A Note on Bearing Witness

picture of Ahmaud Arbery

We’ve all heard the famous philosophical query “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The question—rather, the thought experiment—asks us to consider how we might perceive a thing if we were not present to witness it.

Recent events have led me to my own thought experiment: If an unarmed black man is murdered in the midst of a pandemic that has a chokehold on media coverage, can his killing ever hope to be avenged?

On April 26, 2020 the New York Times reported the details surrounding the shrouded story of the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, an African American Brunswick, GA native and an avid runner, was shot and killed on February 23, 2020 during his daily exercise routine by two white residents (a father and son pair) who apparently believed that Arbery fit the description of a suspect wanted for a string of recent break-ins in the neighborhood. No arrests have been made to date.

This storyline is painfully redundant, and I could go on and on lamenting the failed criminal justice system that allows such an incident; I could wax poetic about the intrinsic, unconscious bias at the root of this story and the untold thousands of others like it that silently line the walls of our invisible history; I could tell you how incredibly weary I am of black bodies being sacrificed at the altar of white peoples’ fears. But that is not what this is about. This is not as much about what happened as it is about what happens next. In the age of COVID-19, how will we bear witness for Ahmaud?

A crucial component in the survival of the centuries-long struggle for African American equity in this nation has been our ability to gather, our ability to stand as a collective, join our individual voices and be heard as a single unapologetic cry for justice. This beautiful communal form of activism has not only served as a primary form of protest, but it has also served as a form of healing. The intimacy of organizing and participating in these calls for justice—the physical holding of hands and locking of arms, the singing of songs, the wiping of each other’s tears—is often a balm when we’re not heard, when our petitions go unanswered. Without the ability to come together physically, we are left with mostly digital means of bringing attention to Ahmaud’s story which seems to have been drowned out by the unending coverage of the pandemic.

Ahmaud Arbery’s life should be more than a hashtag that garnered a few angry and sad emojis in the backdrop of what will surely go down as one of the most harrowing years in recent decades. The fight for justice for Ahmaud will require innovation and creativity and a near-constant demand to bring his story to the forefront. Perhaps now more than in any other similar case (i.e. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis) we need social media influencers, black radio, the black church, urban tastemakers, and liberal public intellectuals to keep Ahmaud’s name on their lips. This is how we can at least begin to bear witness for Ahmaud and his family; how we can ensure that a SOUND is indeed made.

Learn more at runwithmaud.com.

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