SAVANNAH, Ga. – The house on Boykin Ridge Drive hasn’t had a soul in it since February 23, 2020.
It was the place where Wanda Cooper-Jones raised her three children, Marcus, Jasmine and Ahmaud, and celebrated milestones: high school graduations, birthdays and the overall wholeness of family.
“We grew up together in that house,” a soft-toned but collected Cooper-Jones says.
Now that house waits for a new family to create memories and Cooper-Jones is left to bear the emotional destruction from her last day there, the day her youngest son Ahmaud Arbery died.
“He was the baby, but he was the one I knew would have my back through thick and thin,” she said.
As the world races on, Arbery’s family continues to wrestle with the unspeakable tragedy that befell them when Arbery was chased by three vigilantes and gunned down while on a Sunday afternoon jog last year in Brunswick, Georgia.
He was 25 years old, with many miles behind him and a lifetime ahead.
“He got to a place where he was like ‘Look, I really got to focus on myself to better myself,’” said his cousin, Demetris Frazier. “He started exercising, writing down different goals as to what he wants to do.”
And then it was over.
Arbery was no different than many Black men in their mid-20s: entering their careers, perhaps contemplating marriage, some still deciding what the future holds.
The Savannah Morning News, part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke to five Black men around the same age as Arbery about the impact his death one year ago has had on them, how they’re navigating life and how their experiences have formed their views on race and safety. They talked about what to do with the years they have, years Arbery does not.
'Ahmaud was my age'
Corey Morgan drove nearly four hours from his home in Camilla, Georgia, to Brunswick to protest last year. For him, it was important to immerse himself in the city, get to know the people and “show up for Ahmaud.”
“I caught myself crying there because Ahmaud was my age. I looked at my best friends, my little cousins, that could’ve been any of us,” Morgan said, adding that like Arbery, he too jogged frequently to relieve the stress of the pandemic.
And like Arbery, Morgan, 25, questioned where his life was headed. Morgan worried whether he would find a job after college. Arbery was trying to piece together parts of his life, too.
After high school, Arbery attended a community college near Brunswick but left after “feeling like he was stuck in one place,” Arbery's cousin, Frazier, said.
Morgan shared similar worries about his collegiate career. The worries were enough to lead Morgan to therapy.
Shortly after graduation Morgan became the associate director of recruitment for his alma mater, Albany State University, and most recently became a councilman in Camilla, a predominantly Black town which sits in Mitchell County and is about 230 miles west of Savannah.
As a city councilman, Morgan hopes he can be a part of the change in his community. But as he works to make a difference in his city, he is still left with the images he saw in Brunswick and the people working to keep Arbery's legacy alive.
“I think we can see that that community wasn’t playing and that they’re going to continue until justice is served,” Morgan said. “It’s my hope that they continue with great oversight so that nothing like that happens again.”
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Considering a future
At 22, Raydell Martin was playing football at Savannah State University and had begun thinking more seriously about his future. Martin grew up on the eastside of Columbus, Georgia, before moving to Savannah at 17.
As he tells it, his childhood neighborhood was rife with gang activity and playing a sport was a sure way to escape that environment.
Martin, now 27, was athletic and began playing football seriously in seventh grade. When asked about how he'd envisioned 25, he said: “I never really gave much thought to that because it was such an obstacle just getting to that 22-year-old age.”
Graduating high school was considered a milestone, he said. In Columbus, about 25% of the residents have college degrees and nearly 21% live in poverty. Attending schools with an International Baccalaureate program opened Martin to the possibility of what might exist for him beyond sports.
“When I got (in the program), I realized that a lot of people came from different backgrounds,” he said. “I saw my peers’ parents’ profession, and what was a reality to them were things that I was seeing on TV.”
Like Arbery, Martin contemplated what his life would look like, including going to the military. It wasn’t until his senior year of college at Savannah State that he seriously considered a career in business. Now, Martin is a general manager for a finance company in Savannah and is working on his master’s degree in business administration.
His accomplishments don’t shield him from racist microaggressions, however. When he worked in the restaurant industry, he said he often was asked to travel to “rougher parts” of town so that his white colleagues wouldn’t have to.
“I don't think it was a situation where they said, ‘Let's put him here because he's more relatable to these people,’” Martin said. “I've definitely been in situations where it's been unfair. I think it’s just because of how people think Black people are disposable.”
As he speaks about Arbery's killing, his tone turns somber, frustrated even, when recalling the many athletes from Brunswick with whom he’d played football.
“When I first read up on the case and saw the video, it was astonishing how people can think some of those actions are justifiable,” he said.
For Alexander Cook, the circumstances of Arbery's demise served as a reminder: Black men like him aren’t always safe, even in their own neighborhoods or in their own homes.
On Easter Sunday, two months after Arbery was slain, Cook, 27, was sitting on his grandmother’s porch in East Savannah when he saw police cars zipping by. They were looking for a robbery suspect they believed to be in the area.
