Into the Movement for Ahmaud Arbery
Trymaine Lee: (BACKGROUND MUSIC) It's a devastatingly familiar story. A grainy cell phone video is released depicting the last moments of a young black man's life. The video spreads across social media. The young man's name becomes a hashtag. But what does the fight for justice look like today in 2020 in a pandemic? (BACKGROUND MUSIC) Here's how it unfolded.
On February 23rd, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in Brunswick, Georgia. His family says he was going on one of his regular jogs through the neighborhood when two armed white men, a father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael confronted him.
Archival Recording: Gregory McMichael quoted in this police report says he and his son believed Arbery was involved in recent home burglaries, so they followed him in their truck in an attempt to intercept him.
Lee: The men were not arrested. By early April, two local prosecutors had recused themselves from the case because of a potential conflict of interest. They knew the father, Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and investigator in the county.
Archival Recording: One writing (?), he thought the McMichaels' actions were perfectly legal and Travis McMichael acted in self-defense in the struggle over the gun.
Lee: A third prosecutor took over the case in mid-April, but for weeks, nothing happened. Then on May 5th, a cell phone video was made public. Recorded by a third individual from inside a car, it appears to show the McMichaels' truck blocking the street Ahmaud was running down. There is an altercation between Ahmaud and the son who was holding a shotgun. Ahmaud is shot three times. His family says he was not armed. NBC News does not know what happened before the event shown in the video, but people across the country responded with outrage and two days later, on May 7th, Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
Archival Recording: Charging them with both felony murder and aggravated assault in regards to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery back in February of 2020 here in Glynn County.
Lee: The arrest came 74 days after Ahmaud was killed. The McMichaels maintain that they were attacked and that they pursued him in response to what they thought was a burglary. Video surveillance footage appears to show Ahmaud inside a home under construction shortly before the shooting occurred. But there is currently no evidence of him committing a burglary.
There are now calls from the Georgia attorney general for an investigation by the Department of Justice and talk that a new prosecutor will be named. (BACKGROUND MUSIC) This is Into America. I'm Trymaine Lee. Today, the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery and how a movement of public outrage and a fight for justice took hold during a pandemic.
There's one person's perspective I wanted to hear right now, the Revered Al Sharpton's. Reverend Sharpton has been at the forefront of this case organizing on behalf of the family. He's a long time civil rights leader, founder of the National Action Network, and host of the television show Politics Nation at MSNBC. We started with the release of the video.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Well, I think we wouldn't have got here without it being released to the public. National Action Network and I got involved before the video came out. In fact, the mother and the attorney, Lee Merritt, was on Politics Nation the Sunday before the video came out. What is disturbing is that the prosecutors had the video all along. So it wasn't that they saw the video that made them move forward.
It's that we saw the video that made them move forward. Once it became public, and the public said, "Wait a minute. It is clear this guy was not breaking and entering into anywhere. There was no provocation, and that you, in fact, had driven the truck and, sort of, hunted him down, blocked his path where he was clearly jogging, and started the altercation. That is probable cause for an arrest." So I think the fact that the tape went public is the reason that we are where we are.
Lee: So you don't think there was any plan to prosecute this case at all until the public got the video?
Sharpton: It would be my belief that they intended to cover this up as they had for over two months and there's no reason for me to believe any differently given the course of events. And that is why it is important that we have a federal investigation and a state investigation on not only the case itself of what the two gentlemen that have already been arrested and possibly a third one did, but on the prosecutorial conduct around the investigation needs to be investigated.
Lee: The elder McMichaels had been in law enforcement for a very long time. And it took 74 days for their arrest to come. What role do you think his relationships played in, you know, allowing them to stay free for so long?
Sharpton: I think that it played a very important role. The fact that he'd been in law enforcement 30 years, the fact they knew him, it's the old southern buddy buddy system. "He was one of our guys. We'll do what we can do protect him." And they did until this went public. I think that had it not gone public, had they not been able to bring it outside of the Brunswick area and start some of us making it national, they would have gotten away with it. Even if they could have contained that tape to local Brunswick, they probably would not have prosecuted.
Lee: Rev, we've seen the release of videos of black men especially being gunned down in the past. And I wonder whether the circulation of these videos re-inflicts and retraumatizes us as black folks. Or does it somehow spark organizing and folks galvanizing around the cases?
Sharpton: Well, I think it does a little of both. I think it does traumatize. But I think it also gives a spark toward mobilizing and organizing. But at the same time, I think that you must sustain it. The problems that we have when you deal with organizations like NAN and others is that you will get an immediate reaction and then people move on. So we had a tape around Eric Garner and people reacted for a minute, but we had to stay with the family and the move for the next several years.
