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1 Year After Ahmaud Arbery's Death, Georgia To Replace Citizen's Arrest Law

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It was one year ago today that Ahmaud Arbery was chased and shot while jogging on a Brunswick, Ga., street. His community and the country were outraged by a viral video of his death. And today, his mother filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Arbery's alleged killers and the local police department. As Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta reports, the continued outrage has also translated into legislation in Arbery's home state of Georgia.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: In May, as the outcry over Ahmaud Arbery's death grew, a group of state lawmakers gathered at the county courthouse in Brunswick to make some promises.

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AL WILLIAMS: Good afternoon. I'm State Representative Al Williams of Liberty County. I represent the 168th House District.

HURT: At that time, Georgia was one of a few states without a hate crimes law. A proposal to fix that was stalled in the legislature. Williams and others vowed to pass it and other reforms in Arbery's name.

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WILLIAMS: We want justice. 426 must pass. And we must deal with citizen's arrest power that has turned into lawlessness and vigilantism. There is no way that I've got to be terrified every time one of my five sons are out just because they happen to be African American.

HURT: Citizen's arrest is a vague law that was applied to help the men who shot Arbery avoid prosecution for months. But first up for lawmakers in Atlanta was the hate crimes bill, which, after being stuck for more than a year, suddenly sailed through the General Assembly last summer. Republicans and Democrats gathered for the bill signing.

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CALVIN SMYRE: This is a defining moment in the history of our great state.

HURT: Democratic State Representative Calvin Smyre had pushed for the law for years.

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SMYRE: I am filled with joy and fulfillment, for on this day, we stand before you as proud Georgians. Ahmaud Arbery's death will not be in vain.

HURT: Republican Speaker of the House David Ralston spoke of Arbery's family.

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DAVID RALSTON: Nothing we can say will alleviate the suffering of his mother, but we can send the message that Georgia is better than what we saw on that awful, sickening, disgusting video.

HURT: And then there was the promised reform to citizen's arrest, which took a major step this month. That's when Governor Brian Kemp called a press conference at the Capitol to introduce his proposed overhaul of the law.

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BRIAN KEMP: Ahmaud was a victim of vigilante-style of violence that has no place in Georgia. And some tried to justify the actions of his killers by claiming they had the protection of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.

HURT: The support of the governor and other top Republicans all but ensures its quick passage this year. Democratic State Representative Al Williams, who was at that May rally, spoke on the Statehouse floor this morning, the anniversary of Arbery's death, to highlight the policy change that it has spurred.

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WILLIAMS: We pause today in memory of all Ahmaud Arbery because he had to die, unfortunately, for us to take an inward look and see what needed to be done in Georgia. And Georgia is starting to rise to the occasion.

HURT: Elijah Bobby Henderson is a social justice advocate in Brunswick. He's glad to see the progress in the General Assembly but acknowledges a sad pattern in how it's happened.

ELIJAH BOBBY HENDERSON: That is the history of America. I think if not for the death of Emmett Till and the bravery of his mother, the rest of the country doesn't know the injustices that are going on. If not for the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the rest of the country doesn't know what's going on in the South.

HURT: It's regularly taken outrage from elsewhere, he says, for change to come to the South.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.