Rethinking Social Justice Movements After Ahmaud Arbery’s Trial

Photo courtesy of Austin Jefferson

The three gentlemen responsible for the death of Ahmaud Aubrey were found guilty in court.  I’m dutifully ignoring a dark joke; one about how gentle a shotgun blast must feel and what kind of man takes a life. I’m ignoring it because I want to sound professional when I talk about race, it’s important and this is America; the word black means more than what an emo kid can muster up in their slam poetry. I don’t want to sound livid, misnathropic or the however many words and phrases that amount to me being an “uncouth negro” because I don’t want to minimize the reailty of feeling numb to this.

See, I’m not one for causes. When CNN aired the Atlanta protests in the wake of the George Floyd case, my friends and I got stoned and took bets on how long it would take before we saw Wolf Blitzer wave a white flag from the pavilion. I say the phrase social justice warrior with a tone bordering mock and straddling contempt. I’ve just never found other people’s problems that compelling. That’s not to say I live to be edgy. I get it. What if the world was a better place? What if we all cared enough to help change it. 

That notion comes undone in my head when I remember a bunch of mindless (and bear with me as I minimize) white people with maybe the faintest idea of the Black experience beyond the Megan Thee Stallion lyric deemed most quotable posting a black square on Instagram. It was more or less forever ago that that happened. I don’t forget thinking to myself “Oh, so this is what people think is helping,” chuckling and thinking “No, wait, this is what people really think is helping.” 

There’s a joke I used to tell in the south. I still tell it but it’s less funny to people who pride themselves on being progressive. Which seems to be every other person I run into on campus. Respectfully. 

What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican? A Republican will call you the n-word and then invite you over for dinner. A Democrat will say they appreciate the struggle of all Black and Brown people and not follow you back on Instagram. 

I don’t have Instagram but I thought it was funnier that way. 

Generalizations are lazy but useful. All cops aren’t bad. That being said if I see one, or God forbid get pulled over, I go into fight or flight mode. I do what feels like 43 different sub-actions to make me feel like I have a good chance of not being shot dead for the crime of looking possibly dangerous. I laugh about it because there’s a doofy messenger bag and a book in my passenger seat most days but when I get stopped the second or third question asked when I hand over my license is do I have any outstanding warrants. 

I guess because I fit the description of a criminal to law enforcement they hope they can hear me say I agree. 

Maybe that’s why I take it all so personal. The high handedness, the holier than thou bravado. The people that killed some dude in a part of Georgia that I avoided out of pure snobbery are going to go to jail it seems. To some people that means justice but to me it means that the scoreboard reads infinity to some. 

I’ll be less cryptic. White people have killed Black people unnecessarily, often rather spectacularly, in America for centuries. Luckily the modern iteration of lynching finds ropes and trees gauche. No, now we don’t fear a mob, we fear a guy in a pickup truck and someone holding a phone. Progress comes in many shapes.

When I saw the verdict come through on my little Google news alert I felt mad. I felt mad about the fact that even though Amaud Arbery’s killers were in jail that didn‘t make me, or I imagine anyone else, feel safer. The law working doesn’t make me not think someone will see my color and nothing else and destroy me as a result. The law didn’t protect enough people that I now know too much to have hope. I know too much to trust. 

I was sitting in a class a few weeks ago and the professor had us read a Pulitzer Prize winning article. It was about Arbery. I spoke to my sister and we remarked on the absurdity of an article having to do with the wrongful death of a Black man in broad daylight who didn’t do anything being run in “Runner’s World” magazine. 

It feels shockingly apropos now. He was going for a jog and then he got murdered for being Black. No, yeah put it in Runner’s World. It’s a bizarre situation to fit a bizarre moment. Innocuous moments for people of color becoming dangerous could easily be its own publication.

I say all this because I genuinely would like to feel safe when I exist openly in the world. It’s a privilege that I’m not sure people should be privileged to have in the first place, regardless of any details that could possibly inspire hate. 

There’s a famous sketch by Dave Chappelle called “Black Bush” that reminds of the potential we as a society have for tolerance. So there’s hope but maybe not in the way that people like.

What bothers me is that I know white people will congratulate themselves for the progress made and that Black people will continue to die and nothing will change and that’s just the world we live in. I don’t get to be upset about that because I have a life to live and I can’t function in a perpetual state of fear. My hand might shake uncontrollably when I see sirens and might not watch the news anymore but hey, at least we all agree that Black Lives Matter and all cops are bastards.