. Cooper-Jones first tried to get local Brunswick Judicial Circuit prosecutor Jackie Johnson to investigate the case, but she recused herself because of Greg McMichaels’ relationship with the office. It wasn’t until a fourth one, Cobb County D.A., Joyette Holmes was chosen by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr that pursuit of Arbery’s accused killers was set in motion.
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Arbery’s name was part of a group, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and several others, of unarmed African Americans killed by police, that inspired a new hate crimes law in Georgia, calls for federal police reform (including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act), and a heightened awareness of a generations old racial problem. But Cooper-Jones is still grieving. She has moved away from Brunswick to be closer to family in Augusta, the AJC says, because of the pain of her son’s death.
“Some days I don’t get out of bed,” she said. “It’s just hard sometimes.” But she is also continuing her push for justice. “I owe that to him.”
The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested last May and have been charged with several counts of murder and aggravated assault. Despite several hearings since their arrest, no trial date has been set. But prosecutors could possibly pursue a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Cooper-Jones has been at every court hearing of the accused men. She remains steadfast about achieving justice.
“Ahmaud was killed in a very senseless manner,” she said. “They didn’t care about it. They tried to cover it up. They didn’t value, they didn’t respect Ahmaud’s life. If these guys go to jail for the rest of their lives, it won’t bring Ahmaud back.
“He’s never going to come back,” she said. “Not next week, not next month, not next year. I’m just finally getting that reality check.”