Arbery Shooting Sparks Racism, Corruption Questions About Georgia County The usually quiet coastal city of Brunswick, Ga., has largely escaped major racial protests but outrage about Ahmaud Arbery's death has evoked talks about a corrupt criminal justice system and racism.
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Arbery Shooting Sparks Racism, Corruption Questions About Georgia County

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Arbery Shooting Sparks Racism, Corruption Questions About Georgia County

Arbery Shooting Sparks Racism, Corruption Questions About Georgia County

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The community of Glynn County, Ga., is facing the fallout after the shooting death of a black man, Ahmaud Arbery. A viral video showed him jogging, being chased by two white men, before being shot to death. From member station WABE, Emma Hurt reports the killing has brought up questions in Arbery's community about corruption in the criminal justice system and also racism.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday, hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Glynn County courthouse. They wore masks, braving a pandemic beneath the live oaks and Spanish moss.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Justice for Ahmaud. Justice for Ahmaud.

HURT: Normally, Brunswick is a quiet coastal city with a sea breeze. But these days, it's the subject of national outrage. John Perry, the president of the local NAACP chapter, spoke at the rally.

JOHN PERRY: As I sit here and I look at you all, I see the beginning of a great awakening, an awakening that acknowledges that there's been a lot of darkness for a long, long time. But Ahmaud's death sound off an alarm.

HURT: An alarm and awakening in this community, which many others have experienced in recent years.

PERRY: And we've got to demand of our justice system to be to us what it promised to be.

HURT: Sitting on a ledge nearby, speaking through a mask, was Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker. The only black member of the county commission, he represents most of Glynn's African American community, which is just over a quarter of the population. And his nephew's best friend? Ahmaud Arbery.

ALLEN BOOKER: It is the most horrifying display of hatred that I know, personally, I've ever seen but this community has ever displayed, that's been recorded.

HURT: Unlike many Southern cities, Brunswick hasn't seen violence, riots or major protests about race. In the 1960s, black and white leaders compromised. Schools integrated here before the rest of the state was forced to, Booker said.

BOOKER: I remember hearing the story of when the Klan had planned a march here, that they were met at the county line by a diverse group of well-armed men. That's what - the story that I grew up hearing.

HURT: But beneath the surface, he said, racism was simmering. It was just happening quietly. The viral video of Arbery's killing has thrust it into view. Dante Hudson worked as a public defender in Glynn until 2012, at the time one of a handful of black attorneys in the community. He agrees this case has exposed racial tensions in Brunswick.

DANTE HUDSON: And I think some folks feel that, you know, this could be sort of the cathartic moment, you know. We've kind of been dealing with this for quite some time. No one has really said anything, but this is sort of like the straw that broke the camel's back.

HURT: Hudson says Arbery's death reflects how relationships drive the criminal justice system in a small town like Brunswick. Local lawyers, he says, who knew judges and prosecutors got better deals for their clients. Attorneys for Arbery's family allege this played a role in Arbery's case, too. Gregory McMichael, one of the men charged with Arbery's murder, is a former police officer and investigator in the local district attorney's office. He wasn't arrested for months.

Now in Atlanta, Hudson says he enjoyed living in Brunswick, but working in the system was even more difficult for black lawyers.

HUDSON: For African Americans, it's really just a tough place to live and to work and to be successful. And it was a lot to sort of kind of break through that caste system - when I say the caste system, legally. It was very helpful if you were white.

HURT: Today, there's just one practicing black lawyer based in Glynn, according to James Yancey, and it's him. He's been here for three decades.

JAMES YANCEY: I often tell some of my white brothers and sisters, I say, you know, I'm a lawyer, but we generally live in two different worlds. We may walk down the same street, but we live in different worlds.

HURT: Those worlds are now under scrutiny, pulling back the curtain on some of the daily indignities, Yancey says, black people in Glynn and across the country have to face. A 2017 video shows an interaction Arbery had with the police. He was sitting in his car in a park. Police suspect him of doing drugs and confront him. They ultimately try to tase him. Arbery accuses them of harassing him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING

AHMAUD ARBERY: I got one day off a week - one day off a week. One day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

ARBERY: One day off a week. I'm trying to chill on my day off, bro.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I got you.

ARBERY: I'm up early in the morning, trying to chill

HURT: Arbery's let go.

Today, there are no black prosecutors in Glynn County district attorney's office, no sitting black judges, and the county police department has been criticized for its lack of diversity. The Arbery shooting has prompted a wave of political activism and calls for new candidates in local elections like district attorney, which has been unopposed for decades.

PERRY: Well guilty, too.

HURT: John Perry again, with the Brunswick NAACP, at the podium in front of the courthouse.

PERRY: We will not be on trial for the bullet shot, but we are on trial for every moment we heard of corruption.

(CROSSTALK)

PERRY: But since it did not affect us, we turned our head to it.

HURT: With all this new tension, County Commissioner Allen Booker still has hope for his hometown.

BOOKER: There is enough good people that are committed to change, real change, to make that happen. But we do need the world to keep the pressure and the spotlight on us because we do have a lot to clean up.

HURT: Now they have an opportunity, he said, to make life for everybody as equal as possible. In the meantime, state investigators and the U.S. Justice Department are continuing to look into the case.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Brunswick, Ga.

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