I experienced a miracle this week and feel a sense of duty to tell you about it.
I met Ms. Annie.
Ms. Annie is an eighty-nine-year-old black woman who has the slickest walker I’ve ever seen.
I used to admire (make that “COVET”) Corvettes, Porche 911s, even MGs. Nowadays, I am admiring Ms. Annie’s red walker. It has wheels to “roll on with your bad self”, but it also has a convenient seat to use when you have made it to your destination.
I have been watching Ms. Annie carefully during the weeks of jury selection and now the actual trial in the Ahmaud Arbery trial here in Glynn County, coming a year and a half after the killing in the southern part of the county. Annie is often the person who starts the chant that ripples through the gathered family and neighbors, JUSTICE FOR AHMAUD!
There is just something powerful in her witness, to call out to the powers that be, demanding justice. She bellows out of passion in those moments, much louder than the way her regular diminutive voice sounds when she seems to whisper her comments and observations. I try to find a spot near her, because I don’t want to miss her wisdom. She has been at the Courthouse every day since this trial began. As she tells me, “I’m here for the family.” That’s what “love” looks like these days in Glynn County, showing up and speaking up.
For those of you not familiar with the events of February 23, 20202, here’s a brief summary:
Ahmaud was jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. He stopped by a house under construction to look around, like I’ve done a hundred times in Atlanta. Only I was white. A couple of neighbors decided to chase Ahmaud down, as they described in statements, “to trap him like a rat”.
The father-son pair grabbed a shotgun and a .357 pistol to go after this 25-year-old black man. They chased him around the neighborhood, trying to “trap” him, but Ahmaud was a runner who could evade their “traps”. Finally, the father parked the car, while the son got out with a shotgun and proceeded to confront the young man head-on.
Ahmaud chose to head toward the shooter, rather than veer to the side, risking a shot to his back. The young white man shot into Ahmaud’s shoulder, a wound that the medical examiner said would have been enough to kill him. Ahmaud continued forward to try to wrestle the gun away, but the shooter fired two more shots, the second into the center of Ahmaud’s chest, causing him to collapse. ( for more details and history, see my note at the end)
All of this would have likely gone unreported, or altered, if it had not been recorded on the cell phone of the third defendant in this case. He, also a living in the neighborhood, picked up on the vigilante spirit and used his truck to assist in the trap. He just so happened to catch the final encounter on videotape, which found its way to the media some time later, which forced the demurring authorities to finally arrest these vigilantes. Otherwise, it, like so many other crimes like this, would have been ignored.
It’s telling that the introduction of the capacity to capture events on a cell phone has changed our social landscape. This cell phone footage grabs people by the nap of their soul, and shakes them to make them see the reality of the violence that is being done. That is what happened when our lives were put in “freeze frame” during the pandemic. We saw, over and over, the violence used by a police officer, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he begged for air, calling for his mother. We were a witness to his death at the hands of an out-of-control cop, and it moved our collective soul.
The same thing happened with Ahmaud, as these vigilantes from the “Satilla Plantation” had to teach this “boy” a lesson, and took it upon themselves to chase him down, confront him with deadly force, and take his young life, as he bled out on the south Georgia asphalt. Jesus. What makes people do such a thing?
As the trial is going on, neighbors, family, and friends have been gathering in the morning at the courthouse. We pray, we chant sporadically if our cheerleader Annie feels a move of the spirit. But mostly we talk. About a lot of things. The weather, local news, who’s sick, who is having a tough time. And then our talk will turn to the family, the family of Ahmaud, who are sitting in court, having to watch the video that is played incessantly, and to look at the coroner’s photos, black and white, of the injuries inflicted on this young man with two shot gun blasts of buckshot, ammunition used to bring down deer on the run in the Fall. Jesus.
