ORLANDO | Catholic leaders are lending their voices in the murder of an unarmed, black jogger in Glynn County, Georgia.
While the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery occurred at the end of February, it did not make national headlines until a viral video showing his murder became public May 1, 2020. The video shows how on Feb. 23, 2020, Arbery was jogging in a suburban neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, when two white men, waited for him in their pickup with two guns.
The video reveals how Arbery jogged around the truck, yet one of the men left the truck with a shotgun. Seconds later after shouting and a tussle, three shots are heard, and Arbery was killed by a shotgun blast.
Community and religious leaders have raised their voices along with citizens to ask why a black man was killed while jogging. One of those leaders is Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. Archbishop Gregory served as the archbishop of Atlanta from 2005 until his appointment to Washington in 2019. He has written and spoken out about racism, which seems to be at the heart of the Arbery case — a black man killed because of unsubstantiated bias by two white men who were strangers to him.
In his statement released May 11, 2020, Archbishop Gregory noted while attentions are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and the search for a vaccine, the “recent brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery in the state of Georgia reminds us of another virus that is much older, but just as deadly.”
“The virus of racism inflicts hatred, violence, and death in our society and in the lives of far too many people. In the Georgia case of Ahmaud Arbery, once again, an unarmed Black man has had his life violently cut short. This murderous attack, like all acts of racism, hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence,” the archbishop stated. “We also see racism destroying the lives of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian people because of their religious and ethnic heritages. Racism triggers the divisive and xenophobic attitudes of nationalism. It also targets people because of their cultural traditions or physical appearances, and it threatens immigrant people who seek nothing more than the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their children.”
As a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Gregory urged his brother bishops to issue a document against racism, and in 2018, the nation’s bishops overwhelmingly approved a new pastoral letter on that topic, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”
“We already have the balm that cures racism — compassion, mercy, love and justice. We must make sure we apply the balm,” the archbishop concluded in his statement. “The prophet Jeremiah reminds us to seek the balm of Gilead and we know from Scripture that the balm is Jesus. Through Jesus, we become more compassionate, merciful, and loving to seek justice for all our neighbors.”
Florida’s retired bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee — Bishop John H. Ricard — also released a statement following Arbery’s death. Now serving as the superior general of the Josephites, the religious community to which he professed his priesthood in 1968, he has also served as chairman of the board of trustees for the National Black Catholic Congress. In his statement released May 11, 2020, Bishop Ricard spoke about the defense strategy employed for a black man killed in broad daylights and how the killers’ connections to the local law enforcement community could be used to let the “senseless killing of an unarmed black man” fall by the wayside. Bishop Ricard stated as “devoted ministers in the African-American community for over 125 years,” the Josephites “call for a complete and thorough investigation” into Arbery’s death.
“This murder is yet another example of an innocent, young black life lost at the hands of vigilantes taking matters of perceived ‘justice’ into their own hands,” the bishop wrote. “It is also an example of people acting in hatred and ignorance to perpetuate violence against the African-American community.”
In his statement, Bishop Ricard recapped how suspects called authorities on 911 to report, “There’s a black male running down the street.” From there, the suspects are using the “Stand Your Ground” law as a defense for killing a black stranger.
“‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, police brutality, and subsequent cover-ups by ‘justice’ officials continue to impact the lives of innocent people throughout our country, resulting in communities terrorized and lives cut tragically short,” Bishop Ricard wrote in his strongly worded statement that also called for recent police shootings in Indianapolis of 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed, and Houston of 48-year-old Adrian Medearis, a well-known local gospel artist, to be “thoroughly investigated with profound integrity and transparency.”
The arrest of Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, with murder and aggravated assault in the case, occurred more than two months after Arbery’s death. In that time, different prosecutors have been appointed and recused because of ties to the elder McMichael. Jackie Johnson, the district attorney from the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, recused herself from the Arbery case due to a conflict of interest because the elder McMichael worked as an investigator for her office until his retirement in May 2019. The second prosecutor in the case, District Attorney George Barnhill, told local police: “We do not see grounds for an arrest” in the case, citing it is not known who initiated the fight or who pulled the trigger of the gun. He later recused himself, and the suspects were finally arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Speaking about Arbery’s case, Bishop Ricard stated the Josephites “call for all law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to investigate not only these crimes but also the parties who shielded the perpetrators from justice.”
“Case in point: Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on Feb. 23, yet his attackers remained free for more than two months and were not taken into custody until May 7, in response to a nationwide outcry,” Bishop Ricard stated. “The Josephites stand ready in solidarity with communities around the country where we serve to do all in our ability to rid the country of attitudes, actions, legislations, and systems that deny the peace, dignity, and very lives of God’s people.”
On May 11, 2020 Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr appointed a fourth district attorney — Jackie Johnson — to lead the prosecution against two McMichaels. According to Reuters News Service, Carr also announced he had asked the Department of Justice to conduct a “complete and transparent review of how the Ahmaud Arbery case was handled from the outset.” Of particular interest are the ways prosecutors Johnson and Barnhill, and the Glynn County Police Department responded to the shooting. The Department of Justice is reportedly considering pursuing federal hate crimes charges. The state of Georgia has no hate crime laws on the books.
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