Ahmaud Arbery case puts spotlight on community’s race legacy

People who call home in Brunswick, Georgia, say it is not the monstrous place that may appear to have happened after Ahmaud Arbery's murder after a chase by two armed white men.

Yes, it is one of the poorest cities in Georgia, where a large part of the black working population struggles to find opportunities for progress and where a black resident says he tiptoes to avoid racist insults.

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But it is also a city with a black mayor and a city where longtime residents say that blacks and whites – since the civil rights movement – have long worked together to resolve thorny issues about racial equality.

Now, Arbery's murder, as well as the subsequent investigation criticized for being too slow, has placed Brunswick in the national spotlight and raised questions about whether recent events reflect something rotten in the culture of the coastal city.

On the contrary, residents say, Brunswick has always stood out for its ability to work peacefully in difficult times, although it is far from perfect.

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"I don't think some bad white people have defined this whole community," Mayor Cornell Harvey told the Associated Press. "I'm sure there are people who have hidden feelings about race, on an individual level. But I've seen this community come together."

Arbery was killed on February 23 in a subdivision called Satilla Shores, which is outside the city limits, but is considered part of the wider Brunswick community. A white father and son told police that they chased him in their truck because they suspected he was a thief. An autopsy showed that Arbery was killed by three rifle shots, and the cell phone video led to a national protest when it hit the Internet last week – both for the rudeness of the images, but also because the men had not been arrested two months later. the killing.

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Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, were charged with manslaughter and aggravated assault shortly after the video was leaked.

There were allegations that race played an important role in postponing arrests, and the state attorney general announced an investigation on Tuesday about how the case was initially handled, the day after he named the third outside prosecutor – a prosecutor. from the Atlanta area that is black – to take over.

Brunswick, with a population of over 16,000, is more than half black. The surroundings of Glynn County reflect more the racial composition of the state: it has more than five times the number of people than Brunswick and is 63% white, 27% black and 7% Hispanic.

Rev. John Perry III, president of the NAACP branch in Brunswick, moved to the city 13 years ago and was "pleasantly surprised that the people here have a big heart," he said.

But he remains concerned about socioeconomic inequality in the city. Much of Brunswick's black workforce is blue collar, he said, and many have no opportunity to climb the ladder. A recent review of average household income data for 24/7 on Wall Street found that Brunswick was the poorest city in Georgia. The city has a poverty rate of 39%, compared to 16.9% in the state in general.

"It's not that we don't have a black base that has gone out and been educated," said Perry. "Many people have been neglected for better opportunities."

Still, he doesn't think the problem is "racial hatred". Instead, he points to the fact that people in power tend to help people they know, and people in power are usually white.

But Ryan Marshall, a 27-year-old black man who has lived in the Brunswick area since he was young, says he has suffered a more direct bias: his co-workers called it a racist insult “if I don't do exactly what I should do. "

"The difference between me and Ahmaud is that I live a life where I tiptoe to avoid things," like the violent confrontation in which Arbery died, said Marshall, who was among the hundreds of people who protested on Friday. fair in front of the Glynn County Courthouse. . "I shouldn't have to live in fear."

Also in the protest was Robert Griffin, 82, who moved to Brunswick in 1961 as a band director for the all-black high school. Almost everything at the time was segregated, so Griffin joined the local NAACP to work towards integration.

It wasn't always easy. Griffin remembered a city official who had a public pool filled with dirt, instead of allowing whites and blacks to swim together. But the organization worked with white residents and many places were integrated without protests or clashes.

"We deregulated this entire county without bloodshed," said Griffin, while nearby towns "fought on the streets".

Even after Arbery's murder, Griffin insisted that there is more to unity than racial unrest in Brunswick.

"I saw a lot of angry people, black and white" at Friday's protest, he said. "We have always had that kind of support in this community."

Johnny Cason, a 76-year-old Brunswick resident and city commissioner, agrees.

"This thing broke my heart and it's so wrong," said Cason, who is white. "But this is a great place, and the world needs to know about it."

Roxane George noted that some residents of the region display the Confederate battle flag, a banner associated with racism and the pride of the southern heritage. But she also pointed to recent anti-racism training that she co-facilitated at the city's Robert S. Abbott Race Unity Institute.

"The people in this community are readily prepared to do what they think is necessary to deal with racism," said George, who is white. Ahmaud's murder "is not just an issue that people here say are from the black community. Black, brown, white – we all feel it was extremely damaging."

Harvey, the mayor, agreed that the city has work to do and suggested that white residents could reflect on their prejudices: “When you see me, what do you see? What are you thinking about me?

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Bynum reported in Savannah, Georgia. Morrison was from New York and is a member of the Associated Press race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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