Opinion | One year later: remembering Ahmaud Arbery

Opinion by Mikayla Tillery
Feb. 22, 2021, 8:03 p.m.

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

— Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday

Gregory and Trevor McMichael lynched Ahmaud Arbery exactly one year ago under the poplar trees. I saw the faces of my father, my uncles, my brother surrounded by two men so ravenous, so starved for Black death, that they were willing to take Ahmaud’s life. Three shots to his chest or a noose around his neck – it didn’t matter. He was dead from the minute he decided to exist as a Black man in a white neighborhood.

Not even a month later, Breonna Taylor was killed by Brett Hankinson, Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove. For two months, her story simmered and settled, justice so far removed that her only protector was charged with the attempted murder of a police officer. Louisville cried for her. From New York to Los Angeles, from Dallas to Cincinnati, the world cried in protest – and yet her murderers still walked free. To this day, they get to enjoy their lives as if they didn’t take everything from her.

With a knee to George Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin murdered for an audience on May 25, so emboldened in his racism that a crowd could not stop his barbarity. It was a performance to him, a show that would go on even at the cost of another person’s life. So we erupted – Black folks in grief, non-black folks in solidarity and white folks in anger. This anger throbbed for months to come, dulling when it was finally time to dismantle the institutions that made George Floyd the perfect target and Derek Chauvin inculpable.

Ahmaud, Breonna and George were all Black folks with no other connection than being martyred at the hands of racists. They would join the list that stretches from coast to coast of our ancestors whose only crime was being Black and whose executioners were their oppressors.

Black people everywhere carry the weight of knowing that these victims are us. They are our fathers. They are our brothers. They are us every time we get into a car. We are the sickly bitter combination of survivor’s guilt and anticipation of being next.

That’s something my dad was sure to tell me and my brother growing up. They weren’t bullets that had our names on them; they were bullets that said, “to the Black person who fits the description.” To avoid being caught in the crossfire, we reviewed cases of police brutality like game film: no hoodies, always carry an ID, only “yessir/no ma’am,” don’t go out at night alone and, above all else, don’t get pulled over.

Then, the cases started getting harder to navigate – as if it weren’t already a punishment to treat every interaction with a police officer as if we were hostages negotiating our right to live. The cases said don’t leave your apartment door open because your police officer neighbor will think it’s her apartment and you’re an intruder. Don’t go to sleep in your home because an officer will walk into your apartment in plainclothes and shoot you eight times while you sleep. Don’t exist in white spaces as a Black person because it’s justification enough for self-defense. I was forced to learn that good behavior and education – the myth of respectability politics – does not absolve anyone of their Blackness. Instead, it makes us all-too-aware of the inescapability of our skin.

Even on campus, at one of the best universities in the world, Black students wonder every day if we’ll be the next headline, if we’ll be the thug from Stanford who had it coming. For years, Black students have pleaded with administrators to disengage with the law enforcement that has continued to disproportionately harass and profile Black students, faculty and staff. We were instead met with an extension of the contract with the Santa Clara County Sheriff and a reminder that our voices will continue to go unheard. 

That is to say that outside of departmentalizing African and African American Studies or funding the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford does everything to appear inclusive on a surface level. The University can create committees to address racism, elect diverse cabinets of faculty dedicated to making Stanford a more equitable place. But without structural change — real change — Black students will never be safe here. We aren’t safe anywhere.

This fact wasn’t new to my father, who had endured the South as a Black man. It isn’t new to any Black student who has been profiled and subjugated for their entire life. It wasn’t new to Ahmaud, who had been a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline even before falling victim to a racist and fatal citizen’s arrest. We didn’t have to see the blood on the leaves to know that there was blood at the root. 

Yet, for the first time, people in the majority are willing to be publicly and unabashedly angry at Black trauma. In this case, though, anger without action isn’t reparations, and it won’t save the next Black kid unlucky enough to run in a white neighborhood.

In remembering Ahmaud Arbery, we are obligated to reflect on the racism that is so pervasive in our country, in our communities and on our campus. Now is the time to recenter ourselves in the work needed to deconstruct the policing and prison systems – because lynchings never stopped. White supremacy just gave us new terms – police brutality, citizen’s arrest – to justify the extrajudicial murder of Black people.

Ahmaud’s mother said, “I will get answers – that was my promise. That’s the last thing that I told him, on the day of his funeral: that Mama will get to the bottom of it.” Our actions, no matter how severe, can never replace the son that Wanda Cooper-Jones lost that day. But if, in her grief and the trauma of losing a son, she still has the strength to search for answers, we can search for justice.

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