[Updated] The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thousands of protesters demand justice for George Floyd on Tuesday, May 26, outside the precinct of the cop who killed him in Minneapolis. (2020 Image Star Tribune / Carlos Gonzalez)
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By JEFF MACKLER

(Update: As we go to press, Minneapolis’s racist cop murderer Derek Chauvin has been arrested and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. New videos have been released where Chauvin’s victim, George Floyd is heard crying out repeatedly, “I can’t breathe” and “Mama…they’re going to kill me.” Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd neck for eight minutes. Some 180 buildings in Minneapolis have been burned, including Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, previously evacuated in the face of massive protests surrounding the heavily fortified building. Electric power and gas lines have been shut down. President Trump, characterizing protestors as “THUGS,” tweeted to Minnesota’s governor his willingness to send in troops. Said Trump, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Six demonstrators have been murdered in Louisville, Kentucky. Demonstrations have been called in cities across the country. -JM)

Black Georgia jogger, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, was murdered in cold blood by three white racists on February 23. Arbery’s family attorneys, led by Benjamin Crump, have charged that his murder was premeditated.

Local police, on the scene soon after the murder, accepted the testimony of the killers. They were considered “witnesses,” not suspects. One, a former cop and police investigator, Gregory McMichael, who had worked under the jurisdiction of the first two District Attorneys assigned to the case, was immediately released along with his son, Travis. The DAs concluded that Arbery’s murder was fully justified under Georgia law. Under pressure some two months later, when evidence to the contrary emerged, they recused themselves from further deliberations on the case.

Ahmaud Arbery: “Jogging while Black”

Arbery, a former high school football standout, according to the New York Times, was jogging in the predominantly white, middle-class small town of Satilla Shores in south Georgia, a short distance from his house on the other side of the freeway, largely populated by poor Blacks. On that fatal February 23 day, he stopped at an open construction site and entered a partially built house to check it out. According to the owner, who had installed a surveillance camera inside, it was likely to get a drink of water. Nothing was stolen. The owner had previously reported to the police that a number of others were recorded as similarly checking out the house, including several whites. In no instance was anything taken or damaged.

In this instance, however, immediately after Aubrey emerged and continued his jogging, following a few minutes inside, he was confronted by Gregory McMichael’s son Travis, armed with a shotgun and accompanied by his father toting his .357 Magnum pistol. They proceeded to chase after Arbery in their pickup truck followed by a third white man, William “Roddie” Bryan, who videoed the “chase” and subsequent murder on his cellphone. Bryan followed the McMichaels in his own car. The fleeing Arbery was shot three times, as he tried to fight off Travis McMichael, whose car had blocked his path. The killers told the arriving police that they claimed the right of “citizen’s arrest” and “self-defense.

The video recording Arbery’s murder was not revealed by the cops and the District Attorney until some two months later. The first DA, Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case because former police officer and inspector, Gregory McMichael had worked in her office. The second DA, George E. Barnhill, eventually did the same after Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, learned that Barnhill’s son worked in the Brunswick District Attorney’s office, which had previously employed Gregory McMichael.

Georgia officials prepare their cover-up

But both Johnson and Barnhill had accepted the murderers’ story before stepping aside. Both had seen the video and kept it hidden. Before withdrawing from the case, Barnhill wrote to the police that he did not believe there was evidence of a crime, stating that the McMichaels had been legally carrying their weapons under Georgia law. He also stated that because Arbery was a “burglary suspect,” the pursuers, who had “solid firsthand probable cause,” were justified in chasing him under the state’s citizen’s arrest law. Barnhill stated that video existed of Mr. Arbery “burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation.” Barnhill’s statement was contradicted by the owner of the home, who had informed police that there was no burglary, that “nothing was taken.” In the letter to the police, Barnhill cited a separate video of the shooting filmed by a third pursuer, only later identified as William Bryan. Barnhill said that this video, which had not been made public, shows Mr. Arbery attacking Travis McMichael after he and his father pulled up to him in their truck.