Two Black officers stopped at Cook’s grandmother’s home and questioned him, claiming he fit the description of a suspect wearing khaki pants and a white shirt — identical to what Alexander had on. When they realized it wasn’t him, they left. Two more officers, this time white, showed up, questioned him, and left once they realized they had the wrong person.
The third time, four white officers came and questioned him. It was enough for Alexander’s aunt to drive home and bring him back a change of clothes so officers wouldn't keep questioning him.
“Good thing my aunt was on the porch because my fear is, what if I would have been out there by myself? What if I was leaving my grandma's house and they pulled up on me when I was trying to get in the car,” he said. “They probably would have followed me thinking I was that person not knowing who I was.”
Those kinds of interactions and other flashpoints – including Arbery's death and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla. subdivision – triggered a changed behavior in Cook, making him acutely aware of potentially tragic consequences that can occur without provocation.
“I can't get up real quick to walk to the store and come back,” Cook said. “I could get pulled over during a five-minute walk to the store.”
Like Arbery, Cook had the goal of going to college, but he was unable to find a job in his field, business information systems, after graduating. “I couldn’t get no one to hire me. I had the degree but not the experience.”
Now, Cook works in security for UPS, is a homeowner and helps take care of his little sister.
“I’m at a point in my life now where I’m thinking about (getting married). But getting into a career and putting my degree to work is the first step," he said.
A story to tell
Budding filmmaker Nathan DuConge, 26, is in a similar position as Cook. The University of Georgia graduate moved to Los Angeles to jumpstart his film career but when things didn’t pan out, he returned home to Tucker, Georgia.
While in Los Angeles in the summer of 2020, he participated in protests spurned by the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. He did so with Arbery fresh on his mind.
"I remember watching that video, and just like, between tears and anger and everything like that, it was it was extremely hard to deal with," he said of the Arbery footage.
DuConge knew then, as clearly as ever, that he wanted to share what his life is like as a young Black man.
“By 25, I did envision myself already being a director. For pretty much my whole life, what I wanted to do is tell stories,” he said, adding moving to Los Angeles gave him the confidence he needed to launch his film career in Atlanta.
The first time DuConge was pulled over by the police he was 21 years old, leaving the set of “The Walking Dead” in Sequoia, Georgia, where the popular AMC show was filmed. An officer pulled him over for a dim taillight. DuConge recalls being bombarded with questions unrelated to the traffic stop. It wasn’t until an older white woman who worked on the set stopped and told officers that he worked with them that he was free to go.
“For a long time, I was angry about it. I kind of tried to put that memory to the side, but it always kind of came back and crept up on me,” DuConge said. “But the way I'm sort of dealing with things now is striving for predominantly Black productions. Between the cast and the crew, my set is predominantly Black.”
His experiences have led him to direct films about race, particularly a semi-autobiographical piece called "Rancor."
“I feel like at this point, 'Rancor' is by far the most creative I've ever been on any project. I feel super free, and I feel like this is a story where I'm like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly why I'm making movies in the first place.’”
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‘Anything can happen anywhere’
Justin Simmonds, a cartoonist living in Marietta, Georgia, has also had to grapple with racist interactions. A first-generation Black American, Simmonds is of Jamaican and British descent and spent part of his childhood in New York City before moving to the metro Atlanta area shortly after 9/11. In New York, Simmonds was used to diverse environments.
It was only after he moved that he says he truly experienced racism.
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Simmonds remembers being on his way to a comic book convention with his friend. His friend’s mother, who was white, was driving the pair when she was pulled over during a traffic stop.
“I remember this day vividly. She was pulled over for her tag. They checked her ID. But then they asked to check my ID. I didn't understand why or what the heck was going on. But she did,” Simmonds said.
“She was like, ‘Well, do you want to check my son's ID’ and they're like, ‘No, it's OK.’ So now they're running my ID and she was upset. She was livid. I was confused more so than upset," he said. "I didn't understand the implications of what had just happened. I realized that it did have something to do with the color of my skin, and being in the front seat of the car, so to speak.”
Since that day, Simmonds has expressed his views on race in his comics and cartoons and he’s led protests in the Marietta area following the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd.
“I was mortified. I was truly mortified because this time, it wasn't necessarily police, it was just random people,” Simmonds said of Arbery. “Seeing this at the start of a lockdown was a heart-stopping reminder that it doesn't matter if it's police, it doesn't matter what accolades you received in your community, or whatever value that you think you have or contribute to society.
“It was a gruesome reminder that anything can happen anywhere, it doesn't matter how safe I feel, doesn't matter how comfortable I feel, or who I think I am. Some people just want to see you dead.”
Since Arbery's death, much of his immediate family has left the Brunswick area. His father, Marcus Arbery Sr., has two other who children have moved to other cities. Ahmaud’s mother now lives in Augusta, Georgia. It’s a cleansing that hurts his dad, who was used to a daily call from Ahmaud and his siblings.
“I'm just so worried because I got grandbabies. I still have nieces and nephews that stay here,” he said.
The last conversation Arbery Sr. had with his son, Ahmaud, was brief.
