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By Saralyn Olson, law student and ORU graduate
On May 6, news of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery went viral after a video of the shooting was released.
I woke up to some posts about Ahmaud from the social justice advocates who I expected it from, but the thought of posting about it myself seemed futile. What’s another post going to do? It feels like I’m shouting into a black hole, I thought. But I made a post for the sake of solidarity and spent the day in and out of tears and prayers.
Evening came and I was shocked to find post after post about Ahmaud, and how unjust and racist the situation was. But it wasn’t the posts that shocked me, it was WHO I saw posting these things. I spend much of my time around white, Conservative, Christian friends and family… people who love God but have never seemed to know what to think about social justice. Suddenly they were posting about Ahmaud and crying out for justice.
Initially, I was overjoyed and proud of them even.
Finally! I have wanted this for so long!
But when the shock wore off, I felt frustrated. I began to wonder, “Why is this different than past murders of innocent Black people? Why do you suddenly care? Are you just going to post about it, or are you really going to start taking action?”
I began feeling deep pain for the loved ones of people like Terence Crutcher, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and far too many others. I wondered if their families were thinking, “Why didn’t you speak up for my son? My brother? My dad?”
In seeking to understand what was different, I tried thinking through a few possible reasons why this particular killing caused so many people to speak up.
#1: Ahmaud Arbery reminds them of someone they know, and was doing something they do without fear: jogging. Practically everyone, no matter their political or religious affiliation, has a Black friend, neighbor, co-worker, church member, etc. who would go on a jog around the neighborhood.
Why this is different: Many white Conservatives are uncomfortable with the thought of “the other side of the tracks” (or, for local context, North Tulsa). To them, that is a dangerous “other” that they know little about. But a southern white neighborhood? That feels pretty close to home. That could have been their friend on a jog.
#2: Ahmaud was a young, handsome man with a beautiful smile. Plus he was a star football player and could have had a great future in sports.
Why this is different: In 2016, when Terence Crutcher was killed by a white police officer, the officer who was in the helicopter filming the situation from above said “That looks like a bad dude.” Sadly, a long history of negative stereotypes have led many white people to make assumptions about Black men, particularly those who don’t look like Michael B. Jordan or Sterling K. Brown. The viral picture of Ahmaud shows a young man that fits the “safe” stereotype.
#3: Those two white guys who killed him were obviously racist, trigger-happy southern guys. They clearly trapped him and killed him. No question.
Why this is different: Trayvon Martin was also killed by a neighborhood vigilante, so it isn’t very different, but maybe we have progressed since 2012. On another note, though, the more I learn the truth about American history and civil rights, the more I realize that American narratives make police the good guys. I will be quick to say that there are many good police officers for whom I am so thankful, but police officers are still humans. In any situation that has involved a police officer shooting a Black person, it appears that most Conservative white people are hesitant to speak out, and I believe that is because we have a hard time believing that a police officer could have done something wrong. People need to trust someone in order to feel safe, and white people generally trust police officers. Sadly, that luxury is not provided to Black and Brown people who can’t even trust the people meant to protect them. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, it’s pretty easy to label these vigilantes as racists, and to not feel bad for saying so, as many people would have been scared to accuse a police officer of such a thing.
#4: There is video evidence of what took place.
Why this is different: It’s not. Almost all unjust shootings of Black people have been caught on camera (many of these videos are more graphic than this one). The only thing I can say about this one is that it shows how clearly the two men trapped Ahmaud with the intent of hurting him, and it’s hard to deny that.
Even after considering all these things, I still struggled with wondering if people truly cared. To be honest, I even felt like my persona was threatened. I’m the White girl that cares about social justice. I’m the one who interned with the Terence Crutcher Foundation. I’m the one going to law school because I care so much about this.
Then I had to get real with myself: It’s not about me! Where was I when Tulsans were marching for justice for Terence Crutcher? I was a White high school girl living in Bixby who didn’t know what was going on. And that is okay. What mattered is what I did once I did know what was going on. I let the knowledge change me. I let it go deep.
To my Conservative friends reading this, please know that I write this out of love. I am so happy that you care. But please, please, PLEASE don’t let this end with an emotional post.
Actions speak louder than Instagram stories.
Participate in the #RunwithMaud, sign the petition, talk to people about why this is wrong. And commit to doing this again in the future!
We know that this is not the first time that this has happened, and sadly likely not the last. But everyone has an important role to play in seeking more than justice for Ahmaud alone. We must seek to turn institutional racism on its head! Our Black brothers and sisters have been fighting alone for too long and we can show our love for them by joining them, getting behind their cause, and stop pushing our own agendas for once. So let this realization go deep. Let it change you. Let it push you to do more.
To my liberal friends, let’s welcome people with different political views to participate in seeking justice on common ground. Let’s not feed into the “us vs. them” political narrative. This is bigger than that.
And to my Black friends, I want to mourn with you, be angry alongside you, and join the fight. I repent and lament the sins of my ancestors and my people today. We live in a country that is sadly not safe for everyone yet, but I am committed to seeking justice for as long as it takes. I am with you.
Saralyn Olson lives in Tulsa, OK and recently graduated from Oral Roberts University. She will attend law school at the University of Tulsa in the Fall and plans to become a human rights lawyer. Currently, she is an active participant in local social justice organizations, particularly with the Terence Crutcher Foundation.