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  • Writer's picture Yumna Elhdari

The Case of Ahmaud Arbery and White Vigilantism

Ahmaud Arbery was 25 years old — 25 years young — when he was gunned down by Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan. The three perpetrators claimed that they suspected Arbery was running away after committing a series of break-ins—a pathetic excuse as old as America itself.

On Wednesday, November 24th, 2021, the three white men were found guilty in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery among other charges, including one count each of false imprisonment and one count each of criminal intent to commit a felony.

The fatal encounter was recorded on video and leaked to the public. This incited a series of debates about the explicit nature of the video. Accounts that shared the video received backlash due to the graphic depiction of Arbery’s death. Twitter users complained that the circulation of the video trivializes Arbery’s murder and desensitizes the public to the death of Black men.

Ahmaud Arbery with his mother. (Credit: ABC News)

The public outrage that followed the release of the video led many to question whether or not the video’s release was necessary. While many activists believe that support should not be achieved through circulating such dehumanizing footage of Arbery, others believe that the dissemination of the video helped generate enough public outrage that led to legal action and the prosecution of the three perpetrators.

These videos being shared all throughout social media are merely strengthening the muscles white supremacists use to exercise control.

The lack of sensitivity toward the deaths of Black men can be traced back to the prominence of vigilantism in America. Vigilantism is not a new concept in America. It is been embedded into the fabrics of our communities long before law enforcement became institutionalized. Vigilante movements existed during the late colonial period to protect the institution of slavery, typically reoccurring when there is an apparent threat to whiteness. With the goal of maintaining the same systems of oppression, state-based law enforcement and vigilantes work synergistically. Their commonalities go beyond the violence they inflict on Black people; they share a set of values that foster and uphold white supremacy. Violence in the name of racial cleansing is common ground for police and vigilantes.

A NYPD car boasting a $10,000 reward for turning in anyone who has shot a police officer. (Credit: Ava Emilione)

The gruesome series of lynchings that occurred in the late 19th and 20th centuries attest to this kind of violence. Black men were often accused of unreasonable crimes, typically of harassing white women. Others were brutally murdered out of blatant hatred. This violent response stemmed from the rise of Black prominence in America — communities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma (“Black Wall Street”) and Durham, North Carolina — that followed the reconstruction era, threatening the fragile ego of white supremacy.

With the rise of vigilante violence, photography displaying lynchings and dead bodies became a method of generating and spreading terror throughout the Black community. Barbaric white mobs would often pose with the dead bodies of their victims, displaying a successful capture of their prey. Depictions of deceased Black people became a staple of white power.

It was during this era of extreme white supremacist violence that the normalization of ghostly and eerie photographs of Black people were widely and casually distributed. Gruesome deaths of Black victims became anticipated. The photographs that were deliberately taken to cause terror also became anticipated. In the modern age of social media, we are seeing this tragic phenomenon reoccurring on a much larger scale.

The very existence of Blackness has been forced to become a symbol of death and suffering. Throughout history, white supremacists have used dead bodies as physical manifestations of their own power and privilege. It's unsurprising to see this familiar pattern sneaking its way into the age of social media in the name of “spreading awareness.” Instead, it is spreading the images of suffering and traumatizing those who come in contact with it.

(Credit: Jasmine LeCount-McClanahan)

While these eternalized images solidify the historical acts of violence against Black people, it also desensitizes entire generations of people to the deaths of Black individuals. Making a spectacle of Black death should not be a means of revolution. A single death in the Black community is emotionally damaging, to say the least. We are tired of having to endure incessant and haunting visual depictions of death flooding social media. The rehearsal of anti-Black violence has always been an aspect of American culture.

The case of Ahmaud Arbery—despite its horrific details—initially did not receive much attention on social media. In fact, the three perpetrators continued to live their lives normally for about two months because local law authorities believed it was within their right to make a citizen’s arrest based on “reasonable doubt.” This was yet another case in which law enforcement and vigilantes worked in tandem.

It was not until the video had been shared on social media by a local law attorney, Alan Tucker, that arrests were made two weeks later. The social media hysteria was the main reason the three men were found guilty just this past month, as Erin Aubry Kaplan calls it “The Non-Victory Victory in the Ahmaud Arbery Case.”

The verdict of the Ahmaud Arbery case was indeed a victory, but how long does our trauma have to be visually displayed for people to see that American white supremacy still rages on?

Edited by: Maia McDonald

Cover Photo Credit: The New York Times

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