Mural of Ahmaud Arbery at 1621 Albany Street, Brunswick Georgia, US. Arbery was shot to death in February, 2020. This building is scheduled to house the Brunswick African American Cultural Center. The mural was painted by Marvin Meeks in May 2020.
The continuing battle for equal justice in an unequal society
By Danny J. Bakewell, Jr., Executive Editor Los Angeles Sentinel
A Georgia jury made up of nine White women, two White men and one Black man, deliberated for just about 11 hours, returning a verdict of guilty on Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., three White men found guilty of killing Ahmaud Arbery by a jury of their peers.
In the past, all-White juries in trials where Whites are the defendants in the deaths of Black men, result in acquittals, according to scholars and law experts who spoke to CNN about the trial of Arbery’s murderers.
The unbalanced racial makeup of jurors has historically been seen as a problem for many within the African American community, particularly in the South. With the State of Georgia and its racist judiciary past, including the recent implementation of controversial voter suppression laws, this mostly White jury brought back visions of the Jim Crow South, specifically, the 1955 murder trial of Emmitt Till, where an all-White jury acquitted two Whites of young Emmet’s murder.
But unlike the Till trial and the egregious past verdicts from prejudiced jurors, these three White men were all found guilty and on all counts. Although a trial where death and race are interrelated usually targets racist intent, prosecutors elected not to play the race card, but relied on the facts of the murder which proved to be a solid legal strategy.
The defense however, did inject racial undertones into the trial’s closing arguments, when attorney, Laura Hogue, one of Gregory and Thomas McMichael’s lawyers, prompted outrage from the courtroom and all watching the case, by suggesting Arbery’s had “dirty toenails.”
Hogue stated to jurors, “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”
Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was out jogging on the outskirts of Brunswick, Georgia, about 250 miles outside of Atlanta, when the McMichaels and Bryan, Jr. cornered him with their vehicles and murdered him in cold blood. Video footage posted on social media and on television news reports across the country sparked outrage and brought forth a heightened awareness of the historical disregard for Black life, a fact understood by Black Americans throughout the nation’s scarred history.
Although the video was viewed by millions throughout the world, many Black people still were not confident that justice would be served or that the men would be found guilty and/or convicted for their crimes.
Travis McMichael, the man found guilty of actually shooting Ahmaud Arbery, was found guilty of the first and most serious count of the indictment, malice murder, and eight other felony charges. William Bryan and Gregory McMichael received split verdicts; they were found guilty on counts of felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Arbery is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Black men and women who have been killed senselessly, and have been seen as the catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement. After his death and the guilty verdicts, this is but a small demonstration of the BLM movement’s significance in the struggle for justice for Black Americans. Still, the decision comes at a time when many activists believe social justice progress is being undone by laws that seek to restrict minority’s voting rights access or limit the scope of American history that’s taught in schools, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately affect historically underserved communities.
Even though the three White men were convicted of murder in the Arbery case, the scales of justice for Blacks remain unbalanced. The defense for the three killers maintained their actions were permissible under the Georgia Citizen’s Arrest Law, one that was created in an era of slavery and emboldened citizens to act on their worst biases —has now been repealed, and was replaced with a bill that limits who can detain citizens and when.
“This bill makes Georgia the first state in the country to repeal its citizen’s arrest statute. Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” said Georgia Governor Gov. Brian Kemp.
But many states still have some version of this law on their books and many civil rights leaders believe “that as long as laws like this remain in effect, outcomes like the murder of Arbery remain an all too real consequence.”
“What was at stake in this trial was whether we believed it was even possible for a Black man to get a fair trial in the South or the United States as a whole. Even with indisputable video evidence of a Black man’s murder, the Black community pondered if justice would old rule of “White law” for these three White men supersede the very truth all the world witnessed with our own eyes,” stated Reverend Eric P. Lee, Former president of the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Council. “This verdict is but a small demonstration of the hopes we have that Black men and women can find justice within the American legal system.”
“I am glad that Georgia has already taken these steps, but it all depends on what ultimately happens, because we can still have people administering the laws in ways that are racist,” said Justin Hansford, a professor at the Howard University School of Law in a statement to CNN News.
With viral video addressing the role of race in policing and vigilantism, the high-profile trial of the three men was similar to that of the Derek Chauvin case, where the former Minneapolis police officer was found guilty of murdering George Floyd. But while the guilty verdict for Chauvin or the guilty verdicts for the murderers of Arbery are demonstrations of progress, just a week ago, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of homicide on the grounds of self-defense after fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and wounding another during Black-inspired social justice protest in the summer of 2020.
While Rittenhouse was found innocent in the murder of two White men on the grounds of self-defense, one cannot ignore that the so called “threat to his life” was in fact, his own fear, as tensions grew at the rally following the murder of George Floyd.
The trial also reminds us all of the 2012 case regarding George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin and was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter after claiming self-defense. President Joe Biden said that Arbery’s murder “is a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country,” a feeling echoed by many throughout this country.
In the final analysis, and within a reality known far too often, to too many Black people throughout this nation, the three men pursued Arbery “because he was a Black man running down the street.” The fact that lawyers were reluctant to introduce the case’s racial element mirrors America’s unwillingness to confront racism head on.
Racial bias and racial discrimination remain a major problem in America today, and a fear of confronting or even having an honest dialogue about racism remains a large part of America’s reality. While we cannot deny America has made strides in addressing these issues, we still have a long way to go. Black Lives Matter cannot continue to just be a slogan popularized by social and local media, but needs to become a reality that all Americans, but especially White America, actually believes.