On Feb. 23, 2020 — at the age of 25 — Ahmaud Arbery ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia for the final time. Two years later and after two trials, three men have been convicted in both state and federal courts for his murder and hate crime.
His mother this week expressed her home that her son can finally “rest in power” after a federal jury returned a verdict in the hate crime case against the three men convicted of killing him. It was the power taken from Arbery as he went for his typical Sunday run to clear his head and figure out what lay ahead for himself in life. Arbery had reached a crossroads in his life, but no one could have guessed the sharp turn it would take or how the power to choose his own route would be torn away from him.
As he always did, Arbery ran out the door of his mother’s house, down the long street toward Fancy Bluff Road. Then turned right onto the two-lane road lined by oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
About a mile and a half into his usual route, Arbery would cross the four lanes of Jekyll Island Causeway into the subdivision of Satilla Shores. Two trials have established there was no way Arbery would have known of the deadly trap laid for him by a father and son and a man pursuing him in his pickup truck recording the whole thing.
Who was Ahmaud Arbery?
Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was born May 8, 1994. He was the youngest of three children, answering to the affectionate nicknames “Maud” and “Quez.”
Those who knew him speak of a seemingly bottomless reservoir of kindness he used to encourage others, of an easy smile and infectious laughter that could lighten just about any situation.
As a teenager, he stuck to the family home so markedly that his family worried he never wanted to go out with friends. “And I was like, he’ll get to the stage eventually,” Cooper-Jones said. “He was a mama’s boy at first.”
As his mother predicted, that reserve was left behind when Arbery entered Brunswick High School’s Class of 2012.
He took cues from his brother, Marcus Jr., and tried out for the Brunswick Pirates football team. His slender build certainly didn’t make him a shoo-in for linebacker on the junior varsity squad, said Jason Vaughn, his former coach and a U.S. history teacher at the school.
“As soon as practice started and Ahmaud started to really go, oh man, his speed was amazing,” Vaughn recalled with a laugh. “He was undersized, but his heart was huge.”
Off the field, Ahmaud had a talent for raising the spirits of people around him — and a penchant for imitating his coach, Vaughn said.
“If I was standing in the hallway, kind of looking mean or having a bad day — maybe my lesson plan didn’t go right — Maud could kind of sense that about me,” Vaughn said. “He’d come stand beside me and be like, ‘I’m Coach Vaughn today. Y’all keep going to class. Hurry up, hurry up! Don’t be tardy! Don’t be late!’ That’s what I loved about him. He was always trying to make people smile.”
“Some students it’s hard to get mad at,” he said, “because you love them so much.”
At the end of his final football season, no college recruiters tried to woo No. 21. But Arbery’s high school football career still finished on a high note, his mother remembers.
In his final game, he intercepted a pass and ran the ball back to score a touchdown. A referee threw a flag on the play, but his mother insisted that his accomplishment still mattered: “I said, ‘Guess what, son? You did it!’ And he was very, very excited about it. That was a very good moment for us.”
Former teammate Demetrius Frazier grew up just down the street from the Arberys, and his friendship with Ahmaud dated back to their days in a local pee-wee football program.
Frazier treasures their quieter moments in high school — just two friends playing video games, shooting hoops, wolfing down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs, and chips.
Frazier went on to play wide receiver for Middle Tennessee State University’s football team and now holds down an office job and is raising a son in nearby Darien, Georgia.
Arbery’s own football aspirations had been dashed, but he still wanted so much for himself, Frazier said.
Those were the times his friend seemed happiest, Frazier said, before his legal troubles bogged him down.
Ahmaud Arbery at a crossroads
Arbery’s runs were as much about staying in shape as they were about clearing his head. He was both running towards his future and away from some troubles of his past.
In his final months on Earth, Arbery appeared to be someone who felt on the verge of personal and professional breakthroughs, especially because his probation could have ended that year, many of those close to him have said.
They also acknowledge the legal troubles that cropped up after high school — five years of probation for carrying a gun onto the high school campus in 2013, a year after graduation, and shoplifting from a Walmart store in 2017, a charge that extended that probation up until the time of his death.
His mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, accepted that he was a young adult living at home, like so many of his contemporaries, taking a breather to chart how he’d one day support himself.
She had one rule: “If you have the energy to run the roads, you need to be on the job.”
So he worked at his father’s car wash and landscaping business and previously had held a job at McDonald’s.
Arbery enrolled at South Georgia Technical College, preparing to become an electrician, just like his uncles. But first, he decided, he would take a break. College could wait until the fall.
“Ahmaud was just ready to put himself in a position to be where he wanted to be in life,” Cooper-Jones said. “That’s what they took from him.”
The strength of Ahmaud Arbery’s family
To his family, the 25-year-old’s life would not just join the litany of hashtags bearing young Black men’s names. There had to be answers. There had to be accountability.
Cooper-Jones has said she believes her son was simply out for a jog when he encountered the men who had profiled him as a burglar. Their rush to judgment speaks to a larger problem of bias against young Black men and boys, she said.
His death will not be in vain, his sister told a crowd of supporters during a May 2020 rally calling for justice that was held at the historic Glynn County courthouse in Brunswick. Many attendees had driven hours from Atlanta to be there.
On Tuesday, Cooper-Jones, and father, Marcus Arbery, joined hands outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, minutes after hearing the three men convicted of killing their son were found guilty of hate crimes.
The day before the two-year anniversary of their son’s death brought the family a small legal victory. Cooper-Jones, however, said her son is irreplaceable.
“We as a family will never get victory because Ahmaud is gone forever,” she said.
While Cooper-Jones was pleased to hear the guilty verdicts, she expressed anger that the family was almost denied a trial. She criticized the federal prosecutors who broached a plea deal with the three accused men, despite her desire to go forward with a trial. The judge rejected that plea deal.
It has been this determination for justice shown by the family through this entire process.
“I knew Ahmaud’s hands were in this from the very beginning,” she said.
Father Marcus Arbery explained how faith and family helped him emotionally navigate the criminal and federal trials. He thanked Cooper-Jones for her resolve as well as the children and grandchildren they share.
Marcus Arbery remembered his son’s affection and remarked on the resilience his family showed through the two years since his son’s death.
“He loved this family, he called us every day,” Marcus Arbery said. “If he had one word to tell you, it was, ‘I love you, pop. I love you, mama.'”
Ahmaud Arbery Day in Georgia
The state of Georgia declared Feb. 23 Ahmaud Arbery Day to mark the gravity of his death and the subsequent criminal and federal cases.
The resolution describes Arbery as a loving son, brother, uncle, grandson, nephew, cousin, and friend “who left an impact on countless Georgians and Americans.”
A special ceremony will be held at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. The Arbery family will be present to receive the proclamation.
A candlelight vigil march will take place at the Ahmaud Arbery mural in Brunswick.
The resolution also encourages members of the community to run 2.23 miles Wednesday to advocate for racial equality.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by three Democrats and one Republican, passed earlier in February.
Attorneys for the family remarked the trial is a significant example of Black victims in deadly shootings getting criminal justice. Law enforcement in the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor have still not been charged.
In DeKalb County, officers claim they fatally shot Matthew Zadok Williams out of self-defense, while the dead man’s family indicated he was having a mental health crisis.
Arbery’s family intends to move forward with a lawsuit filed against ex-Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, accusing her of covering up his murder.