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'Ahmaud was love': Wanda Cooper-Jones reflects on difficult year since her son’s death

Ahmaud Arbery’s mom has spent the last year fighting and grieving. She says the death of her youngest son has changed her forever.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — (Note: The video above was originally published in September 2020.)

The death of a child, the birth of a movement, and the woman living at the intersection of both: Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, has spent the past year grieving and fighting.

She says it took months before it truly hit her that her son is gone.

“What happened in February last year changed my life. When I lost Ahmaud, I lost a part of myself,” Cooper-Jones said.

Each day becoming more difficult than the last, Cooper-Jones went from laying her son to rest to getting answers about what happened on her son’s last jog through the Satilla Shores neighborhood.

She talks to her baby boy every day.

“Just to see him, his laugh, his voice, I miss everything about him,” Cooper-Jones said.

“I know he’s close ... I tell him I love him. I miss him. You know, from doing the dishes, you know, [I’ll] say ‘you remember when you had to do the dishes?’ And, you know, stuff like that, I try to stay close to him,” Cooper-Jones said.

The last time Cooper-Jones saw her son was before she left on a business trip.

The last words Arbery told her were, “I love you.”

On the Sunday he was killed, she remembers getting physically ill.

“I think back, I think in the midst of me falling ill and not feeling well, [I knew] that my son was in major trouble,” Cooper-Jones said.

Then, she got the life-changing phone call.

“They initially called me and told me he had burglarized something. There was a fight over the gun and Ahmaud was shot and killed by the homeowner. I know that was different ... Ahmaud was never, never accused of taking anything from anybody,” Cooper-Jones said.

She says she couldn’t address that question at the time because she just lost her child.

Cooper-Jones remembers telling herself she couldn’t deal with the case until she properly laid him to rest.

The following Monday, eight days after her son was killed, she remembers waking up and saying it was time to get answers. She contacted the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office, only to learn the case was no longer theirs.

“I did speak to [Waycross DA George Barnhill], he was very nonchalant. The only thing he could tell me was that Ahmaud was shot three times and it was with a shotgun ... I kind of realized that’s not [supposed to be] the behavior coming from a DA that's supposed to be working for the family, for the victims. And I knew it was something wrong,” Cooper-Jones said.

Cooper-Jones learned that Barnhill’s son worked alongside one of her son’s accused killers in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office. But, in Barnhill’s recusal letter, he claims there was no kinship between the parties and doesn’t believe it was a conflict of interest.

Before Ahmaud’s name became nationally recognized, part of a rallying cry during a summer of social justice protests, Cooper-Jones says it was dark.

The turning point: the leaked cellphone video of her son’s death. The video prompted the GBI investigation into the shooting and Arbery’s accused killers being arrested 74 days after investigators say they chased him through the Satilla Shores neighborhood before killing him.

The cellphone video is one that millions of people around the world saw. Up until a bond hearing for the three men charged in her son’s death, Cooper-Jones did not watch it.

“That was the first time that I was going to try to sit through it. I tried to listen to the audio part and not look at it at the actual video. But then the shots rang out. And it was very disturbing. And I had to get out,” Cooper-Jones said.

Cooper-Jones’s grief had to compete with her determination to hold her son’s killers to account.

“I’m a fighter,” Cooper-Jones said.

“Early when it first happened, I could have just stopped and accepted what they told me, but I didn’t. And I thank God for giving me the intuition to push,” Cooper-Jones said.

She also is grateful to the hundreds of people who protested in her son’s name. Many protesters focused their intentions on removing Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson from office. Glynn County voters decisively made that a reality on Nov. 3 when Johnson lost to former assistant DA Keith Higgins.

“They were there when I couldn’t be out there, the days I was too weak to be out there and they chose to be out there,” Cooper-Jones remembers.

The arrests of William “Roddie” Bryan, Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael have somewhat restored her faith in the criminal justice system. But there have been setbacks, like the release of the police bodycam footage from that day.

“No one offered to aid him, I mean he laid there, like I’m not sure for how long but he was still -- he was still living,” Cooper-Jones said.

“That was very disturbing. And then they took their story, and they made no arrest. My baby was taken to the morgue and they went home,” Cooper-Jones said.

She tries not to dwell on those dark images.

“I knew he didn't want me sad. He’d want me to be happy. So, I try to look at it that way as well. You know, he wouldn't want his mommy sad, he would want me happy,” Cooper-Jones said.

That goal is enough to hold her steady now and into the future.

She says she is not whole, having lost one of her three children. She says the journey to getting justice will continue.

“I would tell Ahmaud that things are going better than before, that we do seek justice at this point. I think Ahmaud will be pleased with how, you know, the family and I have approached it. How we waited patiently, not let it change us, the people who we are,” Cooper-Jones said.

“Ahmaud was love. So, it changed me, but I still know there is hope and we just pray for the better,” Cooper-Jones said.

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., Cooper-Jones and Arbery’s family will hold a candlelight vigil at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Georgia.

Cooper-Jones is asking everyone to wear a blue ribbon in memory of her son.

She tells us that Feb. 23 is going to be a quiet day, and knows she wants to be surrounded by her family.