BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Ahmaud Arbery's shooting death on February 23, 2020 — described by many as a modern-day lynching — has become the birth of a movement in Southeast Georgia.
Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, has spent the past year grieving and fighting.
“What happened in February last year changed my life, when I lost Ahmaud, I lost a part of myself,” Cooper-Jones said told First Coast News this week.
Arbery, 25, was a runner. He was living in Brunswick after a stint at South Georgia Technical College. He had plans to become an electrician and was a football player at Brunswick High School.
His family says Arbery had dreams of playing professional football. He used running as a sense of therapy, his mother said.
“He was comfortable, he was at ease, he was doing something that he loved to do," Cooper-Jones said. "I never imagined that his life would be taken doing something that he liked to do. I never imagined this at all."
His family will hold several events in Arbery’s memory. A community walk will take place in Satilla Shores where Arbery was killed, while Arbery’s mother will host a candlelight vigil at Arbery’s gravesite. A parade will be held in Brunswick on Saturday.
Family and friends say he often ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. On that fateful day, Arbery was accused of stealing something from a house under construction.
Greg McMichael and his son Travis McMichael said they believed Arbery was burglarizing homes when they got into their truck and chased him with a shotgun and pistol.
A third man, William “Roddie” Bryan joined the pursuit, hit Arbery with his truck, and recorded cell phone video of the shooting, which later became pivotal in getting the three suspects arrested.
After investigators say the men pursued Arbery for several minutes, he was shot and killed during a confrontation with Travis McMichael.
The Glynn County Police Department did not arrest any of the three men at the time. Many feel the case was handled wrong from the start.
Greg McMichael was a retired investigator in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office under Jackie Johnson.
Since Greg McMichael worked in her office, Jackie Johnson immediately cited a conflict of interest to the police department. The case was passed to Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill. According to documents—Barnhill met with police the day after the shooting and saw no grounds for arrest.
After laying her son to rest, Cooper-Jones says she tried to get answers from Barnhill.
She describes him as being very nonchalant in describing the facts of the case.
“I kind of realized that’s not [supposed to be] the behavior coming from a DA that's supposed to be working for the family, for the victims. And I knew it was something wrong,” Cooper-Jones said.
She learns that Barnhill’s son worked in the Brunswick DA’s Office where Greg McMichael was employed for more than 20 years. On April 3, Barnhill recuses himself from the case, claiming Cooper-Jones made “unfounded allegations” of bias.
In that same letter, he justifies the McMichael’s actions under a Civil War-era citizen’s arrest statute and self-defense.
The calls for justice from Arbery’s family and friends largely stayed within the Glynn County line. Media coverage started scratching the surface of the case in late April until a disturbing cell phone video of his shooting was leaked in May last year sparking international interest.
The video—and the protests that followed—spurred the GBI to investigate the shooting and arrest the McMichaels two days later.
The two men pleaded not guilty to their charges of felony murder, aggravated assault and remain in jail awaiting trial.
A large protest at the Glynn County Courthouse took place on what would’ve been Arbery’s 26th birthday.
The following week, Georgia’s Attorney General assigns the case to the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office.
Weeks later, William “Roddie” Bryan was arrested and faces charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Bryan has also pleaded not guilty, and his attorney Kevin Gough maintains his client’s innocence.
The preliminary hearing, spanning two days, ended with all three defendants remaining in jail. A judge found probable cause to proceed on the charges of murder against all three men.
In the weeks that followed the case, all three defendants appeared in court virtually via Zoom for their first preliminary hearing.
In those hearings, Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt has said disturbing revelations have surfaced as the case plays out in court.
“This case is revealing more and more that, not only was Ahmaud Arbery murdered by men who had racial motivations, but those men were protected by a system bent on devaluing the life of Ahmaud Arbery,” Merritt said.
In that hearing, investigators revealed that Travis McMichael called Arbery the n-word after killing him. It was something that the family was prepared to hear, but it was still difficult hearing it in court.
The GBI has found instances of both McMichaels sharing the racial slur on social media and through text messages. It was also revealed that Bryan, who shot the video, was not just a witness as his attorney claimed in the past.
In November, the McMichaels returned to court. Several family members and friends of the McMichaels testified to ask the judge to release the men. In that same hearing, many new details of the case came to light.
New phone records obtained by the Cobb County DA’s office showed Greg McMichael called DA Jackie Johnson the day of the shooting asking for advice on how to proceed following the shooting.
It was at the hearing when Wanda Cooper-Jones first saw the cell phone video of his son being killed.
“That was the first time that I was going to try to sit through it. And I tried to listen to the audio part and not look at it at the actual video. But then the shots rang out. And it was very disturbing. And I had to get out,” Cooper-Jones recalls.
She believes her son was trying to run home after he was shot three times by Travis McMichael.
More than a month later, the disturbing body cam video of the police response to the shooting is made public.
The disturbing images of Arbery gasping for air and moving his body live in Cooper-Jones’ mind, although she tries not to dwell on those dark images.
*Warning: Video below may be disturbing to some.
In the videos, you see Travis McMichael at first appearing remorseful over his actions, but claims he had no other choice than to shoot Arbery.
Greg McMichael refers to his time as working as an investigator in the DA’s office, also says he would’ve shot Arbery if he had the chance.
William “Roddie” Bryan, who later claimed he was just a witness, told police he was “not necessarily” a witness the day of the shooting.
He told police that he saw the McMichaels chasing Arbery and said “y’all got him?” In the body cam video showing his on-scene interview with police, he questioned if they should’ve been chasing Arbery in the first place.
That day, Wanda Cooper-Jones says she remembers falling ill and knew her son was in trouble, although he never should’ve been.
