Ahmaud Arbery's Past Mistakes Do Not Justify the Vigilantism That Led to His Death

As a smart man once told me, there is no such thing as a law-abiding citizen. There are criminals who get caught, and there are those who don’t. But the mythical law-abiding citizen is a rare creature indeed. So rare, in fact, that it’s fair to wonder whether they even exist at all. 

According to The Sentencing Project, about one-third of all adults in the United States are arrested at least once by the time they turn 23. A 2017 study from the University of Georgia determined that, as of 2010, roughly 8 percent of Americans have been convicted of at least one felony offense. Last year, researchers from Cornell University discovered that nearly half of Americans have a close relative who has been incarcerated. 

But for every person who gets caught committing a crime, there are many more who manage to elude the slippery grip of the justice system. 

In 2016, about one million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But that’s just one percent of the over one hundred million self-reported incidences of DUI that occurred in that same year.

A 2017 survey by anti-piracy firm Irdeto found that about one-third of American consumers watch pirated content. But anti-piracy laws are notoriously difficult to enforce, meaning that millions of Americans routinely stream or download copyrighted material—otherwise known as stealing—every single day without facing any legal consequences whatsoever.

I myself am a criminal—or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I’ve played the part of a criminal more than once in my life. In grade school, I covered a neighbor’s bushes in toilet paper on Devil’s Night. In high school, I stole a pack of cigars from a gas station in Florida. In college, I pirated hundreds of copyrighted songs through Napster, the infamous peer-to-peer file sharing network that made online piracy a mainstream phenomenon. And long before the push to legalize medical marijuana went national, I routinely—and illegally—got high to try and manage the symptoms of my OCD.

Almost every person I know—every relative, every friend, and every coworker—has their own stories to tell, stories about accidentally bumping into parked cars and not leaving their contact information behind before speeding away; stories about stealing soda, candy, or even more expensive items like DVDs and CDs, either because they couldn’t afford those things on their own, or because they just wanted to brag to their friends about their rebellious antics; stories about drunkenly instigating bar fights that went way too far; and stories about participating in sports-related celebrations that quickly devolved into garden variety riots characterized by flipped cars, trash can fires, and broken windows.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe I know anyone who hasn’t committed a crime at least once in their life. I do, however, know a lot of people who have never been held legally accountable for the crimes they have committed, and who therefore never found themselves on the wrong end of a post-mortem character assassination plot meant to justify a shooting that never should have happened.

Sadly, Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old African American man gunned down last February by Georgia residents Gregory and Travis McMichael, has not been so lucky. 

Before I go any further, I should point out that many influential conservatives have denounced the shooting and sided with the Arbery family. Dana Loesch, who built her career around defending gun rights, provided a point-by-point breakdown of why she believes the McMichaels were in the wrong. Writing for the conservative website The Dispatch, author and attorney David French took the position that the McMichaels should be charged with murder. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro made a twelve-minute video in which he also concludes that the McMichaels should be put on trial. Appearing on Fox News, Trey Gowdy, a former Republican congressman and federal prosecutor, seemed to suggest that charges should have been brought against the McMichaels long before the video of the shooting went public.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, even the denouncements coming from mainstream conservative figures haven’t discouraged far-right grifters and alt-right bigots from pushing the narrative that Arbery’s shooting was an act of karmic justice, that he invited this deadly fate upon himself by virtue of his past misdeeds. 

Much like the rest of us, Ahmaud Arbery made some mistakes in his youth, as young people are wont to do. When he was 19 years old, he was given 5 years of probation for carrying a pistol onto a high school campus and obstructing a law enforcement officer. A few years later in 2018, he was arrested for shoplifting. And now a relatively small but very vocal network of right-wing agitators are seizing on these mistakes, bouncing them around various social media platforms in the hopes that the rest of us might be gullible enough to believe that Arbery’s youthful indiscretions earned him the premature death he received at the hands of the McMichaels. 

They’ve also tried taking the focus off the McMichaels’ actions on that fateful February day by putting the focus on Arbery’s alleged trespassing. Surveillance video shows that just before the McMichaels tracked him down and confronted him with their weapons drawn, Arbery had wandered around a construction site where a new home was being built. Some of the McMichaels’ defenders have used that video to try and argue that Arbery was up to no good, while others argue that it proves the McMichaels were justified in attempting to carry out a citizen’s arrest on Arbery. 

As attorney Andrew Fleischman explained in a recent piece for Arc Digital, neither of those claims are grounded in the truth. There is no evidence indicating that Arbery had stolen anything from the construction site, nor is there any evidence that he had intended to steal anything. And in the state of Georgia, entering someone else’s property without permission is not a crime in and of itself unless you intend to engage in unlawful behavior or have been warned not to trespass on that property. 

If you bring either of these inconvenient facts to the attention of the McMichaels’ defenders, you’ll often find that their respect for the rule of law appears to vanish when the law itself undermines their mission to recast the McMichaels as the misunderstood victims of a media-inspired witch hunt. 

In other words, most of them don’t really care about the law; they only care about making Arbery look like an irredeemable villain who got what was coming to him. To that end, they’re happy to invoke the law all day long when it suits their argument but are equally happy to disregard the law the moment it turns that argument on its head. 

These are the tactics commonly employed by smear merchants who specialize in digging skeletons out of their targets’ closets to try and conceal the truth from the public. They know that by bringing up a victim’s criminal past, they might successfully convince at least some casual observers that the world is better off without the deceased, and that we should all tone down our demands for justice.

Don’t fall for it.

If we embrace the idea that the value of human life is permanently diminished by each and every mistake that we make, including even those mistakes which result in no physical, psychological, or emotional harm to another human being, we must necessarily concede that many of us—tens of millions of us, even—are just as deserving as the fate that Ahmaud Arbery was handed by the McMichaels when they gunned him down in the middle of a residential street because they thought he might be up to no good. 

But I will never make that concession, and neither should you. 

Ahmaud Arbery was a human being, just like you and me. He made mistakes and exercised bad judgment from time to time, just like you and me. And he deserved the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and move on with his life, just like you and I. Gregory and Travis McMichael snatched that opportunity away from him when they chose to chase him down, cut him off with their truck, engage him in an armed confrontation, and then shoot him when he tried to defend himself. No matter whether they were motivated by racism or by a misguided sense of civic duty, it was their own actions that led to Ahmaud Arbery’s death. And for that, it is only right that they be held accountable. 

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