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How Ahmaud Arbery’s death changed a coastal Georgia community

BRUNSWICK, Georgia, Aug 7 (Reuters) – Carla Arbery has a t-shirt summarizing what has changed in her coastal Georgia community since the murder of nephew Ahmaud Arbery by three white men in 2020.

Phrases on his list of action shirts sparked by the shooting death of the young black jogger: The abolition of a state citizen’s arrest provision that the three white killers said justified the shooting. Removal and indictment of the local district attorney. And a new direction in the police department.

“His life mattered,” said Carla Arbery, 52. “I don’t want people to forget it. Or forget it.”

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As black Georgia residents say they will push for more change, the final major step in the Arbery case is set to play out on Monday. Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and a neighbor, William ‘Roddie’ Bryan, 52, are at risk for their February convictions on federal hate crimes and other charges in the murder of ‘Arberry. Everyone faces life imprisonment.

Last year, the men were also convicted in state court of murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison. They appealed against these convictions.

A 25-year-old former high school football star, Arbery worked for a truck wash company and his father’s landscaping business. He was shot on February 23, 2020, while jogging in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside of Brunswick.

The mostly white Satilla Shores, just two miles from Arbery’s home, contrasts with the county seat of Brunswick – a town of 16,000, mostly minorities, and among the poorest in the state.

The McMichaels claimed they thought Arbery was a burglar and began pursuing him. Bryan joined in, telling police he thought the jogger had to be up to something if the McMichaels were chasing him.

The men cornered Arbery with their trucks before the young McMichael shot him. About two months later, Bryan’s cellphone video of the attack went viral after being leaked by a defense attorney.

Charges were not issued until 73 days after the murder, when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case over to local authorities. The charges were not brought by local district attorney at the time, Jackie Johnson, who is white – and for whom the elder McMichael had worked as an investigator after leaving the Glynn County Police Department.

NEW PROSECUTOR, NEW CHIEF OF POLICE

Arbery’s family worked to get Johnson elected in November 2020. Johnson has since been charged with violating his oath of office and obstructing law enforcement. She denied the charges and filed a motion to dismiss them. Reuters could not reach her or her attorney for comment.

After the Arbery case drew worldwide attention, Georgia’s Citizens’ Arrest Law was largely repealed by a law signed by Governor Brian Kemp last May. A few months later, Kemp signed a new hate crimes law. Glynn County fired its white police chief.

Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker, who is a family friend of the Arberys, said the case was one of the reasons the commission fired the county’s police chief of 85,000. The department was also plagued by broader issues, he said, including a culture of “good old boy” cronyism.

“The change is here,” said Booker, the only black member among the seven county commissioners.

Former chief John Powell disputed allegations of force misconduct during his watch and denied breach of oath of office charges brought against him in Glynn County Superior Court. His attorney was unavailable for comment.

The new leader is Jacques Battiste, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent and former New Orleans police officer. He is the county’s first black police chief. Battiste was unavailable for an interview, a county spokesperson said.

Three Georgia law enforcement officers have filed a lawsuit against Glynn County and commission members. The lawsuit says the political environment after Arbery’s death led the commission to ignore them for the chief’s position in favor of hiring a black officer.

Booker declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did a county commission spokesperson. Last year, Booker was quoted in the Brunswick News as saying that “choosing someone other than something that the black community would be comfortable with, I think is the wrong way to go. proceed”.

Protests over Arbery’s death have drawn national civil rights activists to this region of scenic shores and ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The murder also sparked new local activism.

Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who is white, co-founded a group called Glynn Clergy of Equity. He hosted dinner parties to bring together people of different races and religions. “We found a new willingness for people, white and non-white, black, to have a conversation about racial equity, gender equity, all of that stuff,” she said.

Elijah “Bobby” Henderson, 46, a black electrical engineer, co-founded a band called A Better Glynn. He promoted the successful candidate who ran against Johnson to district attorney. Henderson is committed to helping people restore their right to vote after criminal convictions. Some of those people were convicted of years-old traffic offenses after being unable to pay their fines, he said.

“The big thing we need to change is the culture that helped cover up Ahmaud’s murder,” Henderson said. “Black people are still disenfranchised.”

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Reporting by Rich McKay in Brunswick, Georgia; edited by Donna Bryson and Michael Williams.

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