“But they can’t just do that.”
We often hear this when we’re confronted by things we can’t explain. Our societies are structured and engineered in a way where we expect to see people behave in a certain way. We bank on it. Because when they don’t, it shatters our realities.
If you happened to watch a particularly shocking video as it went viral over the past few days, you’d have seen two armed white men chased down (hunted) Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, in broad daylight out on a scenic Brunswick, Georgia street. One man struggles with Ahmaud while the other brandishes his shotgun – and shoots him dead. The surrounding atmosphere could not be more subtle as such a shocking incident unfolds.
“They can’t just do that, right?”
Yet, they did.
This happened on February 23rd, over two months ago, yet the video only went viral this past week. The outrage which has ensued has only taken place now, which adds to the efforts of family in the few weeks since the incident.
According to the police report, Greg McMichael, a former Brunswick District Attorney Investigator and his son Travis McMichael followed Arbery as he was jogging, blocked his path with their truck, and shot him dead.
The video is a wake-up call. In this single instance we see so much of the systemic and actual racial violence that extends from the carceral state to imperial wars waged overseas to housing, education, food security and so many other aspects of American public life – so diligently interwoven into the fabric of this society, ingrained into the nation’s historical and collective psyche – realized.
In a single instance.
This wasn’t just a murder, it was a lynching. And the circumstances around the death of Ahmaud Arbery personify America and what it stands for. What it has always stood for.
America is a place where a Black man cannot simply just go out on a jog in the streets of his own town, cannot merely wander through any neighbourhood without being questioned for it. A place where a white man can and will pull a gun on you, and murder you if he wants. And he can and will get away with it. It has happened before and will probably happen again.
A place where it took two months for this incidence of lynching to even come to the wider public’s attention. And why?
Because this is a place where whiteness is sanctified and deemed untouchable; where the violence it produces can always be justified somehow. Where the color of your skin entitles you to the privilege of sanctioning life and death itself, where you can play God with another being’s life. Where people will want to see a video before they decide if they can or cannot believe something like this could have actually happened. Where an apparatus of legal, militaristic and capitalist power combines to establish and administer a monopoly on Black and Brown bodies every single day. Where the majority are locked up in prisons or impoverished.
Where it allows for such horrifying white supremacist terrorism to occur in the first place, where it gives that sort of a mindset permission to express itself freely without the fear of backlash and then enables it every step of the way. A place where a man doesn’t fear the retribution of the law when he allows for his hatred to overcome him. Knowing full well the law will stand by him. A nation where Blackness is perceived a threat by default. Where whiteness can never be seen or associated with the violence it produces, but racialized people are never afforded that same privilege. Never dignified, just enough.
Dr. Frances Cress Welsing once reminded us that “the system” in America is not broken but working exactly how it was designed to be. Notions of democracy, equality and justice are thrown around yet such instances of intense disregard for life and the most despicable violence takes place again and again.
We’re told these instances are exceptions and imperfections. Yet when they happen again and again it’s clearly a pattern, and it would not be wrong to deduce that this cyclical repetition of violence is not an attribute of a flaw – but the system working exactly as it was meant to be.
Welsing attributed this to the fact that America persists under a system of white supremacism which functions on intentionally murdering and vilifying Black life.
And so we watch as the mainstream media and society is now up in arms and in shock that this could have happened in America. But, come on. This is the very same media that drags the bodies of dead Black children through the dirt in order to deflect the blame from those who murdered them. This is the same America where the very slave patrols that chased after and policed Black lives have morphed into the same institutional force that now claims to serve and protect its citizenry. This is the same country that guns down a child like Mike Brown or chokes the life out of an Eric Garner.
Only in America. A nation endowed by aristocrats on the land their forefathers seized through genocide and pillaging – yet we can’t imagine them doing so to protect their own interests. A nation whose very foundation is embedded with the necessity of maintaining, protecting and upholding white supremacy. So how can we really be shocked that Ahmaud Arbery’s life was taken? Because in America, they can just do that.