The three white men who hunted down Ahmaud Arbery in a neighborhood in Glynn county, Georgia, have been found guilty in court. The US held its breath as the jury deliberations entered their second day this Wednesday. Travis McMichael, who fired the shots that killed the 25-year-old Black man, his father, Greg, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were all convicted of the 23 February 2020 murder. While the verdict is a welcome one, it rings somewhat hollow given the recent not guilty verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse and the underlying systems of white supremacy that have long justified the vigilante actions of Arbery’s attackers.
Despite the trial’s outcome, the actual process of the case was steeped in various justifications of the killers’ actions, from the racially-tinged fearmongering of the defense attorneys to the fact that the killers were arrested 74 days after Arbery’s murder. Justice cannot be served as long as the current system remains, and it seems unlikely that even this verdict will dissuade future vigilantes.
A defense attorney must, of course, make the best case for their client. It speaks volumes about our country that much of what could be mustered during this trial were attempts to attack Arbery as a person – a tactic commonly deployed to justify the murders of Black Americans. The judge dismissed attempts by the defense to introduce prior acts by Arbery into evidence, and a move to include the fact that trace amounts of THC were found in his system when he was killed. After those failed efforts, the defense moved to disparage the young man’s body, telling jurors that Arbery had “long, dirty toenails”, and criticizing the shorts that he wore the day he was shot – as if Arbery had called this crime on to himself for the way he dressed; as if the McMichaels and Bryan were aware of anything about him before they decided to chase him down and execute him; as if it was Arbery’s toenails that caused Travis McMichael to exclaim “fucking nigger” above the dying man.
Though many of the defense’s attempts to use racist dog-whistles were defeated in pre-trial decisions by the presiding judge, they were still successful in ensuring that the jury would be nearly all white, despite the county itself being about 27% Black. This effort is not uncommon among attorneys and is seeped in a larger system of racism that leads to underrepresentation of people of color on juries.
Justice cannot be served as long as the current system remains
There were many others who participated in the process of justifying the vigilante behavior of the father-and-son duo and their neighbor, who captured it all on video. The police who arrived at the scene took the word of the murderers and did not place them under arrest. The officer accepted their story of self-defense, that these men were simply defending the neighborhood from a Black burglar. Greg Michael had, luckily for their little lynch mob, served as a county police officer for seven years and 30 as an investigator for the local district attorney’s office. The same district attorney’s office was later accused by county commissioners of preventing the arrests of the killers. According to Allen Booker, commissioner: “The police at the scene went to [district attorney Jackie Johnson], saying they were ready to arrest both of them … [s]he shut them down to protect her friend McMichael.” The district attorney shifted blame to police and claimed that they could have used their own discretion to make the arrest.
After the video of Arbery’s death went viral and fueled protests demanding action, it still took two months for police to arrest his killers. This bias in favor of police officers and former police officers is all too common in the US, and definitely not rare in Glynn county, known for allegations of officers being shielded from consequences.
While crimes like this allow us to focus on the individual white vigilantes, it is important to zoom out and see the many others – from the defense, to the district attorney, to the arresting officers and the institutions they influence and control – who are implicated. Arbery’s murder was of a pattern with a history. It is rooted in the segregation and violent racism that shaped the borders of towns and countries across the US. It is rooted in the legacies of the mobs that killed 14-year-old Emmett Till and overthrew the government of Wilmington, North Carolina, in a white supremacist coup. It is also reflected in other modern examples, like the “Karens” who unleash police officers onto their Black neighbors, or Rittenhouse, who was recently found not guilty of a crime not so different from that committed by the McMichaels and Bryan.
Like Rittenhouse, this was a case of white Americans taking up arms to protect what they perceived as Black threats against property. Although the people whom Rittenhouse shot were white, he chose to arm himself during an uprising following the shooting of a Black man, and it is difficult to believe that stereotypes about violent Black looters and killers did not play a role in his perceptions of the uprising – the same kinds of stereotypes that fueled the attack on Arbery.
Much like Rittenhouse’s case, the defense lawyers of Arbery’s three assailants claimed their clients engaged in self-defense. Despite showing up to the scene with weapons, Rittenhouse and the men who killed Arbery thought they were the ones under threat. The verdict against the McMichaels and Bryan may feel like a victory, but Rittenhouse’s verdict has done more than enough to justify future vigilantism by white men deeply fearful that somewhere out there Black people might be disrupting the status quo.
The verdict here matters for the family. Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, reacted to the verdict saying: “We conquered that lynch mob.” This case exposed the various layers of the justice system that work in tandem to justify murders committed by white men on a political mission. But justice cannot be truly served until this entire system is ripped down and built anew. Rittenhouse’s claims of protecting property are already being used by the defense attorney of a member of the far-right Proud Boys group. And despite the scrutiny the Proud Boys received for participating in the 6 January riot in Washington DC, the organization has begun showing up at rightwing marches and protests claiming to be there for security purposes.
While the desire to celebrate the Arbery verdict is understandable, the decision will not stop white men from murdering Black people and others they deem to be a threat to property or the political order. It will take a movement to do that, a movement that will have to overcome the violence of white vigilantes and an entire system held up by their atrocities.
Akin Olla is a contributing opinion writer at the Guardian