“We lived in that community for over 10 years, Ahmaud was never, never accused of taking anything from anybody so I knew it was different but at the same time I couldn’t really address it at the time because I was just told that he was dead,” she said.
A year later, the family is coping, but there remains an urgency among the family to hold the people responsible accountable for their actions.
The Brunswick District Attorney was voted out of office, Georgia instituted anti-hate crime legislation, the district attorneys who previously handled the case are the subject of a Department of Justice investigation, and there are plans to repeal the antiquated citizen’s arrest law that was initially used to justify the shooting.
Lee Merritt, civil rights attorney for Arbery’s estate says they are grateful for the change, but they are still without justice.
Merritt, Arbery’s family attorney tells First Coast News he is filing a federal civil rights complaint on Tuesday, February 23.
“We wanted to let the [family] know that the community, their attorneys, the legal system is still going to be held accountable and that we’re still fighting for them a year later,” Merritt told First Coast News on Monday.
In the lawsuit, he plans to lay out claims that the police department coordinated with members of the public to kill Arbery.
“They unfairly and prejudicially targeted the Black man who was seen enter entering a property that many people were entering, they imputed criminality on [Arbery]. And they had the opportunity to avoid this from happening to tell citizens that it is not appropriate to engage in vigilantism,” Merritt said.
Merritt says the only remedy available in civil court is monetary damages, but they are also asking for extraordinary relief and systemic changes to address racism within Glynn County.
Cooper-Jones says she feels there is some change that’s been made, at the expense of her son’s life.
“I think that it's better. But it shouldn't have taken a young man to lose his life to get better. It should have been better decades ago. It shouldn't have taken all of this,” Cooper-Jones said.
Her prayer is that her other children can go on without their brother.
Cooper-Jones says while she hopes the men will be sentenced to life in prison, it won’t bring her son back.
“I'm having to accept every day that he's gone, and he's never coming back. As far as even when we get people to go to prison, Ahmaud is never coming back. That's the end. I mean, [if] they go to prison but Ahmaud never comes home,” Cooper-Jones said.
*Read the full complaint at the bottom of this story.
A federal lawsuit was filed on one-year anniversary of Arbery’s death which states that the men who allegedly murdered him, violated his civil rights.
Lee Merritt, Arbery’s family attorney, said the decision to file one year after Arbery's death is both substantive and symbolic.
“We wanted to let the [family] know that the community, their attorneys, the legal system is still going to be held accountable and that we’re still fighting for them a year later,” Merritt told First Coast News.
In the suit, Merritt claims that the police department coordinated with members of the public in the death Ahmaud Arbery.
READ THE FULL COMPLAINT BELOW:
How Ahmaud's Arbery Death Changed Brunswick
A southern homecooked meal is something Travis Riddle said he does best. The Brunswick native moved back to the small town from Atlanta last year and opened a restaurant.
"Usually, when you ask people about Brunswick, Georgia, the first thing they say is, 'Where?'" Riddle said.
Riddle is also now running for mayor.
"My main reason for coming back was because I heard all this stuff that was going on around the Ahmaud Arbery situation," Riddle said. "I just saw how it would divide the community in the city that I'm from, so I wanted to come back and get involved with it."
Riddle helped organize protests, focused on keeping them peaceful.
"I think we're a focus point and a stable point of what's going on in the world, the way we handled the situation, the way it brought everybody together to fight the same enemy and not divided between each other," Riddle explained.
Peaceful protests is a goal shared by Pastor John Perry, Brunswick's NAACP President. Perry also helped organize rallies over the past year and is running also mayor.
“The tragedy really brought our community together, Blacks, whites, came together and said that something like this should never happen in our city," Perry said. "We came together to seek justice, and to find ways that we can ensure that something like this never happens."
"If you look around now, you see a lot of changes," Riddle said. "I think it comes from little ole' Brunswick. Now they see how we handle it, how we came together, and it's like we're the blueprint on how to get results in a peaceful way."
Changes like a new elected district attorney, a new statewide hate crime law, even conservative Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia calling to end the citizens arrest law used to justify the shooting.
"I think this case contributed to public awareness of long-standing issues in the criminal justice system that needed to be addressed," Gough said. "And that's not a comment on the substance of the case."
Gough, again, maintains his client's innocence, but said the case brought attention to how police and district attorneys offices investigate crimes.
“Every life is precious and every death should be investigated, and every family would like to think that their loved ones would be treated with dignity and respect,” Gough said. "You can't deny that this case, and others that have come along, have really raised public awareness of the treatment of people in our country, and treatment by law enforcement."
Attorneys for the other men charged either didn’t want to comment in this piece or didn’t get back to our request for comment.
The group A Better Glynn formed after Arbery's death to do just that, hold leaders and officials accountable. The group's goal is to affect social change through civic engagement, like through voter registration and education.
“I believe we have played a role in talking about Glynn County and sort of seizing this moment while Glynn County is on the map to show that there are strategic organizers in small towns," Shemeka Frazier Sorrells, co-founder of A Better Glynn, said. "We have the ability to do so, and if investment occurs in areas such as Glynn County, we have shown that we can make a righteous movement with that investment."
Riddle said he has seen a lot more young people engaged in the community over the past year.
"I see a lot of the younger generation standing up more for what they believe in or what they feel like they can change," Riddle explained. "It gave a lot of people more courage and the confidence that, 'Hey, I am important. My vote my vote does matter.'"
The national spotlight on this small southern town is the reason why now if you ask someone about Brunswick, Georgia, you'll get a different answer than a year ago.
“I've heard about that place. Y'all got a lot going on down there," Riddle said, repeating what people have said to him over the past year about his hometown.
"Big things come in small packages, so we're a small city and we made big movements," Riddle said.