SAVANNAH, Ga. – Family and friends walked in procession through the coastal subdivision where armed men chased and shot him in the street. Others joined his mother for a vigil at the rural church where he's buried. Lawmakers paused to remember him at the Georgia state Capitol, and President Joe Biden offered thoughts on the slaying one year ago of Ahmaud Arbery.
When the 25-year-old was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, few outside this Georgia port city paid much attention at first. As three men await trial for murder, those closest to Arbery sought to make sure his death isn't overlooked again.
“He isn't going to rest in his grave until we get justice,” Marcus Arbery, Arbery's father, said Tuesday evening as he and other family members led a group of about 100 supporters on a memorial march into the Satilla Shores subdivision.
That's where Arbery died bleeding in the street from three close-range shotgun blasts after a white father and son armed themselves and pursued him in a pickup truck upon spotting the young Black man running in their neighborhood.
In rural Waynesboro, Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, knelt by her son's grave outside New Springfield Baptist Church ahead of a candlelight vigil with family and supporters wearing masks and blue ribbons, a nod to Arbery's favorite color.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve healed much," Cooper-Jones told WRDW-TV before the vigil. "I’ve learned to take it day by day, sometimes hour by hour.”
Hours earlier, Cooper-Jones filed a civil lawsuit accusing the men charged in her son’s death and local authorities who first responded to the shooting of violating his civil rights. The complaint filed in U.S. District Court seeks $1 million. Attorneys for the men charged with killing Arbery say they suspected he was a burglar and they committed no crimes.
At the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta, Democratic lawmakers joined civil rights activists to mark the anniversary, which also got a mention from the White House.
“A Black man should be able to go for a jog without fearing for his life,” Biden tweeted Tuesday. “Today, we remember Ahmaud Arbery’s life and we dedicate ourselves to making this country safer for people of color.”
Immediately after the shooting, police interviewed the men who chased Arbery down, and let them walk free. The first prosecutor assigned to the case saw no reason to bring charges. Pleas for justice by Arbery's family went largely unheard as Georgia and the nation entered lockdown in the coronavirus pandemic.
“For a long time, it was like we were yelling into the dark, and nobody was listening,” said Jason Vaughn, Arbery’s high school football coach and an organizer of the Brunswick event.
Arbery had been dead for more than two months when a cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online May 5 and a national outcry erupted. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and swiftly arrested the shooter, Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and neighbor Roddie Bryan on murder charges.
Outrage over Arbery's slaying still simmered when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, igniting protests across the U.S. denouncing racial injustice.
In Brunswick, the death of Arbery served as a wake-up call to many residents, both Black and white, that they need to be more active in holding elected officials accountable, said the Rev. John Perry. He served as president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter at the time of the killing. Now he's running to be the city's next mayor.
“Previously, we elected people into office and just trusted that they would do the right thing,” Perry said. "The failure to carry out justice in the Ahmaud situation said we needed to do more as citizens.”
In November, voters angered by Arbery's death ousted District Attorney Jackie Johnson. Greg McMichael had worked as an investigator for Johnson, who many blamed for playing a role in the delayed arrests, an accusation she denies.
Now local activists are calling for the creation of a citizen review board to help oversee the Glynn County Police Department, which handled the initial response to the shooting.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is asking Georgia lawmakers to all but eliminate an 1863 state law authorizing private citizens to make arrests. The prosecutor first assigned to the Arbery case cited that law in concluding the killing was justified.
The McMichaels' lawyers have said they pursued Arbery, suspecting he was a burglar, after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They say Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain jailed without bond.
The anniversary march was organized by the 2:23 Foundation, a group founded by Vaughn and Arbery's cousin, Demetris Frazier, to fight systemic racism. Vaughn, who coached Arbery at Brunswick High School, said the slaying remains painfully fresh.
“You want to make sure you keep Ahmaud’s name alive, but it’s like reading an obituary over and over again,” Vaughn said. "It’s like reliving the past all over again. You’ve got to stay strong.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.