Arbery family fights back

Interviewed on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” Arbery family attorney Benjamin Crump’s account is startling. Crump insisted:

“Well, as Ahmaud Arbery’s family and my co-counsels have maintained from the beginning, we believe that William “Roddie” Bryan was part of this organized gang that was attempting, based on a premeditated plan, to confront and capture Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through that community that day. And the text message that was sent by police officer Robert Rash to the homeowner, saying that, ‘If you see him again, don’t call the police. Call Gregory McMichael. He’s a former police officer’ — so, we believe this was an organized mob that was planning on confronting Ahmaud. So it is wholly appropriate that Bryan was arrested and charged.”

Crump’s remarks were made only after the Bryan cellphone video was leaked to the media by the McMichael’s attorneys, who believed that it would vindicate their clients. The aforementioned text message sent to the owner of the house under construction by police officer Robert Rash, with instructions to not contact the police but rather Gregory McMichael, was central to attorney Crump’s charge that Arbery’s murder was premeditated. Here you have the McMichaels, armed, ready and in immediate pursuit, as unarmed Arbery emerges jogging, as had been his habit, from the open construction site, while dutiful Gregory McMichael phones the police from the back of his pick-up truck to inform them of his pursuit. The police arrive less than a minute later.

Crump concisely summarized the Arbery family demands as follows: “We want the Justice Department to not only open a hate crime investigation, but we want them to look at the due process of law violations under the 14th Amendment involving everybody who was involved in this investigation, from the police officers who were first on the scene to the first DA, Jackie Johnson, who, it is alleged, told the police not to file charges in the case; to the second district attorney, Barnhill, who also said, like Jackie Johnson, he had a conflict of interest, but yet wrote a memorandum saying that he saw no probable cause to arrest this murderous father-and-son duo, and, in essence, put his thumb on the scales of justice in favor of the McMichaels; and the third prosecutor, who said when he looked at this video and he looked at all this evidence, the statements, said that he didn’t feel he could arrest them, that he had to take it to a grand jury; and so, the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department, who leaked the video of Ahmaud Arbery from three years prior, we believe, in an attempt to assassinate his character, as well as Robert Rash, the police officer who sent the text to the homeowner that condoned and encouraged this vigilante mob to capture and confront Ahmaud Arbery.”

Until the release of the Bryan video the Arbery case was basically considered closed. The law, in all its racist majesty, was followed, so proclaimed the authorities, who managed to secretly leak a report indicating that Arbery had been previously convicted of a shoplifting offense. He was Black, in a white neighborhood, trespassing in a house under constructing, tagged as a burglar fleeing from a crime and pursued by two and then three innocent bystanders, who were legally armed, legally in pursuit of a criminal and legally entitled to shoot him in “self defense.” All this was deemed by three DAs to be totally in accord with the law. In truth, Arbery was lynched in accord with the “principles of southern justice,” today practiced by killer cops across the nation.

Video’s release brings national media exposure

But again, only with the release of the video, national media, in the context of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, as we shall see, finally took notice. The New York Times asked Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, to review Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County Police Department, as well as the initial police report. Meanwhile, The Times compiled a detailed minute-by-minute account of the unfolding events, using multiple videos, phone and text messages. Moore emailed The Times stating that Barnhill’s opinion was “flawed” and that the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors in the confrontation, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Moore wrote. The Times compilation, coupled with the release of the Bryan cellphone recording, instantly reversed the lynching cover-up momentum. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), notwithstanding its racist history, took over the investigation and arrested the McMichaels on charges of murder along with Bryan, the previously proclaimed happenstance eyewitness, who is today jailed and charged with the same felony murder.

