Under ordinary circumstances, the arrest of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers might have prompted another national conversation on race, which is what we call it when family members who don’t talk in real life argue on Facebook, and invite long-lost high school classmates to join in, along with old bosses, and some creepy guy no one can quite place.
On television, pundits would have acted out a dumber version of those Facebook arguments, at least until it was time to segue to a different national conversation, probably about mass shootings, war with Iran, or that gay tiger sex cult from Netflix.
“National conversations” – both on Facebook and on cable news – are really all the same. They fire up the passions until, eventually, we look around and think: “Wait. Who the hell are these people, and how did I get stuck in this room with them?”
It’s a kind of catharsis: Ritualized – synthetic – action and resolution.
They have become part of the American sacramental economy, and it feels odd that we won’t have one about Ahmaud Arbery. Coronavirus, though, is a respiratory disease, and it has sucked the air from the room.
Right now, half of those who would have been arguing about Ahmaud are occupied explaining how Donald Trump managed to cause an entire global pandemic by himself, or scolding people about how to correctly don a mask.
The other half are readying AR-15s and sleeveless t-shirts for the next surprise occupation of some state capital, all in the name of our cherished freedoms.
Ahmaud Arbery’s death is, for most people, background noise. Few of us can muster energy for two national conversations at once, especially when lockdowns have us frazzled, and far from our fighting weights.
On Arbery, people might manage a meme or two before turning their attention back to the virus death toll, which, depending on your point of view, might be concocted daily in the PR department of a global technocratic conspiracy, or at the desk of an evil pharmaceutical financier.
I myself didn’t notice Arbery’s case until after his killers had been arrested. Only then did I read the young man’s story: he jogged in the wrong neighborhood, and he stopped to gawk at the wrong construction site. For that, and for the act of running from people who chased him with guns, he was murdered.
At this point in the story, some will want to point out that Arbery tried to grab one of the guns—certain evidence, they’ll say, that his homicide was justified. But it wasn’t justified, because chasing down a suspected burglar in a game of vigilante crime-fighter doesn’t give anyone the right to shoot him at point blank range.
The issue is race. I know it’s race, because I am afflicted with insatiable curiosity. To sate that itch, I have explored a lot of residential construction sites, and wandered into all kinds of places where I don’t belong. Thanks, at least partly, to my pasty-white skin and the confident swagger it imparts no one has ever denied me safe passage.
In embarrassing circumstances that ought to have merited explanations, if not tickets, cops have shaken their heads at my audacity, and waved me on.
I am not a “number one male” – police jargon for a black man – and thus I am afforded, nearly everywhere I go, the benefit of the doubt.
Arbery did not have that good fortune. He is not alone.
There were only two black kids in the east coast suburb where I grew up. They were brothers, and they were actually biracial: their mother was white, and their father, for my brief foray into baseball, was my little league coach.
Brian was in my grade, lived close by, and was, put simply, a nice guy. By the time we were in high school, he was athletic, a good student, and popular. I wasn’t close with his crowd, but, especially in our senior year, Brian often invited me along to tag along with his friends. I jumped at the chance to hang with a popular crowd.
When I went out with him, Brian would usually pick me up in his Blazer. We’d head to some kid’s house, drink Southern Comfort and watch wrestling, and eventually make our way to a high school party. At the end of the night, we’d get food from a diner, convinced that fried egg sandwiches would sober us up, and then Brian would drop me off on his way home.
One night – it was around two – we drove home via Central Avenue, a long, straight road through the wealthier town that bordered ours. The Verve Pipe played from a mix CD.
Brian was driving with the kind of rigid attention you give to the road after a few drinks, when you’re determined not to be pulled over. That kind of driving is a magnet for the police, and eventually red and blue lights flashed behind us.
I thought he’d get a DUI, and I’d be taken to the police station, where I’d have to call my dad, and then endure a talk about the dangers of “Mr. Beer,” as my father referred to alcohol in his regular lectures on the subject.
But it didn’t happen like that. The policeman who came to Brian’s window didn’t ask if he’d been drinking. I recall that his first question was different.
“Where exactly are you headed, son?”
The next question: “What are you doing here?”
It took me a minute to grasp the subtext of those questions. But when I looked out my window and saw a second cop, his hand gripping his gun, I began to understand what was happening.
A black kid was driving his old truck through a decent neighborhood, and these police officers were on high alert.
The cop at his window asked to see Brian’s license and insurance. Brian had to fumble in the glove box for the paperwork. A box of condoms tumbled out. The police officer laughed, and asked if we weren’t using those with each other or “anything like that.”
I didn’t say anything.
I don’t remember the police officer running Brian’s license. I do remember him saying that he didn’t want to see Brian around there again. I remember that he handed back the license, and both cops sauntered back to their car, laughing.
It was less than five minutes. But as they walked away, I felt humiliated. And ashamed. I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time.
I don’t know if Brian felt those things too. He turned the car back on. We listened to that The Verve Pipe song, and he drove me home.
I didn’t say anything on that drive. Neither did he. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe none of us do. And if we’re going to have a serious national conversation, maybe that’s the place to start.
Brian’s skin made him suspect that night, in a way mine never has. It was probably not the first time, I realized later, and certainly not the last. Still, he made it home that night.
Ahmaud Arbery’s skin made him suspect, too. But he didn’t make it home.