And the media reacts to the reactors rather than to the strategy of the lawyers and those involved who are gonna be there when that moment of trauma by seeing it is over, 'cause there must be a strategy around the tape. Just putting out a tape, getting everybody excited and traumatized is not gonna lead to justice. There has to be a strategy.
Lee: With the camera in everyone's hands and so many of these episodes captured on tape, how has that actually changed the way you organize and the way you build movements?
Sharpton: I think it only dramatizes it. I think that the basic fundamentals of building movements have not changed, which is why a lot of the people that we've seen that have done the taping did not do the organizing. There's a science to organizing like there's a science to what you do in media or science to what other people do. I think what it does is it makes it less questionable about why we're organizing. But it doesn't change the fundamentals of organizing. People can't deny what they saw. Now how do we get something done about it is the question.
Lee: Now the way people view this video will be different depending on which vantage point you're looking at this. The second prosecutor who took this case after the first recused himself said there was insufficient cause to arrest the McMichaels because they were acting legally under Georgia's citizens arrest and self-defense laws. And I wanna talk about that defense for a moment because, you know, there is a long, terrible history of vigilante violence aimed at black people and black men, especially, and the criminalization of black people to justify that violence in this country. Can you touch on that history of vigilante violence, especially against black bodies?
Sharpton: Well, I think that if you look at history, you can go as far back as those that would go to recapture fugitive slaves. It was not only legal. It was expected that if you saw a black, that you would suspect that he was a runaway slave and you had the runaway slave laws that when even in post-slavery, that they would use that to hunt down blacks for vigilante groups, the KKK and others, all the way up until the modern era.
One of the cases that I fought in New York in '84, I believe, was the Bernhard Goetz case where a man became a hero for shooting four black kids on the subway for asking him for $5. So this whole celebration of, "We'll take the law in our hand," when it is a black suspect is throughout American history. And here we have it again in Brunswick, Georgia. Georgia has two laws. They have the self-defense act that you're not obligated to retreat if you are in bodily harm.
And you also have the citizens arrest law that you can track down or try to apprehend a one that is in the act of a felony or wanted in a felony. Well, the reason why this prosecutor that you asked, his statement does not pass the smell test (?), it's clearly from the tape. They were not in danger. They were the ones with the Magnum and the shotgun.
So there was no self-defense. They were the offensive ones. He had no weapon. He was running, jogging with no weapon. So how do you apply that? And in terms of them tracking down some other felony (?), if he had went in to the construction place, he had not committed a felony. Clearly on the tape they have of him looking around, he didn't steal anything and even if he had, it would not have been a felony. So neither one of those laws apply even by Georgia's archaic standards.
Lee: So things in the case are moving so quickly. So they had been out for several weeks. The video comes out. Days later, you have an arrest. And over the weekend, Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr asked the Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the handling of this case. And you touched on this earlier. But is that the right move in your opinion? And given the administration now, do you think that there might be a favorable outcome for the family?
Sharpton: I don't have a lot of faith in this Justice Department. I wanna see if William Barr is going to announce that he's going to give a certain amount of resources to this and a commitment to this. We're in the middle of a pandemic. And the courts are closed and things are moving slowly. And they'll try to wait this out. And you've got to have people that will be there and that have institutions that will be there when we come out of this pandemic and the courts reopen. (BACKGROUND MUSIC)
Lee: We'll be right back. (BACKGROUND MUSIC) That idea of protest and activism and applying pressure during a pandemic when folks can't gather the way folks have traditionally gathered, how has that changed the game? You've been in this movement building for a very long time. What does activism look like in this era?
Sharpton: I think that it's just something we have to adjust to. We did a virtual rally with the father and the lawyers. We had 105,000, I think it's up to 120,000 people that have viewed it. So if we had called a national rally, like we did when we started the Trayvon movement, we got 10,000. We got ten times that many virtually. One of the things I learned in the movement is you just have to adjust and make it work.
Lee: But that next step, now. When you have bodies in the street, local law enforcement, the governor, the mayor can look outside and see these bodies marching in the street. But is there a concern that you lose some steam when it shifts totally virtually? Because someone can just hit a like button and that's it.
Sharpton: Well, it is of concern because you don't have the bodies out there that they're looking at. But if you have it virtual, and then it's on cable news that's in those same governors' living rooms, and you keep a spotlight on it, they become just as concerned 'cause their voters are watching that, which is why you need the national media and you need radio. You need all of that to keep it in the minds of voters. Elected officials who ultimately decide these things are concerned about voters. Whether you put bodies in the street or spotlight on the airways, you are affecting their voting base. That is the language they understand. Votes.
