Kids bring out a range of disorienting and often contradictory feelings in their parents, but the one I least expected was admiration.
Loving your child is almost a prerequisite. The instinct to protect them is close to a biological imperative. But watching traits develop in your children, even at a young age, that not only elicit your respect but encourage emulation has been a pleasant surprise of my short life as a father, even as it’s quickly becoming one of my most dreaded.
Here’s one thing I admire about my son: He doesn’t tolerate intimidation.
Sometime in February, I went to pick him up from daycare and one of his classmates was having a meltdown. The boy was bigger than the other 2-year-olds in the room, including mine, and lashed out accordingly. He grabbed up a chair, hoisted it over his head, and threw it over a table. He slapped a smaller boy across the face, shoved a girl half his size across the rug. He galloped in circles, cackling, screaming himself hoarse. As teachers tried in vain to talk the boy down, I did my best to maneuver between him and his scattering classmates, a compromise between watching idly and inviting a lawsuit by physically restraining him.
My son was playing with a plastic truck when the boy approached him. Few toddlers take kindly to their toys being requisitioned, and their malleability makes it as prudent to resist reading too much into my son’s response as it does to recognize that the other boy’s tantrum didn’t say anything profound about him. So I’ll stick with what I saw. The boy split the crowd of frightened children and grabbed for the truck my son was playing with. Without flinching, my son gripped the toy and met the boy’s gaze. “No!” he screamed in the boy’s face. The boy backed off.
I’m drawn to this exchange — or to how I’ve mythologized it — in part because I, like many parents, project my own neuroses onto my children and latch onto evidence that they’ve relinquished traits I dislike in myself. I was timid and withdrawn as a kid, and though I’ve learned to acquit myself fairly well when confronted, greeting slights with resolve isn’t my instinct. It’s cathartic to see my son stand up for himself, even in such innocuous circumstances, where I wouldn’t have at his age, and where others won’t.
The second thing I admire is how he runs.
This one is simpler. My wife and I took him to a beach in South Georgia last summer, his first time to the ocean when the water was warm enough for swimming. The sand sloped downward to the sea, and the moment I set him on his feet he took off running, gaining momentum as he barreled toward the crashing water some 50 yards away. As I followed, I heard him begin to shout. Not in bursts, but a sustained howl, like what I imagine the thrill of parachuting from a skyborne airplane might provoke. He wore the biggest smile; I’ve rarely seen him so elated, before or since. That he could greet such a simple act with such exuberance suggested, to me, a capacity for generating his own happiness that I cherish and pray he never loses, that I hope running outdoors and filling his lungs with balmy ocean air will always hold for him.
Ahmaud Arbery loved to run, too.
He loved to run outdoors, and could often be seen jogging for exercise on the outskirts of Brunswick, the coastal South Georgia city near where he lived. That’s the basic gist of why he was killed on February 23 — why two white men, father-and-son duo Gregory and Travis McMichael, hunted him down, blocked the road in front of him with their truck, and confronted the unarmed black 25-year-old with loaded firearms. The elder McMichael claimed in a statement to police that Arbery matched the description of a burglary suspect, which prompted their pursuit. Neither he nor Travis seems to have witnessed the alleged crime, nor was Arbery in the midst of committing one. He was black and on foot, and that was enough. When Travis brandished his rifle, Arbery lunged to wrestle it away, and Travis fired two shots. Cell-phone video of the incident shows Arbery staggering a few steps before dropping to the ground. Twenty minutes by car from where my son first ran on the beach, Arbery’s love of running and intolerance for intimidation collided with racism and marked him for death.
What’s happened since might be extraordinary were it not so utterly predictable. For months, neither of the McMichaels was arrested nor charged with a crime, despite local prosecutors possessing video footage of the incident since the day it happened. Brunswick district attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael worked for her office as an investigator until his retirement last year. Arbery’s family had to fight to get the subsequent DA, George E. Barnhill of the Waycross County Judicial Circuit, to recuse himself after he wrote a letter to the police insisting that the McMichaels were within their rights to hunt Arbery down because he was a “burglary suspect” attacking someone who had “solid firsthand probable cause” to perform a citizen’s arrest. (Barnhill’s son also worked in the same prosecutor’s office as McMichael.) Prosecutor Tom Durden, of neighboring Liberty County, announced his plan to take the case before a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges were warranted — which might not have happened had local demonstrations and public release of the footage this week not generated pressure. It now seems that pressure was untenable: Both McMichael men were arrested and charged with murder on Thursday.
Like many of you, I’ve watched innumerable cases like this unfold in the past six or seven years. Nothing I’ve seen in that time suggests we can expect a trial where the basic facts — that two white men saw a black man running and decided to hunt him — might supersede the rich American tradition of rationalizing why Arbery deserved to die anyway. Nor is there cause to take seriously any advice submitted for how he might’ve avoided death. If jogging in the middle of the day is enough to get you chased down with shotguns and .357 Magnums, that’s not a problem that being polite and deferential is going to solve.
Black people are conditioned by these incidents to fear white predation, and imparted accordingly with all kinds of strategies and methods of contortion aimed at evading it. None are foolproof, but most are apt reminders of how quickly the most ordinary activities and banal encounters can turn deadly. Arbery loved to run, and was killed doing what he loved. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last. I think of his mother and father, who no doubt admired that their son loved to run outdoors in the fresh coastal air, that he didn’t trust the white men who’d hunted him not to gun him down mid-stride. He held tight to his killer’s weapon, resolved not to be a bystander in his own life, even as American reality exhorted the opposite — resignation, surrender. Plundering our joy and replacing it with ever-present dread.
I fear that what I admire about my son is all it would’ve taken to get him killed. But I hope that he never stops running.