I’m new to this part of Georgia. I’m learning, or more accurately, trying to learn what makes the community tick. It’s more small-town than I knew in the Atlanta I grew up in. My decade in Tyler, Texas taught me a little about living in a small town where everyone knows your business and where the bodies are buried. But this town is different, with a history of slavery, of a port city economy, of extravagant wealth on the island across the causeway, the creative entrepreneurial rebirth in the downtown, and the economic struggles of the working poor. It’s not unlike most towns, but has that unique low country feel that my friend, Pat Conroy, taught me about. It’s something of the ebb and flow of the tide, the glistening of the moon on the water, the unmistakable smell of the marsh….the famous marshes of Glynn. It’s in the water.
But what I have discovered about this area is the neighborliness of the people. Of people genuinely looking out for one another, going the proverbial “extra mile” to care for the neighbor. Part of that spirit clearly comes, oozes out of the Southern soul of religiosity, grounded in religion. In the groups I have been with over the past few weeks, religion gets shared like breathing the air. It’s a mix, Baptist South of God, Methodists, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Jewish. Everybody seems to keep it light, with no dogmatic or doctrinal fights that I could catch. Even the most outlandish theological statement would receive a simple smile, maybe a head-turn to hide the roll of the eyes, and of course the trademark, Bless Your Heart.
There is a sense of community that seems to thrive on neighborly awareness. Which is not all bad, as we in the South seem to favor comfort. But sometimes, comfort, mere comfort, keeping things comfortable, becomes a sin. We just don’t want to rock the boat, face the hard reality, or deal with the inevitable pain of change.
I was struck on Tuesday driving over the causeway and coming to a billboard sign strategically placed for those traversing Highway 17. The sign had a notice of a prayer vigil taking place the next day, with an added admonition” “Pray for Peace”.
Pray for Peace. Seems reasonable. Appropriate. Desirable. In order. Who doesn’t want peace? I remember when I was growing up, facing a war I did not understand, I was captured by the lyrics on the Beatles’ bard, John Lennon, “Give peace a chance”! It was our mantra, our chant. That phrase became enhanced and real by the man who wrote on my heart about following the “Jesus way”, talking specifically about a vexing radicality: love your neighbor, even your enemy. Lord? And, he added, “practice non-violence”. Jesus, are you kidding me?
As I saw the billboard sign, Pray for Peace, I thought it a worthy admonition, certainly better than an advertisement for a ginormous personal injury lawyer, or fast food, or some other odd sales offering.
But I also thought: “What about justice?”
It’s not enough to merely maintain a placid community, which is of course good for business and commerce. But what of our sense of values, of justice. A man is shot down as he runs through a neighborhood. The thought of a pickup truck, with two white guys, chasing down a black man and killing him just sounds too close to the bad story that’s been told in this country for way too long. Peace, I can pray for, but not at the expense of justice.
Love without justice is mere sentimentality, the jibber-jabber of a Hallmark card Christianity. I did not understand this when I was a freshman in college, trying to read and grasp the wisdom of theologians, although I could regurgitate it on a test, just like some folks that quote more Bible verses than they are willing to live. But now, I actually understand that dialectical tension . And I am trying. Trying real hard. Right here, right now.
Thank God, I experienced a miracle in my life: finding a person older than me. Ms. Annie Polite is trying to teach me, educational advocate that she is, about the powerful, profound dynamic between love and justice. Justice for Ahmaud! Justice for Ahmaud! Justice for Ahmaud! I can see her daily, but she’s now in my mind’s eye, and more importantly, in my heart.
So I hope you will pray for peace. But don’t forget, or deny, the need to pray for justice.
Justice for Ahmaud. Indeed.
*NOTE* For an excellent adventure into the background of the Armaud Arbery killing, I recommend listening to BURIED TRUTHS, a podcast by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Herb Klibanoff, who has investigated “cold case” civil rights cases here in Georgia. His third season focuses on the Arbery incident. Herb sent his Emory students to do background research and it has resulted in a view of the depth in culture and history of this region, and the persons involved. You will not regret the time invested. I got to know Herb through our work at the Carter Center.