Ahmaud Arbery and the resilience of black protest
Posted May 12, 2020 8:33 p.m. EDT
CNN — The protests were striking. No, not the mostly white and maskless militaristic ones demanding that the country reopen even in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, but the ones drawing attention to another arbitrary black death.
Since a video showing the fatal February 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery surfaced on a local Georgia radio station's website last week, black Americans have felt a familiar emotion: rage, aimed at a world of impunity and injustice. As before, it's had a mobilizing effect.
On Friday, protesters gathered, in Georgia near where Arbery was killed and beyond, to prevent their country from looking away from the tragedy. (Across America, supporters also ran 2.23 miles to honor Arbery, who would've turned 26 years old that day.)
The protests stood out for a couple reasons. Perhaps most obviously, there were the face masks. Public health guidelines strongly recommend, and in some instances require, people to wear these coverings in certain spaces to help stem the spread of a virus that preys on proximity.
Unlike the crowds advancing a decidedly different cause in other parts of the country, most of the people who gathered on Friday appeared to be wearing face masks -- a moving display of empathy despite being choked with fury and pain.
Something else also distinguished these events from others: the protesters themselves.
"I didn't need the video to know that Ahmaud was brutally murdered and shot down and gunned like a dog. But the video showed the world what we already knew -- that black life still needs to be valued and protected," James "Major" Woodall, the president of the Georgia NAACP, said during the rally at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick.
"Today, I mourn the death of justice. Won't you mourn with me?" another speaker said.
Black Americans seemed to make up the majority of the attendees, illuminating in heartrending fashion that not even a pandemic could discourage people who felt betrayed by their country -- I didn't need the video; we already knew; mourn with me -- from attempting to make it better, anyway.
This black impulse to believe in a country that hasn't earned such faith recalls James Baldwin's words: "I know this sounds remote, now, and that I will not live to see anything resembling this hope come to pass. Yet, I know that I have seen it -- in fire and blood and anguish, true, but I have seen it," he writes in his 1985 book, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen."
Tapping into a rich vein of black resistance, the protesters were inspiring: gazes firm, fists raised. The visuals had a sobering element, too. Owing to a long history of political injustice, Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, poses a distinct threat to black Americans, who nonetheless showed up to grieve, yes, but also to jolt society right at the foundations.
They had to, of course. Part of this country's story is that if black Americans don't champion their own, no one will.