ATLANTA— Ahmaud Arbery knew racism existed in the southern Georgia community he called home.
He and his best friend Akeem Baker had conversations about it, but never discussed feeling as if their lives were at risk.
“We weren’t just out here in Brunswick living in fear,” Baker said. “We just understood that everything wasn’t all love everywhere we went.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, remembers talking with him about the Trayvon Martin case in 2012. She said they agreed Martin was wrongly profiled and killed.
Cooper-Jones said she raised her son to avoid people who racially profiled him.
Now, that’s what many believe happened on Feb. 23 when Arbery was killed.
Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was shot three times as he jogged through Satilla Shores, a neighborhood two miles from his home in Brunswick.
Two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, were arrested and charged with the murder of Arbery last week, following a public outcry over a viral video of the shooting.
Gregory McMichael told police they grabbed their guns and followed Arbery because he appeared to be the person seen on a surveillance video committing “several break-ins” in Satilla Shores. Glynn County police told USA TODAY they had no records of home break-ins or burglaries between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23 in that neighborhood. Local media reported one car burglary.
Shortly before the shooting, a 911 caller reported a black man was on a property under construction in the neighborhood. Attorneys for the Arbery family say the man, believed to be Arbery, was on the property for less than three minutes and did not commit a crime.
Cooper-Jones said Arbery wanted to become an electrician, following the footsteps of three of his uncles.
He attended South Georgia Technical College for about a year and a half but stopped when money got tight for the family, Cooper-Jones said.
She said she was also putting her other son and daughter through school at the time.
Before his death, Arbery was planning to go back to school and get his electrician certification, she said.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Arbery Family, said an unfinished property is an “electrician’s dream” and suspects Arbery was observing the electrical work of the house.
Cooper-Jones said when a Glynn County police officer initially told her a homeowner killed Arbery while he was committing a burglary, she knew it couldn’t be true.
“I had this numb feeling, but I did not believe it,” Cooper-Jones said.
“He was just a really humble guy,” she said. “Ahmaud was a good kid.”
She recalled him helping out around the house, whether moving heavy furniture or offering to fix electrical outlets.
Baker remembers Arbery was his “hype man” who would give Baker a playful nudge to freestyle rap lyrics or do high intensity workouts in the gym.
“He was just a real genuine person,” said Baker, who grew up in the same apartment complex as Arbery. “He spoke and did everything from a place of love.”
Arbery was also popular among his peers.
Baker recalled desperately wanting to become Arbery’s friend in second grade because he was so likable. He took snacks to the bus stop to initiate conversation with Arbery and they started sitting together.
Baker said he always admired Arbery, affectionately known as “Maud,” for his confidence, sense of humor and selflessness.
“He would offer the shirt off his back and give you his last if needed,” Baker said. “If Maud had $10 and I had nothing, he would make sure I had half of what he had.”
Cooper-Jones finds some peace in knowing she told her son “I love you” and he said it back before she left the house the morning of Feb. 23.
She wishes her own community would have done more to call for justice when Arbery was first killed.
“I just think at the end of the day, they should have cared more,” she said.
‘Running with Maud’
Cooper-Jones said she didn’t know Arbery ventured to Satilla Shores on his routine runs. But she said he was dedicated to staying fit and counting his calories.
“If it wasn’t drenching in rain, Ahmaud ran,” Cooper-Jones said. “He got his run in every day.”
Arbery had turned their garage into a gym with workout equipment, including a bench press.
Baker said Arbery would sometimes invite him over to work out or the two would meet at a local YMCA gym. They would also run on the Sidney Lanier Bridge in Brunswick.
Arbery was in such good shape that Baker couldn’t keep up.
“He just wanted to do crazy workouts,” Baker said. “He would have me so tired and fatigued.”
Baker said he and Arbery played football together at Brunswick High School. Arbery was a football star who dreamed of going to the NFL, Baker said. He had been playing since youth flag football, when he was about 6 years old.
Baker has left his home in New York to help with Arbery’s case in Brunswick. He launched the ”I Run With Maud” Go Fund Me for the Arbery family that as of Friday had raised $482,595.
“It’s going to be a long fight but we will continue to keep doing what’s necessary to help move this case forward,” Baker said. “To make sure the decision-makers are aware that they are being watched. We are just doing whatever we have to do to keep running with Maud.”