There’s an old Andy Griffith episode where Gomer Pyle “arrests” Barney for making an illegal u-turn—right after Barney had cited Gomer for the same offense. Barney resists, of course, and shouting ensues: at one point, Gomer rather bluntly points out that if Barney doesn’t write himself a ticket there would be two standards of law, one for the police and another for everyone else.
The sound of Gomer’s voice running across the street shouting “Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!” is one of the oddest, most indelible memories from my childhood. Sometimes I hear it when I see drivers engage in dangerous and illegal maneuvers, like when I sit in my office and watch a truck doing donuts in an intersection through the window. I have sometimes thought about it as I have called the police, which I have occasionally done when intervention seemed like it might be dangerous. The absurdity of the thought of ‘arresting’ someone has always amused me: who, really, in their right mind would try to do such a thing?
The comedy of the scene turns on its inversion of power: Gomer is an ordinary citizen who demands that the police be held accountable for their wrongdoings, and so invokes a “citizen’s arrest” law to do so. At one point in the scene he points out, rather astutely, that if Barney does not write himself a ticket that would mean there are two sets of laws, one for the police and another for everyone else. Not surprisingly, any serious crisis over authority and enforcement is avoided as Andy hears the commotion and arrives on the scene. Andy compels him to write himself a ticket before they go sort things out in private. I don’t remember how it all goes, but I suspect that Barney’s humiliation teaches him a thing or two about both enforcing and obeying the law: as he is not himself over it, he ought judge as he would himself want to be judged.
I thought of that scene again this afternoon as I read of the tragic, horrifying death of Ahmaud Arbery
. The case has started to receive national attention, and for good reason: Arbery seems to have been shot while two white men were engaging in a ‘citizen’s arrest’ on the suspicion that Arbery had been behind a string of burglaries in their neighborhood. One of the two men was a recently retired investigator for the District Attorney—the other was his son—and was well known enough that two prosecuting attorneys have recused themselves out of a conflict of interest. The case is going to a grand jury now.
In some ways, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is the inverse of Gomer Pyle’s arrest. In Mayberry, Barney carries the gun, and is detained by the one without. In this case, though, McMichael and his son grabbed a shotgun and a .357 magnum to undertake their ‘citizen’s arrest.’ When a struggle ensued over the shotgun, Arbery was shot—which McMichael claims was done in self-defense. Moreover, Gomer sees Barney in the act of wrongdoing—while McMichael decidedly did not, a fact which is crucial for invoking citizen’s arrest laws as a justification for coercing a fellow member of our community.
It is possible that Arbery’s self-defense claim is justified, in one way: a struggle over the use of a lethal power is a struggle for the power over life and death. Police will protect their guns from being seized through firing them, because their life is on the line if they do not have them. So in a narrow, technical sense, McMichael’s defense might seems reasonable.
But the asymmetries between the police and another citizen are crucial for assessing the reasonableness of using deadly force. It is impossible to make an arrest without some use of coercion. That power must be proportionate to the threat—and from the 911 calls, it is clear that all Arbery was doing at the time he was accosted was running through the neighborhood. If McMichael’s had wanted to make a ‘citizen’s arrest,’ he might have sought to detain Arbery physically until the police arrived. McMichael might claim he had no intention to use his shotgun—but to threaten the use of deadly force by its presence is, in one sense, to be prepared to use it if the conditions are right. (In similar manner, the possession of nuclear weapons as a mode of deterrence commits a leader to their use if certain conditions obtain—and that commitment matters, morally.)
As a representative of the state, the police do have a unique responsibility to make life or death determinations in acts that are effectively a form of “judicial triage.” But that is a power no citizen should have. And the choice to bring unnecessary means of force to prevent another citizen from running down the street means that there claims to self-defense should be seriously qualified. The reason they killed in self-defense is because they were there with the power to kill: which they had no authority, no standing, no right to do. Again, McMichael’s didn’t witness Arbery committing a crime.
They claimed to have identified him from past video, but that is woefully
insufficient for citizen’s arrest laws to be invoked. As one writer pointed out
, such laws require the person to be a firsthand witness of the crime or have “immediate knowledge” of it. Michael’s situation satisfies neither of those—as he, an investigator for the District Attorney, surely must have known.
Framed that way, it’s impossible to avoid hearing the resonance between Arbery’s killing and the violent, brutal repression of black Americans by those white people who unjustly arrogated to themselves the power over life and death. I won’t editorialize on the vicarious grief and fear many black Americans experience in response to such situations, except to say that I think this one where Christians of all race should join with the family of Ahmaud Arbery as they cry How long, oh Lord, how long?