Food for Thought: Limitations of Our “Justice” for Ahmaud Arbery
Hello there and welcome to my very first blog post!
I often reflect and ruminate over social injustice in our world to find deeper personal meaning that can be shared out with a larger collective. I hope to use this blog as a tool for sharing what I am learning and to dialogue with others in pursuit of deeper meaning and social change. Without further ado, I’d like to pose some food for thought regarding the criminal legal system and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Recent news has shared the sentencing of Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William Bryan in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. This comes after recent news of charges for the officers involved in the murder of Breonna Taylor and the sentencing of Derek Chauvin. Many of us may be quick to claim this as justice, but maybe we should hold off on deploying that term so swiftly. Being sentenced to serve time in prison is certainly a consequence, but is it justice?
Incarceration is a form of state-sanctioned violence that often seeks to enact punishment with a life-long impact, yet it offers very little transformative change for those receiving the punishment or those who have been harmed: the loved ones of Ahmaud Arbery. In their recent book Abolition. Feminism. Now., Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie aptly described our criminal legal system as guided by vengeance, not justice, because of this exclusive focus on punishment and disregard for transformative change.
When I think of “justice” regarding Ahmaud Arbery’s racialized murder, my attention and concern goes immediately towards his family. I find myself concerned and wondering if they are being neglected while we cheer for and celebrate “justice”. That concern leads me to my main point of reflection: what about the experiences, needs, healing, and repair for those most directly harmed?
I first learned of the sentencing through a news report from NBC that struck me. Specifically, this new story highlights a few gut-wrenching words that reflects a snippet of the experiences of Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, the parents of Ahmaud Arbery.
His father is quoted as saying, “these three devils have broken my heart into pieces that cannot be found or repaired.” I ask myself: While grieving, which I can only imagine will be a substantial process, what would he need to heal and repair his shattered and lost heart resulting from the murder of his child? To what extent does the state's imposed consequence of both lengthy and lifelong prison sentences address his needs? Were Marcus Arbery’s needs regarding the heartbreaking loss of his son ever solicited or considered?
His mother is quoted in the news report as saying, "[Travis McMichael] took my baby son,” and, “I feel every shot that was fired every day." I ask myself: What would Wanda Cooper-Jones need in healing the trauma and grief of psychologically feeling every shot that pierced her son's body? Again, to what extent does the state's imposed consequence of both lengthy and lifelong prison sentences address her needs? Were Wanda Cooper-Jones’ needs regarding the psychological toll she must bear ever solicited or considered?
Like the sentencing of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd and the recent charges for those involved in Breonna Taylor's murder, the sentencing of Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William Bryan may feel like justice has been served, but it is important to critically examine what we think “justice” is. Do we call this justice because it feels like a win and movement in the right direction for racial justice? That might make sense given that recent sentencings following racialized murders are both outliers and unlikely outcomes when considering the wealth and history of instances where our criminal legal system has failed to hold police, and people who have elected themselves to police Black bodies to death, accountable by the system’s own standards (e.g., the murders of Emmet Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and Tamir Rice to name a few). But how can we move forward in racial justice if we do not consider and center the healing and repair of those like Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones who endured a devastating loss because of racialized violence? Racial justice must not look like neglecting the needs of those most hurt by racism.
So, what might justice look like for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery? Maybe that is a question best answered by the family and community of loved one’s of Ahmaud Arbery. While we as collective bystanders, particularly those of us who are Black, were impacted and may have input, we must not overlook and disregard what those burdened with race-based traumatic stress need in their process of healing from one of the most unimaginable forms of grief.
One step towards envisioning a justice that is not reliant on the criminal legal system as an arbiter of vengeance is to tap into our creativity. In her book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba shares a powerful short story titled Justice: A Short Story that I would highly recommend towards that re-envisioning. I encourage you to check out her book or to at least check out this link to her short story.
Darius Green is a counselor educator at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. For correspondence regarding this post please contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.