Cobb County’s first Black female prosecutor, Joyette Holmes, has now been appointed lead prosecutor. As with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where police murdered innocent Black man Michael Brown, the case is expected to proceed more openly and slowly through a number of legal channels, wherein the temporarily cowed racist criminal “injustice” system can be expected to craft more “refined” arguments and “legal interpretations” aimed at the release or perhaps partial vindication of the three racist Georgia lynch mob participants.

Police murder one unarmed Black person each day!

In racist America police and police-related murders of unarmed Blacks are tragically routine. A partial study of such murders released several years ago at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrating that cop murders of unarmed Black people take place on average of one per day! I say partial because many districts make it a point to not report such murders. And how many of these murders end in the conviction of the killer cops? Less than a handful! A tiny few of the thousands of racist murderers are ever convicted. We list here just a handful of the Black victims of police murder to keep their memories alive as we continue to challenge the inherent racism in capitalist America.

Dontre Hamilton, Shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park. The officer was responding to a call from employees at a nearby Starbucks alleging that Hamilton, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was disturbing the peace. Arriving officers first determined that Hamilton had committed no crime.

Eric Garner, Placed in an illegal chokehold by NYPD officers for 15 seconds for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times as he was held down by several officers on a sidewalk.

Michael Brown, Shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.

John Crawford, Shot and killed by a police officer at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. He was shopping and holding a toy BB gun.

Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally ill man, was shot three times, including once in the back, by a white police officer.

Dante Parker, father of five, died in police custody after being repeatedly stunned by a Taser in San Bernardino County

Tanisha Anderson, died after officers in Cleveland slammed her head on the pavement while taking her into custody.

Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was shot and killed by Cleveland police after officers mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.

Rumain Brisbon, was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer who mistook a pill bottle for a weapon.

Akai Gurley, Shot and killed by a police officer while walking in a dimly lit New York City public housing stairwell with his girlfriend.  New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton called the shooting an “accidental discharge.”

Jerame Reid, Shot and killed by police officers in Bridgeton, New Jersey. He was a passenger in a car driven by his friend, who was pulled over by police.

Tony Robinson, Killed by a Madison, Wisconsin police officer who was responding to reports of someone disrupting traffic.

And on March 13: Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, was shot dead in her own apartment at one o’clock in the morning. Using a “no knock” warrant for a suspect who had already been apprehended, police broke down her door and fired 20 shots, eight hit Taylor.

And just last week: George Floyd, pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis cop’s knee on his neck, Floyd repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t breathe.” He died in a hospital shortly after. Police hurled explosive tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets at the thousands of outraged protestors marching from the site of his killing to the 3rd Precinct police station. Two days later, with thousands of outraged protestors outside, the precinct, earlier evacuated by the police, was burned down. In neighboring St. Paul, buildings were set afire across the city.  As we go to press 500 National Guard troops have been called in by the governor.

The original police report read that Floyd “appeared to be under the influence,” had “physically resisted officers,” and was “suffering mental distress.” Said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, after viewing a bystander video, “Every bit of what I saw was wrong. It was vicious. And it was unacceptable. There is no grey there.” The four cops involved were subsequently fired. No murder changes have been pressed. No arrests! The announced future FBI investigation can only be expected to find “grey” areas to perhaps, once again, exonerate the killer cops.

A May 28 New York Times article, titled “Fury in Minneapolis Over Latest in a Long Line of Police Killings,” began by noting that the appointment of a Black police chief who once joined a lawsuit that accused the department of being “a cauldron of racist behavior,” has not changed the racist nature of policing. “Excessive force complaints…have become commonplace, especially by African American residents.” The article notes that of the many resident reports of racist and vicious police violence since 2012, “about 1 percent…have resulted in disciplinary action, according to city records.”

Moreover, the article records the repeated failures of numerous efforts to “reform” the police, including the election of a white mayor who “openly discusses systemic racism” and the appointment of a Black police chief who “embraces a community-oriented approach” and earlier in his career sued the department for being “a cauldron of racist behavior.”