“He called me that morning, and I asked him what he was about to do. He said he was going for a jog,” Marcus Arbery Sr. recalled. “He said ‘Pops, I love you and I’ll call you later,’ and he went on his jog.”
The 57-year-old truck driver would then make the four-hour drive to Perry, Florida, for a delivery. When he first got the call about Ahmaud, he wondered if it was a sickness or car wreck.
Nothing prepared him for how Ahmaud was killed: As he jogged down another part of Boykin Ridge Drive, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery down the street in their vehicles. The McMichaels and their neighbor, William Bryan, said they thought Arbery was a robbery suspect. Travis McMichael shot Arbery twice with a shotgun. Bryan Jr. filmed the incident.
Officer bodycam footage released in December of the crime scene showed officers tending to the McMichaels as Arbery lay in the street a short distance away, still fighting for his life.
The intricate details of the case were muddied at the start. Former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael previously worked as an investigator in her office.
But despite Johnson's recusal, Glynn County commissioners alleged her office advised Glynn County police not to arrest the McMichaels and Bryan. The case was later transferred to Waycross Judicial Circuit, where District Attorney George Barnhill cited Georgia's citizen arrest law to support the choice to not charge the men with a crime.
The Civil War era law allows for a citizen's arrest if a crime is committed within a citizen's "immediate knowledge" or there is reasonable ground of suspicion of a felony crime.
"We knew racism was bad here, but not that bad,” Arbery Sr. told the Savannah Morning News. It was the same sentiment shared by Ahmaud’s mother, Cooper-Jones, who said the middle-class neighborhood was comprised of 60% white and 40% Black residents.
The case would be transferred to another district attorney office before the Georgia Bureau of Investigations stepped in and ruled Arbery's death a homicide. More than two months after the shooting, the McMichaels and Bryan were charged with murder and arrested May 7 and Bryan was arrested May 22. All three pleaded not guilty. No trial date has been set for the case, which has been filed in Glynn County Superior Court.
Arbery’s death ignited calls for the repeal of Georgia’s Stand Your Ground and citizen arrest laws. On Feb. 16, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled a proposed overhaul of the controversial citizen’s arrest law that would repeal and rewrite it to protect residents while also providing them the right to self-defense and business owners the right to hold someone who commits a crime on their property.
Disheartened that it took Arbery's death to spark change, Cooper-Jones reflected on the potential repeal of the citizen’s arrest law.
“If they don’t abolish it, they will modify the way it’s written. So, that tells me his life is going to be about change,” she said. “It’s sad that he had to lose his life for us to get change, but it’s a bittersweet moment.”
While dealing with grief, Marcus remains deeply angry. He wants the McMichaels and Bryan punished.
Arbery’s killing further exposed systemic failures within the criminal justice system and resurfaced the traumatic effects of racist, violent and biased interactions that can lead to shortened life expectancy for Black people. The fear of those kinds of encounters can influence the outlook on life for many Black men in their mid-20s.
“The danger is anti-Blackness and that kind of hostility, and that violence occurs on a continuum,” said Clark Atlanta University sociology and criminal justice professor Barbara Combs. “That violence could be political; it could be economic. It could be social, it could certainly be physical. It could be psychological, but violence occurs on a continuum. Black bodies are subjected to that kind of violence daily."
Family struggles with personal loss: 'They don't truly know the side we know'
Since October, Cooper-Jones has spent time in therapy working on being “better not bitter.” For her, every day is a mixed bag: “Some days are better than others. Some days, I can barely get out of bed. Some days, I can really push through the day. But now, it’s the month of February and I kind of rethink every day.
"Basically, I just try to take it day by day, hour by hour.”
To honor her son, Cooper-Jones and her family will hold a public candlelight vigil 5 p.m. Tuesday at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro.
One year later, Arbery's loved ones are still broken by his loss.
When media attention fades and time passes, Arbery's family will live with an emptiness they hadn’t had to contend with before because Arbery was there to fill it, Frazier said.
“For the world, they only see a picture of a guy in a graduation suit or all they remember is the video,” he said. “They don't truly know the side we know as far as who he truly was.”
To know Arbery, his family says, was to know a kind soul who put others before himself countless times.
When Frazier tore his ACL playing football during his senior year at Middle Tennessee State University, Arbery was the one who told him to push through.
“I was in a slump. I would go to treatment, but I’d be late. I just pretty much gave up on everything. I sat in the house all day. I told myself I'm done. I felt like life was over,” Frazier said.
Arbery reminded Frazier of his plans, and that he had a son who looked up to him.
“Have you ever had a person who believes in you more than you believe in your own dreams or aspirations? That’s what he was. He’s gonna push you," Frazier said.
He was 25 years old, running toward his goals one mile at a time. There it ended.
The journey — challenging, promising, yet sometimes fraught with danger — continues for many Black men who see themselves in Ahmaud Arbery. Men like Raydell Martin, Alexander Cook, Corey Morgan, Nathan DuConge and Justin Simmonds.
Follow reporter Raisa Habersham on Twitter: @newsworthy17
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This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Ahmaud Arbery: Mother, family, Black men mourn killing a year later