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Before apparent video of Ahmaud Arbery shooting, a community was rallying for answers

Community members say a lack of information and attitudes about privilege and race have tainted an emotional case that has grabbed national attention.

Jabari Robinson Sr. was unconvinced about the initial narrative surrounding the death of Ahmaud Arbery, whose family says was jogging unarmed, in late February: A father and son told police they fatally shot Arbery as he ran in their Georgia neighborhood believing he was a burglary suspect.

So Robinson, who had played high school football with Arbery in the coastal community of Brunswick and was friends with his sister, decided to track down records from the Glynn County Police Department. He wanted to read for himself what transpired that afternoon.

But Robinson, who works in law enforcement in the U.S. Air Force, recalled how he was struck by a lack of more detail from the officers who first arrived on scene.

"When you come on a scene, you want to separate the individuals to get the story. But they didn't have all that information inside the police report," Robinson, 26, said Thursday. "I felt it was kind of fishy."

Ahmaud Arbery.
Ahmaud Arbery.Courtesy of Family

Robinson, who initially shared his concerns on social media in early April, is not the only one who has been demanding more transparency from local prosecutors and law enforcement about how the case was handled.

Questions have been raised as the father and son involved, Gregory and Travis McMichael, were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and murder, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced late Thursday.

Earlier this week, a video was leaked on social media apparently showing Arbery's final moments, prompting scrutiny over why he was killed while, according to his family, out on a daily jog. Tom Durden, an outside prosecutor who took over the case after two other district attorneys recused themselves, had recommended that a grand jury decide whether charges should be filed against the McMichaels.

The arrests by state investigators came as a surprise since a grand jury was not expected to be convened until after June 12, when juries in the state may resume activity following coronavirus-related restrictions.

Supporters of Arbery's family had protested the lack of an arrest and the delay in any legal action, and said ties between the McMichaels and local authorities and systemic attitudes about privilege and race — Arbery was black and the McMichaels are white — tainted an already emotional case.

"From the very beginning, the case has been handled inappropriately," Brunswick NAACP President John Perry Davis II said. "We're not just crying out on a national level for justice for Ahmaud on the arrest of these men, but we're also crying out on the local level to hold our local law enforcement accountable."

Attempts to reach Gregory and Travis McMichael were unsuccessful Thursday, and Glynn County police did not immediately return a request for comment.

John C. Richards Jr., whose brother coached Arbery in high school football, was a third-year law student working in the district attorney's office in Brunswick in 2003. Richards, who has since moved to Arkansas, where he's a pastor, said his brother told him about Arbery's death — and he was motivated to galvanize his hometown about what they could do under the law.

He helped members of the community, both black and white, to band together and launch an email and phone call campaign to appeal to Jackie Johnson, the prosecutor for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, and to the police department for public records from the shooting.

But Johnson ended up recusing herself from the case because she had ties with Gregory McMichael, who was an investigator in her office before retiring in May 2019. (Richards said he worked alongside Johnson and Gregory McMichael during his brief employment with the district attorney's office in Brunswick.)

The case was transferred to George Barnhill, the prosecutor for the neighboring Waycross Judicial District. But it was revealed that Barnhill's son also works in the district attorney's office in Brunswick, where Gregory McMichael was employed, and Arbery's family and supporters pushed for Barnhill to recuse himself. He did so in April.

But in a letter in April to a Glynn County police captain initially obtained by The New York Times, Barnhill defended the McMichaels' actions, as well as a third man who was part of the incident, writing they had "solid first hand probable cause" to chase after Arbery, a "burglary suspect," and stop him. Barnhill also said that after watching the video of the incident, "given the fact Arbery initiated the fight" and grabbed the shotgun, Travis McMichael "was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself" under Georgia law.

In addition, Barnhill said that Arbery's "mental health records & prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man."

A 911 call made before the chase suggested that a black man — a potential burglary suspect — had been looking around a home on the McMichaels' block that was under construction.

Richards said Barnhill's letter only angered him and others in the community who don't believe Arbery committed any crime, or at least one that he needed to die for.

"It's very strange coming from a district attorney who is supposed to be a victim advocate," Richards said.

Barnhill could not be reached for further comment Thursday.

Protesters gather on May 5, 2020 in the area where Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Satilla Shores, Ga.
Protesters gather on May 5, 2020 in the area where Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Satilla Shores, Ga.Courtesy Shyann Swanson

Richards said he also helped coordinate community members to write letters to the editor of The Brunswick News, which in late February noted that police had been releasing "scant" information on the case. The newspaper had also reported about Arbery's past criminal charges, which struck a nerve with community members who felt like only one side of the story was being told.

"The way this has been handled from Day One has been terrifying," Roxane George, a Glynn County resident who wrote a letter to the newspaper, told NBC News. "We were trusting of enforcement to do a thorough job. But fear kind of gripped the hearts of people here."

Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery's family, said earlier Thursday on MSNBC that he is "most concerned" about what he believes is "a level of corruption" in the early investigation, and would like to know what role the relationship between the McMichaels and the district attorney's office played and why they were not immediately arrested.

For other residents in Glynn County, a diverse destination made up of wealthier barrier island homes and middle-class subdivisions, they're putting themselves in the shoes of Arbery, who had he lived, would have turned 26 on Friday. A dedication run is being held in his memory asking people to go for 2.23 miles — to mark the date of his death.

"I think about what he was doing — going for a jog — and how he ended up fighting for his life," said LaTanya Abbott-Austin, the board president of The Robert S. Abbott Race Unity Institute, a nonprofit in Brunswick focused on upholding social justice.

Lauren Bennett, 26, said she attended high school with Arbery and would regularly see him jogging through their Fancy Bluff neighborhood of low-slung homes and trees draped in Spanish moss. A runner herself, she would wave to him, she said, and was impressed by his dedication as he pounded the pavement on days when she was too exhausted.

"I always thought he was training for something," she said.

When the video came out this week appearing to show Arbery running for the final time, locked in a violent struggle that claimed his life, Bennett said she watched, and cried.