The protests in Georgia sparked by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery bore a number of similarities to the others we’ve seen following what seems like a neverending string of controversial shootings of unarmed Black men by white people. But in the rural town of Brunswick — where father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael racially profiled Arbery before getting their guns, hopping in a truck, hunting him down and killing him in the middle of a road in broad daylight — there is one key difference the separates the protests there from others: demonstrators were armed.
And not only were they armed, but they were also legally armed Black citizens who came out to protest in the town’s Satilla Shores neighborhood where the McMicheals are accused of murdering Arbery in February. It’s a neighborhood that is very white and conservative, as seen in images from the protests that show Trump-Pence 2020 signs on homes’ lawns.
Likely sensing that the neighborhood’s residents didn’t want the protesters there — especially the armed ones — one of the Black men who were carrying assault rifles seemed to almost dare someone to say something about them being there.
“You think they would have shot me if I was running through they goddamn neighborhood?” the man who, like the other armed protesters, was wearing a camouflage bulletproof vest and a mask to conceal most of his face, asked rhetorically. “Well I’mma give them an opportunity,” he added while walking toward the protest.
One local news outlet identified the men as being members of the Black Panther Party.
Georgia gun laws allow for legally licensed individuals to openly bear arms in public even if there is no apparent cause for self-defense.
The armed citizens legally protesting Arbery’s death came as there have been calls for more Black people to arm themselves because of continued consequences from the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black people well beyond the health spectrum. As Nylah Burton, a Black woman, wrote for ESSENCE, the combination of the way law enforcement tried to sweep Arbery’s death under the rug; the recent series of police brutality over nonviolent social distancing violations; and the armed militias storming statehouses across the country have left her reluctantly considering getting a gun.
“I believe that for many Black people, especially those living in predominantly white areas, firearms might prove necessary,” Burton wrote in part. “And not just for defense, but for food sustainability, which will become more important as the climate crisis worsens.”
These groups of legally armed Black citizens could begin popping up more and more if this country’s uncertain and divided racial trajectory is any indication. It happened in Michigan when a group of legally armed citizens escorted State Rep. Sarah Anthony into the State Capitol building as the aforementioned militia swarmed in protest of not re-opening the state after months of being in lockdown.
Black people have been against the premature reopening of states because Black folks are the ones who are disproportionately dying from and contracting the coronavirus and prefer to be more prudent for the sake of public health. On the contrary, the lion share of the anti-lockdown protesters has appeared to be white and very eager to re-open the country despite health concerns from experts and evidence that the second wave of COVID-19 is looming.
The Black Panther Party figures prominently into this conversation because of its history rallying at the California Statehouse in the 1960s. At the time, the police reacted with force. It was a stark contrast to the peaceful reaction shown by cops in Michigan when armed protesters yelled in their faces and openly threatened them.
Alas, this is America.
CLARIFICATION: 4:41 p.m. ET, May 14 — This article has been clarified to reflect the description of the types of guns wielded at the protest. The text has been updated to reflect the clarification.