Watching the cellphone video of Ahmaud Arbery being hunted and gunned down hit me differently. It wasn’t more or less tragic than the many, many other Black men whose murders we have witnessed over the past decade — the ones choked to death on a sidewalk, gunned down while playing with a toy gun in the park, cut down in the passenger seat while complying with an officer’s directives. But it was very different in another way: The two White men who killed the 25-year-old Arbery, George and Travis McMichael, were not officers of the law. The father and son were merely residents of Georgia, who took it upon themselves to leave their homes and hunt Arbery down as he jogged through the neighborhood. The Jim Crow-era tactics of the past have become contemporary trauma.
Yet, the most chilling part wasn’t the act itself, but finding out that the prosecuting attorney advised the Glynn County Police Department that there was “insufficient probable cause” to issue arrest warrants for the McMichaels. Be clear: That decision deemed a Black man’s life disposable. It demonstrated that there is no consequence in taking a Black man’s life — that White men can take that life by simply playing into the narrative that Black men pose an implicit threat and citing “stand your ground” laws as shelter.
If there are no consequences in taking a Black man’s life, there will never be a hesitation in pulling the trigger.
Black men are still far more likely to die by police violence than White men. According to research published in the multidisciplinary journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, about one in 1,000 Black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police — that’s a rate 2.5 times more than that for White men and boys.
But what happens when there is no viral cellphone video to invite scrutiny and force local officials’ hands? What happens when such decisions fall to a district attorney and police chief, with no outside oversight? I have a solution, and it’s based on one simple principle: voting.
They certainly aren’t the only group at heightened risk; the analysis also showed that Latino men and boys, Black women and girls, and Native Americans of all ages and gender are also killed by police at higher rates than their White peers. But the vulnerability of Black males was particularly high. In particular, the risk is greatest between ages 20 and 35 for men and women overall, and men are far more likely than women to be killed by police.
For Ahmaud Arbery, it’s too late to receive meaningful justice, but some may still come to his killers. Almost three months after the cold-blooded killing, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations stepped in only after a neighbor’s cellphone recording of the crime emerged.
But what happens when there is no viral cellphone video to invite scrutiny and force local officials’ hands? What happens when such decisions fall to a district attorney and police chief, with no outside oversight?
I have a solution. I call it The Quadrant, and it’s based on one simple principle: voting.
But not just any type of voting. I am asking Black voters to become single-issue voters on the issue of criminal justice reform. I hesitate to make such a recommendation — single-issue voting often prevents the voter from looking at a candidate’s holistic platform — but we are in unprecedented times. The hashtags are becoming difficult to tweet, the protests are becoming exhausting, and pleading for elected officials to value our lives has become demoralizing and dehumanizing.
Instead, I want the Black community, and any allies who may exist, to become laser-focused on four local offices: Mayor, district attorney, police chief, and judges. (Since the police chief is typically appointed rather than elected, your focus extends to whoever appoints them — generally the mayor or city/county manager.)
When a candidate for any of these positions visits your church, stand up in the sanctuary and ask them: How do they value Black lives, and how will they prove it if elected? Don’t be afraid to ask them — you won’t see them again in your church for another four years anyway.
When a candidate for any of these positions comes to your HBCU homecomings — which they will during their once-a-cycle version of “campaign strategy,” though hopefully that strategy also acknowledges some of us went to PWIs — ask them: How do they value Black lives, and how will they prove it if elected?
When a candidate for any of these positions walks into your Black barbershop — and some may even ask for a haircut, elevating pandering to a new level — ask them: How do they value Black lives, and how will they prove it if elected to office?
Go to every town hall. Go to every coffee shop meet-and-greet. Go to every summer fairground. Ask the same question. Hold them accountable. Let them know that we are no longer begging for our lives to matter — we are demanding that policy, the law, and the justice system protect us.
To examine the impact of The Quadrant, let’s consider the twin inflection points of the past decade’s fight against police brutality — Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown — and how voting power might have changed those outcomes.
Trayvon Martin, 17: Shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a local neighborhood watch volunteer, on the evening of February 26, 2012. Verdict: Not Guilty
Police chief: Bill Lee, recommended by the city manager and voted on by Sanford’s city commissioners. Lee publicly insisted that there was no probable cause to arrest Zimmerman, despite the fact that the police department had requested an arrest warrant.
County state attorney: The late Norman R. “Norm” Wolfinger, who served as elected state attorney for Seminole and Brevard counties for 28 years. The Seminole County state attorney’s office was consulted the night of Martin’s killing, but no prosecutor ever visited the scene. As the controversy intensified, Gov. Rick Scott replaced Wolfinger with a state attorney based in Jacksonville.
Mayor: Jeff Triplett, elected to govern a town of about 54,000, 30% of whom are black. After a request from Martin’s family, Triplett released the audio of a call that Zimmerman made to police on the night of the shooting, as well as 911 calls from neighbors who heard the confrontation — despite opposition from police, prosecutors, and the city attorney — changing the trajectory of the case and ensuring a trial.
What The Quadrant Could Have Changed: Imagine a world where the police chief cared about Black lives rather than providing a defense for the shooter. A world where the state attorney cared enough about the commitment they made to the Black community to show up to the scene that evening, to conference with the police on the scene to make the best recommendation, and to try the case without forcing an outside special prosecutor to be called.
Mike Brown, 18: Shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, by police officer Darren Wilson
Police Chief: Thomas Jackson, the focus of bitter complaints of racial discrimination within his department. At the time, residents of Ferguson and surrounding communities raised larger issues of discriminatory policing and judicial actions that was rampant in Ferguson and nearby towns for years. (An ensuing Justice Department report accused the city of using its municipal court and police force as moneymaking tools that routinely violated constitutional rights and disproportionately targeted Black residents.)
County Prosecutor: Robert McCulloch, who — after the grand jury voted not to indict Wilson — made all evidence public in order to mitigate accusations of bias. (While most grand jury proceedings have been screened for probable cause by a prosecutor, the Brown case asked jurors to deliberate without assurances that criminal conduct was present.)
Municipal judge: Ronald J. Brockmeyer (appointed), who in addition to being a judge in Ferguson served as both prosecutor and defense attorney in other parts of the St. Louis area — and who levied aggressive fees against residents who had been fined or arrested.
City manager: John Shaw (appointed), who oversaw many of the policies that led to widespread discrimination and questionable conduct by the Ferguson police and the courts.
Verdict: No indictment
What The Quadrant Could Have Changed: Imagine a world where the police chief, city manager, and judge didn’t conspire to over-police Black communities for profit, because they valued their existence. A world where the prosecutor honored the commitment he made to the Black community, to ensure that an indictment was handed down so that a trial could take place.
Obviously, this sort of analysis is speculative; there’s no way to know what other officials might have done, or whether a different outcome might have been possible with the circumstances as they were. And we don’t yet know how the investigation around Ahmaud Abery’s killing will play out. But I suspect one thing very strongly: moving forward, The Quadrant is the answer. I no longer want to imagine a world where Black Lives Matter — I want to live in it. And to do that, our local officials need to want to live in it too. There’s simply no other choice.