Credit: Riley Bunch / GPB News
Friends and family retrace Ahmaud Arbery’s final steps ahead of his killers' high-profile trial
With the nation’s attention focused on the trial that is expected to disrupt the otherwise routine day-to-day of life in Brunswick, a cavalcade of cars made its way through the coastal Georgia town.
The mile-long procession began at the Glynn County Courthouse and retraced the path Ahmaud Arbery once ran — a quiet road that loops through a seaside subdivision and under the once innocuous but now looming Satilla Drive street sign.
The group of family and friends inched down the road where Arbery took his last breath on Feb. 23, 2020. They passed the very spot Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight, a haunting killing captured on cellphone video that shocked the country and led to nationwide protests.
Theawanza Brooks, one of Arbery’s aunts, said the short drive to that stretch of pavement in the Satilla Shores neighborhood reopened wounds from when she learned of her nephew’s death.
“Today, I find myself fighting back tears that I haven't shed in a long time,” she said.
It was a solemn journey, but one part of a rally honoring Arbery on Saturday, just two days before the start of jury selection when all eyes will turn to this corner of Southeast Georgia.
Travis McMichael, 35, his father Gregory McMichael, 65, and William Bryan, 52, the man who filmed the killing on his cellphone, face an array of state charges, including murder, aggravated assault for chasing Arbery in their pickups and false imprisonment. They have separately been charged with federal hate crimes.
“As we get closer to the trial, there are going to be a lot of emotions," Brooks said. "There are going to be some happy days. There are going to be some days of struggle with tears, with fighting back tears. And then there’s going to be that day of victory.”
Although Arbery was killed in February 2020, it took more than two months for any arrests to be made and only after the video went public.
The video showed Arbery running in the shade of Spanish moss hanging from sweeping oak trees before his path was blocked by a white pickup truck. The McMichaels, both armed, pursued Arbery. A muffled struggle can be heard between Travis and Arbery offscreen before three shotgun blasts.
Arbery, back in view of the camera, staggered and fell to the ground. He died at the age of 25.
Arbery’s death sparked uproar not only in the Peach State but far outside of its borders, with demands for justice and social change.
Brooks recounted the day in May the cellphone video of the killing surfaced on Facebook, when a crowd flooded the sleepy subdivision in protest.
“It was hundreds and hundreds of people there, just from logging on to Facebook and seeing the video that came to stand with us,” she said.
She implored supporters to stick with the family until the jury releases the verdict, whenever that may be.
“Some of those hundreds of people and maybe all of you have been running with us since the day the video came out," Brooks said. "And I want to tell you that without you guys, none of this would be possible."
While the coastal town of Brunswick is still waiting for ultimate closure in Ahmaud Arbery's death — which family and friends say would come with three guilty verdicts — the tragic incident sparked undeniable change not only for the small town but the entire state of Georgia.
In Brunswick, the investigation forced former district attorney Jackie Johnson to recuse herself from the case due to potential conflicts of interest. She now faces charges of attempting to protect the McMichaels from prosecution. Following the killing, Glynn County now has its first Black chief of police.
The Georgia General Assembly responded to Arbery’s death with historic action: In June of last year, lawmakers passed hate crimes legislation after more than a decade without one on the books.
This May, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed an overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest statute. Lawyers for the defendants in the trial attempted to use the vague, Civil War-era law to justify their actions.
With the trial set to get underway, local leaders have urged the community to not let the momentum fade away.
“If you have to march, march," Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey said Saturday. "If you have to crawl, crawl. Shout, shout. Whisper. Please do all those things. Let America know what has happened here and the changes that must go on across our nation.”
“You tell the world: What has happened here should never, ever happen anywhere again,” he added.
Under the microscope of the nation, the Glynn County community will shoulder the weight of the high-profile jury trial. Court observers have said jury selection could take at least two weeks.
Up to 1,000 potential jurors — or about 1 in 85 residents — have been summoned and will report to Selden Park, about two miles from the courthouse.
But in the end, only 12 will sit in the courtroom and render a verdict.
Carla Arbery, another aunt of Ahmaud’s, is anxious but hopeful justice will be rendered.
“We're just hoping that [the jurors] make the right decisions as they hear the information — the facts,” she said. “And they go and make the right decision: to make sure they are guilty.”
But selecting unbiased jurors will be one of the toughest challenges for a case that has garnered headlines both here and around the world.
The family believes whoever gets seated will come to the conclusion that Arbery was just a young man on a daily jog who was unjustly gunned down in his hometown.
Such a verdict, Brooks said, would “continue to make change so it is safe for everybody to walk the streets, to run the streets.“
“We want to be loved just like everybody else is loved," she said. "We just want to be treated the same as everybody else. That's all we're asking for.”