The article continues, “There have been some hard-won police reforms including a change to the use-of-force manual requiring that officers intervene when they see colleagues using excessive force.” But when George Floyd was lying on the ground repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” while Office Derek Chauvin drove his knee into Floyd’s neck – continuing even after he went unconscious – the three accompanying cops at the scene did nothing but keep away the increasingly distressed onlookers who saw it all. Newly released video shows two of them joining Chauvin in pinning George Floyd to the ground, kneeling on his back and legs while he pleads for his life.

There is no reforming the racist nature of the police in a capitalist society. Their job is to terrorize, divide and make compliant the working class, to ease the way for the workers’ exploitation at the greatest levels of profit possible. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-immigrant hatred are quintessential tools of that exploitation, along with many other institutionalized repressive forms the ruling class promotes and enforces to keep workers divided from each other.

In all of these very briefly detailed cases above, the murder victims were Black and unarmed. No police officer was charged or convicted of murder.

And then there was Malcolm and Martin…And now there is Mumia and Leonard and countless other victims of racist police murders and frame-ups, like Trayvon and Oscar.

COVID-19 and Ahmaud Arbery

The national exposure of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, a racist killing that would have otherwise passed virtually unnoticed, came at a special time in U.S. history. It broke into the headline at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic, like the racist pandemic that daily plagues U.S. capitalist society, has taken its greatest toll on Black America. Every study today tells us that the COVID-19 death rate of Blacks is qualitatively greater across the country than whites. Blacks have been systematically subjected to racist discriminatory policies that relegate them to the lowest paying service center and other low-wage, dead end jobs, to the poorest housing conditions and the least healthcare coverage, if any.

Largely obscured by capitalism’s incessantly-hyped claims of stability, low unemployment rates and a prosperous economy, this veil of lies has been suddenly and unexpectedly lifted to reveal a society replete with unprecedented inequality – a society with real overall unemployment rates at close to fifty percent. As always, Blacks suffer a disproportionate share of this generalized horror. A broad range of economists today predict that some 42 percent of the jobs lost over the past two months are never coming back. And if the newly unemployed, 40 million in the past seven weeks alone, do find work, it is expected that it will be at significantly reduced pay and benefit rates.

Tens of millions of working people have become aware more than ever of the nature of the capitalist beast that today seeks to force millions back to work in the most dangerous of times just to keep capitalist profits rolling in.

It is in this context only that Ahmaud Arbery’s case has come to national attention, including when CNN host Chris Cuomo, brother of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, regularly features COVID-19 pandemic reporting as well as exposés of Georgia’s police racism in Arbery’s case and now with regard to George Floyd. Indeed, the Democratic Party’s “establishment” leaders of U.S. capitalism fully understand that this is no time for blanket denials of society’s ills. They have pressed their presumptive candidate, racist Joseph Biden, to assume a more reasonable stance toward vital social questions, encouraging Biden to at least pay lip service to some of Bernie Sanders’ timid reforms, if not flirt with the idea of tacking on “liberal” Elizabeth Warren as his VP. Or perhaps even a Black running mate like Georgia’s liberal Stacey Abrams, who opening seeks the VP spot, to help the racist Biden win the votes of Black communities in the disgusting spectacle that capitalist electoral politics has descended to. 

The racist disparity of COVID-19, where the oppressed suffer the consequences qualitatively more than the general population, is but the flip side of the institutional racism that allows white racist police to murder unarmed Black women, men and children with impunity, while filling the prisons with millions more to work at Fortune 500 corporations in the increasingly privatized, for profit, fifty-cents-an-hour slave labor prison-industrial complex. The fires of mass discontent that now burn in Minneapolis, St. Paul and as we write, in Louisville, Kentucky, are but the initial sparks that may well ignite a working class fightback that opens the door wider than in nearly a century to the thinking of previously unknown thoughts. The great working class masses that hold the potential to bring this degenerate system to an end will have the final word in this matter. The stakes have never been higher.

Socialist Action News

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