Trigger warning: This story includes reference to racism and racist slurs.
On a bright, clear day at the end of February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a lifelong resident of Brunswick, Georgia, was on a run near his hometown when three white men — Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. — armed themselves with guns and set out to trail him. They said they were concerned he was involved in a slew of robberies in the area, though only one robbery had recently been reported. They followed him until he couldn’t run any more, at which point they cornered him between their two cars and shot him dead. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed that Travis McMichael allegedly called Arbery a “f*****g [n-word]” as the man lay dying.
Hunted down and killed in a coastal town in Georgia. That was Ahmaud Arbery’s fate.
Up north last week, far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after he shot and killed two people and injured a third on August 25, during a night of protests for racial justice that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Before his shooting spree, Rittenhouse had shown support for causes affiliated with the Blue Lives Matter movement, a pro-police political ideology that arose as a response to the assertion that Black Lives Matter. Rittenhouse claimed he went armed to downtown Kenosha, traveling from his home in Illinois, to protect commercial property that he felt was under threat that night.
In both of these cases, the killers seemed to see themselves as amateur law enforcement officials. While the legal function of policing is ostensibly to uphold the values of our society as enshrined in our laws, the social function of policing often strays into further subjugating Black Americans and, at times, suppressing Black political expression. These vigilantes were simply assisting in these efforts.
The elder McMichael had actually been a police officer with the Glynn County Police Department up until about a year before he was involved in the killing of Arbery. He, his son, and their neighbor said they were following Arbery so they could conduct a citizens’ arrest. Georgia’s citizens’ arrest law — which was signed into effect in 1863 and largely used for the purpose of detaining escaped enslaved people, and was finally repealed in May — allowed any resident of the state to arrest any other person they believed had committed a felony, as a police officer would.
Similarly, Rittenhouse, who had been part of a cadet program for at-risk youth interested in policing, told observers he was there to protect the car dealership he was watching over. Ryan Balch, one of the other armed persons who “protected” Car Source alongside Rittenhouse, went so far as to claim that the owner of Car Source had “deputized” them to protect his dealership. The owners of Car Source denied these claims.