Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decried the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot after being pursued by a father-son duo in a predominately white neighbourhood in the US state of Georgia, as a “lynching” and said the rhetoric of United States President Donald Trump emboldens racists.
Bottoms, the Democratic mayor of Georgia’s largest city, called the killing “heartbreaking” during an interview with CNN on Sunday. “It’s 2020 and this was a lynching of an African-American man.”
The two men charged with murder and aggravated assault in the killing, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis, 34, were taken into custody on Thursday by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) more than two months after the February 23 killing, which took place in the Brunswick area, about a four-hour drive from Atlanta.
The arrest came after a video of the killing was made public, prompting a nationwide outcry.
Speaking to CNN, Bottoms went on to call out the president, saying that “with the rhetoric we hear coming out of the White House in so many ways, I think that many who are prone to being racist are given permission to do it in an overt way we otherwise would not see in 2020.”
Trump has long been accused of racism by critics. His 2016 campaign for president featured comments widely regarded as offensive towards Mexicans and Trump has severely limited immigration and asylum for predominately non-white groups. After a white supremacist rammed his car into a group of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
The Justice Department under Trump has also taken a lax approach to officer-involved killings that were allegedly racial in motivation, Bottoms added.
“We don’t have that leadership at the top right now. It’s disheartening,” she told CNN.
Trump told Fox News on Friday that his “heart goes out” to Arbery’s family. “Justice getting done is the thing that solves that problem.”
Bottoms’s comments came the same day Georgia’s attorney general asked federal prosecutors to investigate local law enforcement’s response to the fatal shooting.
State Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement that he asked the US Justice Department to open a probe into how the case was handled by two local prosecutors and the Glynn County Police Department.
The US Justice Department said on Monday that it was weighing whether to file hate crime charges in the case. State authorities can not investigate the case as a hate crime because Georgia is one of four states without a hate crime law.
Video of the shooting captured by a witness in a vehicle near the scene shows Arbery jogging down a narrow two-lane road and around the McMichaels’s pick-up truck, stopped in the right lane with the driver’s door open.
As Arbery crosses back in front of the truck, a gunshot is fired. Arbery is then seen struggling with a man holding a rifle as a second man stands in the bed of the truck brandishing a pistol. Two more shots are heard before Arbery stumbles and falls face down onto the asphalt. GBI said it was Travis McMichael who fired the fatal round.
According to a police report obtained by the New York Times, Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer and district attorney’s investigator, told detectives the incident began when he spotted Arbery from his front yard running down the street.
The elder McMichael told police that because he suspected Arbery in a string of recent neighbourhood break-ins, he and his son gave chase in the truck, with Gregory McMichael carrying a .357 Magnum revolver and Travis armed with a shotgun.
Gregory McMichael said Arbery began to attack his son, fighting him for the shotgun, prompting the son to open fire.
According to a letter obtained by The New York Times, prosecutors argued there was not probable cause to arrest the McMichaels because they were legally carrying firearms and had a right to pursue a burglary suspect and use deadly force to protect themselves.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her 25-year-old son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the neighbourhood before he was killed.
On Saturday, the GBI confirmed that it had obtained other photos of video that might shed light on the case. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published footage from a surveillance camera at a Brunswick home near where Arbery was shot that shows someone who appears to be Arbery walking into a home under construction. Arbery then came back out and ran down the street. Someone else comes out across the street from the construction site, and then a vehicle drives off farther down the street, near where Travis McMichael lives.
Lawyers for Arbery’s family say the video bolsters their position that Arbery did nothing wrong, and shows he did not commit a felony. Under Georgia law, someone who is not a sworn police officer can arrest and detain another person only if a felony is committed in the presence of the arresting citizen.
“Ahmaud’s actions at this empty home under construction were in no way a felony under Georgia law,” the lawyers wrote in a social media post. “This video confirms that Mr Arbery’s murder was not justified and the actions of the men who pursued him and ambushed him were unjustified.”