For Arbery’s family and friends, a time of anguish and activism
By Tariro Mzezewa
From the moment that Theawanza Brooks heard the initial account that her family was told about her nephew Ahmaud Arbery’s death, it felt off. The authorities, she said, reported that he had been involved in a burglary and killed after a tussle over a gun.
Her own trip to investigate the scene of his death — his blood still visible on the ground — made her only more skeptical. Nearly three months later, when a video became public showing Arbery being chased, cornered and then shot at close range, she felt vindicated and angry — an anger that has persisted nearly two years.
Brooks, 37, who works in retail, is among many members of Arbery’s large extended family and circle of friends who have been both grief-stricken and galvanized to action since his death in February 2020. Over the past month, as the case against the three men charged with murder has played out in the Glynn County Courthouse, they have watched with anguish as the gruesome details of the final moments of Arbery’s life — but nearly none of his humanity — were described to the jury. Part of the family’s role, Brooks said, is helping the public understand who her nephew was.
“This activism kicked in me that I never saw myself being a part of,” she said. “I feel that every day that I go out, I have to have some kind of representation of Ahmaud.”
Brooks has attended the trial regularly, filling notebooks with detailed descriptions of what is said by witnesses, lawyers and the judge. At the end of the day, she cross-references media coverage to make sure her notes are accurate before going live on Facebook to relay the day’s events to people around the world.
Diane Arbery, another of Ahmaud Arbery’s aunts, has been outside the courthouse all day, every day talking to supporters. So has Carla Arbery, an aunt whose children were especially close to Ahmaud Arbery. Ruby Arbery, still another of Ahmaud Arbery’s aunts, has brought home-cooked meals for family members and supporters. Ahmaud Arbery’s parents have attended every day of the trial, each arriving with his or her own lawyer, and sometimes sitting with high-profile civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I’ve been trying to watch every second, every minute because I don’t want to miss anything,” said Akeem Baker, one of Arbery’s best friends since childhood. “I feel like if I take my eyes off it, I don’t want anything to kind of slip through the cracks.”
Many of those closest to Arbery begin and end the day with a prayer. They pray throughout the day for the strength to keep watching. “We need prayer,” Diane Arbery said. “We’ve got to keep praying, and we ask everyone out there to keep praying for us.”
Last week, Black pastors from across the country joined the family in Brunswick in a show of support after a defense lawyer asked that Black pastors and civil rights leaders not be allowed in the courtroom because they could intimidate the jury.
“My heart is full of just joy in the midst of this broken heart,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, told the assembled crowd before asking the pastors and activists to say her son’s name.
Brooks and Arbery’s other aunts were there too, wearing T-shirts that said, “It’s the Black pastors for me.”
Arbery, 25, was known to his family and friends as Maud or Quez. He had been a standout linebacker for the Brunswick High School Pirates and dreamed of playing professional football. He left town briefly to attend a technical school but eventually returned to the Brunswick area and was living with his mother. “His mom was his queen,” Baker said.
He liked rapping and listening to trap music. After a hard day, he sometimes went to Madge Merritt Park, near Brunswick, to rap to clear his mind. He had recently started a job doing landscaping work with his father, and he was also working at a truck wash, according to a friend. He also had a mental illness that caused him to have auditory hallucinations.
The picture of Arbery painted by the lawyers for the men accused in his death has been difficult for the family to hear. One lawyer, building an argument that his assailants had reason to believe Arbery was responsible for a string of neighborhood break-ins, described him as “an intruder” who was caught four times on video “plundering around” a house under construction in the neighborhood.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Brooks drove to the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick as soon as she got off work — her disbelief at the news of Arbery’s death there compelling her to see for herself.
“I was distraught,” she said. She was surprised to see that the house her nephew was accused of burglarizing had no windows or doors; it was still under construction.
“Burglary,” she said. “It just kept playing in my mind, ‘How can you burglarize this?’”
Brooks began keeping track of local news articles mentioning Arbery, trying to piece together what happened. She wanted everyone to know what happened to her nephew and for his killers to be held accountable.
Eventually, three men — Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan — were charged with murder. The case became among the most high-profile in the country, contributed to the national furor over shooting deaths of Black people and the wave of protests against systemic racism. In Georgia, it propelled lawmakers to enact hate crimes legislation and to largely dismantle the state’s citizen’s arrest law.
In the months since, Brooks has marched through the streets of Brunswick chanting Arbery’s name, knocked on doors telling residents the story of her nephew’s life and death and urged them to vote out the district attorney who initially refused to press charges against the suspects in Arbery’s killing. Her nephew’s name and likeness are on her car, her clothing, her jewelry.
“Travis McMichael got up there and talked about fearing for his son,” Brooks said. “Maud was someone’s son. What about the son he took away from Wanda and Marcus? The son that we love that we will never see again, who will never go home again?”