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The lasting trauma of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting

Before taking an occasional jog, Akeem Baker makes sure he’s wearing something shiny. He traces a familiar route through the neighborhoods where he is known. And he looks up to the sky and nods to his best friend, Ahmaud Arbery.

The ritual is painful for Baker. He finds it disconcerting to be forced to follow a checklist of precautions reserved for black runners only to maintain his safety. It also hurts because it was the tragic murder of Arbery – his friend since the age of 6 – in Brunswick, Georgia, a year ago that triggered the security measures, which he didn’t was not imposed before February 23.

Ahmaud Arbery in a family photo.Courtesy of family

“I used to run for health reasons,” said Baker, a 2016 graduate of Morehouse College. “Now I’m running for therapy, like I’m looking for some kind of freedom.”

Baker’s life and his inspirations for running changed when Arbery’s sister called him while in New York the night his brother was chased in a van, shot and killed while He was running. Two white men await trial. A third man, who was also arrested, recorded the shoot on video from a cell phone.

“Since February 23, 2020, I have been thinking about my friend and praying that his life is not in vain,” Baker said. He met Arbery on an elementary school bus, and they became quick friends for the next 20 years.

He said he was “flabbergasted” when he read a text message from Arbery’s sister, who shared what he had been told at the time – the false information Arbery had broken into. someone’s house and had been killed. “I cried all night in the bathroom,” Baker said. “I was heartbroken. And I’m still messed up.”

Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael pursued Arbery, who had stopped while jogging to walk around a house under construction in their neighborhood, prosecutors said.

The image is lodged in the brains of black runners who spoke to NBC News: Arbery, 25, stumbles before crashing to the ground after being shot.

Kevin O. Davis performing in Washington, DCCourtesy of Kevin O. Davis

“His tragic death changed everything for black runners,” said Kevin O. Davis, a member of the Plano Running Club in Texas, which has 2,000 members, almost all white. “I changed everything. I saw people in their cars slow down as I ran and looked in their rearview mirrors to make sure I wasn’t robbing their home. I met white women who were screaming just because they saw me run by them.

“Once, when I stopped running at a light, this white guy rolled down his window and sprayed bug spray on my face – for no reason. I thought I was going to go blind.

“But Ahmaud Arbery is something different, horrible. So I don’t jog as much when it’s dark, and when I do, I make sure I wear reflectors. I’m nervous about it. to run in black jogging clothes, ”he says. . “Everything is different. We have to be aware of ourselves.”

Black joggers also make adjustments for safety, said Kim Backey of Buffalo. Backey, an avid runner who takes to the streets even in the snow, took Arbery’s murder as a signal to change her jogging habits.

“We, as black runners, have to care about what we wear and where we go,” said Backey, 55. “I’m wearing brighter colors now. I’ve told my sons not to wear hoodies as they will be judged. Now I have to take my own advice when I go out and run, and that’s a shame.

Kim Backey running through the Buffalo snow.Courtesy of Will Holton

“We have to run smart, but at the same time we shouldn’t have to give up our freedoms to run because of our run,” she said.

With that thought and Arbery’s spirit in mind, the 2:23 Foundation was established last year to raise awareness of the shooting and advocate for “helping young men and women follow paths to help to avoid similar events and cases of injustice ”. The group, which has more than 82,000 Facebook followers, has scheduled a 2.23-mile national run in memory of Arbery on the anniversary of the death.

Tyrone Irby, owner of the Choice Fitness and Sports Performance Center in Durham, NC, has memories that help her understand the fear Arbery was feeling a year ago. Irby said when he was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, two young white people chased him after he missed his bus home from school. “They were yelling at me while I was running,” he said. “I ran fast enough to avoid them. But I remember the fear I felt and I can only imagine what Ahmaud felt.

“As black runners we have to have our eyes behind our heads. It’s part of being Black in America. It’s sad to think that every day we have to think about the shoes we wear, the times we run. , in the colors we choose, where we run. And now, during a pandemic, wearing a mask, a hoodie, running at 6 in the morning … that can be problematic. “

Tyrone T. Irby and Crystal Irby wear shirts in honor of Ahmaud Arbery.Courtesy of Tyrone T. Irby

But that hasn’t stopped Irby and others from continuing to hit the sidewalk and raise awareness about Arbery’s death. He created #TogetherWeStandNC, a group that generates discussions around race, with Arbery’s murder as a conversation starter.

Irby, a member of the massive social media group #RunWithMaud, has over 100 runners engaged in yet another Arbery Memorial Race – the Maud 2.23 virtual race on Tuesday 23 is sponsored by Fleet Feet Carrboro, a clothing company from Durham.

“Everyone has to be safe when they run. But it’s not,” Irby said.

He added: “When I leave the house at 3 am I have my registration handy in my car, my ID handy and I obey the speed limit. Now we have to. take similar precautions when we run. Every day takes a heavy emotional toll. We have to pay to be Black. We have to be aware. It’s a bad way to live. “

For Dr Terrell Holloway, a black psychiatrist at Yale University, Arbery’s murder will reverberate.

“It’s fascinating, because we think about the trauma and stress of soldiers in a combat situation,” Holloway said. “But what about the stress of … what happened to Ahmaud Arbery? It’s about how you deal with a situation that affects you. But the fact that black people have these kinds of examples and thoughts of “it could happen to you” speaks volumes about the prominence of racism. “

Baker said the trauma of Arbery’s death prompted him to seek advice. Every two weeks, he visits a therapist to help him cope. “That’s a lot,” he said. Kobe Bryant “died on my birthday – I was a huge fan. Less than a month later my best friend was killed. Ahmaud was my favorite person.”

Augustus Turner, 37, an Army major stationed in Madison, Alabama, wrote about the psychological trauma of Arbery’s murder in a Facebook post that went viral. It read, in part: “Sometimes, deep in my head, I say to myself stupidly: I’m just a black jogging!

“Why would someone shoot me just because I’m black and don’t know? I’m a former emergency paramedic. … I’ve been a licensed lawyer and military officer on active duty for nine years . I have represented and assisted over 60 victims of sexual assault … I have helped justify the destruction of hundreds of enemy targets in Iraq. I have erased the names of wrongly convicted felons. Who cares? difficulty?

“Well, none of that matters because… I’m still a black jogging. If I scare the bad white, or fit the description of a threatening person. .. I am not becoming different from Ahmaud Arbery. “

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Turner said he had no plans to publish about the shooting. But then he saw the video.

“I only got to watch it once,” he said. “Having to be careful not to be killed just for jogging … it takes away another slice of our life.” We must constantly live in fear or be on the alert. I took seriously my wife’s concerns about running alone. She always has. this fear. So now I make it a point to go for a walk around the neighborhood with my family so that people can see that I am a husband and a father and not a threat. Maybe they will remember me. Perhaps. “

Backey, who cried while watching video of the shoot, said, “As a runner I understand how Ahmaud would stop and look around a house under construction. That’s what we do – we take in our surroundings. Jogging is freedom. I recently took a different route on my run and I stopped and thought about Ahmaud. And I said, “Let me out of here. He won’t. should not be so. “

And yet, few runners expect it to be any different anytime soon. Arbery’s life and especially his death will resonate for some time.

“Ahmaud and I have run a lot together,” said Baker. “He kept a better pace than me, but he always encouraged me and pushed me to go harder. He might have been dark skinned, but he was the brightest light. His smile and his energy. were always brilliant. And we have to make sure people always know that. “

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