Lee: You know, for a lot of people, and I venture to say especially some younger people, they might know Rev Al from MSNBC, the radio show, maybe the National Action Network. But you've been protesting. You started as a street activist in New York protesting. How have you been able to evolve time and time again to stay with your finger on the pulse and still engaging with these families in these very important cases?
Sharpton: I built an organization. And we have chapters all over the country. We have people in Brunswick. That's how we were involved. And where I evolved as the term you used, in terms of having a TV show, the radio show, I evolved committed to making sure that my movement base expanded with me. I did not go into the movement to build a media career. I built a media career to help the movement.
And I think that you've gotta know who you are and where you are. And it doesn't matter where you go in life, if you're grounded in knowing who you are, I've always been grounded. I started in the movement. I was 12 years old. When I was 13, I became youth director of Operation Breadbasket. I've been in it ever since. So everything I do is gonna enhance what I believe.
I think too many activists come into movements to advance their careers and not advance the movement. I think you've got to be able to see yourself as a means to an end, not as the end being you sitting somewhere and now you say, "Oh, I've arrived now, so I don't have to do that anymore."
Lee: You've obviously been a target for a lot of opposition who say that you're self-serving, you're in this for yourself. But how do you actually get involved in these cases? Are you going out and seeking these cases? Or are the families coming to you?
Sharpton: I've never gotten involved in any case that a family didn't come to us. As a matter of fact, we probably turn down more cases than we've picked up. People have this fixation that we run around looking for cases. We don't gain anything from the cases. We're in it for justice. We have over 50 people on payroll, six regional offices all over the country.
I could do that without touching another case. My income comes from my media work. So get involved for what? Now when they say that all Sharpton want is publicity, they're correct. That's exactly what I want, 'cause nobody calls me to keep a secret. They call me to blow it up. And that's what we do. I'm in the blowing it up business. (LAUGH)
Lee: I like to joke around and say if something happens to me, call my mother and then call Reverend Al. (LAUGHTER) So come get me. You know, speaking in terms of publicity and drumming up attention and energy, I wanna talk about this idea of allyship. What should allyship look like in moments like this when we need as many collective efforts as possible?
Sharpton: You raise a very troubling question because a lot of our progressives in many other areas in the white community and others, I say progressive on everything but race. When it comes to us, they're not as progressive. I was reading David Blight's book on Frederick Douglass where the conflict between Frederick Douglass and Williams Bryan (?) and the days of the abolitionist movement.
The conflict was they didn't want Douglass to speak. He was too articulate a speaker. "No. No. No. You're too elegant for a slave. Just stand up there and be the slave. We'll do the talking." And it's almost like that with some of the progressives today. They wanna appoint the spokespeople that'll speak for us rather than the inbred that people come out of our movements come out of our community.
And they wanna select the issues. So when we are now seeing more blacks being harassed by police for social distancing in New York, we've got to fight those battles alone. When we are the ones that are found three to four times more tested with COVID-19, we have to fight those battles alone. But if there is a violation in other areas, then we're not progressive if we're not with them. And many of us refuse to deal with that double standard. We challenge them. Where are you on issues like this? And if you can't stand with us, then that's not a coalition. That's a cooption.
Lee: Think about Travyon Martins and Michael Browns and Eric Garners and all of these cases that folks have rallied around. Have we made any progress at all over the last ten or so years? And have we ever, as black folks, known justice in this country?
Sharpton: Yeah. We made some progress. But I think that the way you have to be able to deal with it is you've gotta change the laws. Let us not forget in 2018, a man came out in a public lot in front of a store and shot and killed Markeis McGlockton right there in Clearwater, Florida. We went down and fought that. That man is doing 20 years in jail. So there have been victories. But not as many victories because there have been losses. We've gotta change the laws and we've gotta sustain our fight. Sustain indignation is key.
Lee: Reverend Al Sharpton, I recognize you have to get out of here. You're a busy man. (LAUGH) But I do wanna thank you for your time.
Sharpton: Anything, anytime Trymaine. We rushed you in because it's you. But anytime. Let's stay in touch.
Lee: Yes, sir. I appreciate that. Have a good one.
Sharpton: All right, man. Take care.
Lee: That was the Reverend Al Sharpton. If you've got feedback, questions, or there's a story you think we should cover, please let us know. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's intoamerica@nbcuni, short for Universal, dot com. Tell us what's happening in your communities. You can also find me on Twitter at TrymaineLee. All one word. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.