Wanda Cooper-Jones never imagined having to live life without her son Ahmaud Arbery.
But in the year since he was killed, that is her reality. She now spends her days thinking about him, visiting his gravestone, reflecting on her “baby boy,” and recounting the moment she received the call that the 25-year-old was dead.
Cooper-Jones said it gets frustrating waiting for justice. The men charged in Arbery’s murder still have no trial date. However, she remains confident they will be convicted.
“It gives me a little push that I have to remain strong and keep my mind in good sanity,” Cooper-Jones said. “I want to be around when justice is served.”
Today marks one year since Arbery died after being chased and shot by Gregory and Travis McMichael as he jogged through a coastal Georgia neighborhood.
The McMichaels are facing murder charges and remain in jail without bond. William “Roddie” Bryan, who recorded cell phone video of Arbery’s death, was also charged and is being held without bond.
Arbery’s death, which didn’t gain national attention until two months after it happened, sparked outrage across the nation. It became yet another example of the many perils visited on Black people engaged in ordinary activities, particularly after the disturbing video of the shooting emerged.
It also renewed efforts to dismantle systems, hold public officials accountable and repeal policies that have historically allowed vigilante violence against unarmed Black people.
Activists say while their pursuit for justice in Arbery’s case continues, there has been notable progress.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced plans to repeal the Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law; the southern Georgia prosecutor who failed to make an arrest after Arbery’s death was voted out of office in November; an Atlanta area district attorney is now prosecuting the case; and Kemp signed a hate crime bill last year spurred by outrage over Arbery’s death.
James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said these actions are critical to addressing what he says is the racist violence behind Arbery’s death.
“This one-year anniversary is very bittersweet because what was able to be done in the aftermath was we pushed the envelope on policy that continued to allow these acts of vigilante and racial and extrajudicial violence,” Woodall said. “We were able to identify exactly what we wanted.”
Woodall said the Georgia NAACP advocated for the state to repeal the citizen’s arrest law after Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill — the second prosecutor to oversee the probe last year — cited the statute to justify his decision not to charge the McMichaels with Arbery’s death.
The state law allows private citizens to arrest someone if they have immediate knowledge or reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. The McMichaels told police they believed Arbery was a suspect in recent burglaries in the neighborhood and followed him.
Kemp has introduced a plan to replace the law with a bill that removes legal loopholes that could be used to justify vigilante violence. The new law makes specific allowances for business owners or employees who can detain someone committing a theft in their establishment, private security officers, and police officers who can make arrests outside of their jurisdictions in certain instances.
“Ahmaud was a victim of a vigilante style of violence that has no place in Georgia,” Kemp said last week. “Some tried to justify the actions of his killers by claiming they had the protection of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”
Kemp also signed a hate crime bill last June after Georgia drew criticism for being one of four states that didn’t have a law against hate crimes. The law allows judges imposing sentences to increase punishment against those who target victims based on perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.
Cooper-Jones and civil rights activists say they won’t get justice in Arbery’s death until the McMichaels and Bryan are found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
But there is currently no trial date because of Covid-19 restrictions in Georgia, said Cobb County District Attorney Flynn D. Broady Jr. who is prosecuting the case.
The state turned the case over to Cobb County last May after three southern Georgia prosecutors failed to make arrests in the killing of Arbery.
Among them was former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who had jurisdiction over the case but recused herself because Gregory McMichael was a retired investigator from her office. Johnson lost her bid for re-election in November.
Broady, who unseated the county’s former district attorney Joyette M. Holmes in November, said he expects the trial to begin some time this year and that the McMichaels and Bryan will be tried together.
“Justice will come,” Broady told CNN. “And I believe as soon as Covid is under control, we will see justice in this case.”
Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough said in a statement that his client is “presumed innocent” and that his office is pursuing another bond hearing for Bryan after being denied bond seven months ago.
The attorneys said they also have a pending motion to dismiss the charges against Bryan.
“Our condolences go out to the family of Ahmaud Arbery on the anniversary of his tragic death,” the statement said. “It is certainly a day that Mr. Bryan will never forget.”
The law firm Peters, Rubin, Sheffield, & Hodges P.A., which is representing Travis McMichael, released a statement saying “the sadness and tragedy surrounding Mr. Arbery’s death will never be forgotten.”
“We join the community in giving our condolences and prayers for Mr. Arbery’s family and friends for their loss,” the statement said.
Laura D. Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, declined to comment on the case saying “the commemoration of this date belongs to the Arbery family.”
The need for accountability
Social justice advocates say despite the policy and leadership changes in Georgia, Arbery’s death reflects a structural and societal issue with racist violence in the US.
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, said the justice system is unequal and has historically allowed White people to get away with killing Black people.
The protests and community engagement that followed Arbery’s death brought attention to this inequity and held law enforcement officials accountable for their lack of action, he said.
Now, Robinson said the nation needs more policies that ensure accountability for every case involving racist violence and more investment in Black communities.
“When the killer is White and the victim is Black in communities around the country, justice isn’t served,” Robinson said. “There is nothing new about what happened to Ahmaud Arbery.”
Cooper-Jones said she knows her son was targeted because he was a Black man.
However, she feels encouraged by the outpouring of support from people from all over and the policy changes that have resulted from Arbery’s death.
She plans to honor him at a candlelight vigil on Tuesday evening at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, GA.
“I was a mother, Ahmaud was my baby boy,” Cooper-Jones said. “He just wasn’t a jogger, he was my son.”