Justice prevailed in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. In America, that’s a shock

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: James Gilbert/EPA</span>
Photograph: James Gilbert/EPA

It’s shocking that Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. Yet the shock doesn’t stem out of any miscarriage of justice. On the contrary, the jury in Glynn county deliberated and reached the correct decision. Stalking an innocent Black man, chasing him, cornering him, and then killing him must come with criminal consequences in this country, and each of the three murderers now faces the possibility of a life sentence.

But the shock is that justice was served in a case where it seemed the criminal justice system and substantial portions of media coverage were doing all they could to exonerate these men. In fact, everything about this case illustrates how difficult it is to get justice for Black people in this country, starting with how often Fox News and other media outlets referred to the case as “the Arbery trial”, as if Ahmaud Arbery were the perpetrator here and not the victim.

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The facts of the case have never been in dispute, and yet they were also often distorted or ignored to aid the defense. The McMichaels claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest of Arbery, an avid athlete who had been out jogging a mere three miles from his home that day. Father and son McMichael found Arbery suspicious, they told police, because there had been “several break-ins in the neighborhood”. This statement has been repeated so often in the last year that it has assumed the status of fact.

And yet, according to the local Brunswick News, there had been just one burglary reported to county police between 1 January and 23 February 2020, the day of Arbery’s murder. That singular incident referred to property taken from a Satilla Shores vehicle – Travis McMichael’s truck. (McMichael reported a theft because, after he left his truck unlocked, his gun had been taken, he said at trial.) While surveillance video also captured an unidentified white couple possibly taking some property belonging to Larry English, a man building a home in the area, English testified that nothing had been stolen from the construction site of his second home, where Arbery stopped directly before being chased by the McMichaels. And during the trial, we heard that in all of 2019, there had been only four reported car break-ins. So, yeah, hardly a runaway crime spree.

Then why did it keep getting reported this way?

Defense attorneys also used every tool at their disposal to dehumanize Ahmaud Arbery, characterizing him as a 'recurring night-time intruder'

There’s more, of course. It took almost three months for the Georgia bureau of investigation, which took over the case, to arrest Travis and Gregory McMichael. (Bryan was arrested months later.) The elder McMichael had been a police officer and investigator for the district attorney’s office. The favoritism shown the men ran deep, so deep that the Brunswick district attorney Jackie Johnson, who first oversaw the case, was later indicted on charges of violating her oath as a public officer and obstructing a police officer, as she was accused of “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation”, according to the indictment.

Like Johnson, the next prosecutor, George E Barnhill, was also forced to recuse himself from the case. His son had previously worked with McMichael in what again was a clear conflict of interest. Barnhill wrote a letter to the police department explaining his recusal. “It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and Bryan William [sic] were following, in ‘hot pursuit’, a burglary suspect, with solid first-hand probable cause, in their neighborhood,” he wrote. We now know just how completely and utterly false this account of events was.

By the time the trial began, jury selection was also looking highly problematic. The population of Glynn county is over a quarter Black, and yet the seated jury for the trial was overwhelmingly white, with only one Black juror selected. Even the judge acknowledged the appearance of “intentional discrimination” in this outcome, as defense attorneys struck virtually every Black potential juror from serving on the jury.

Defense attorneys also used every tool at their disposal to dehumanize Ahmaud Arbery. Laura Hogue, lawyer for Greg McMichael, characterized Arbery as a “recurring night-time intruder” whose presence was “frightening and unsettling”, as if adopting every stereotype of “the dangerous young Black man” she could find. It got even worse when she told the jury that Arbery had “long, dirty toenails”.

What a morally bankrupt and shameless statement, but such are the lengths that this system will go to preserve its ill-gotten power. Any honest student of the history of this country will recognize what was happening in this case and in this trial. On display was nothing short of an American fear in all its guises.

First, there is the irrational and racist fear of Black people that has motivated so much white vigilantism. It’s no mere coincidence that Georgia’s (now-defunct) self-defense statute dates to the civil war era. As Carol Anderson, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and many others have shown, the violence at the heart of the American system begins with a fundamental fear of Black and Indigenous people.

It’s hard to believe that justice would have prevailed here were it not for Wanda Cooper-Jones’ indefatigable efforts to push and challenge the whole damn system at every turn

Then there’s the establishment’s fear that its power will be exposed for what it too often is, a precarious system that serves and protects not the public but its own interests through its prejudices and favoritisms. And finally, there’s the fear that those who don’t look like us will stand in judgment. Thus a system of power built on racial hierarchy will seek its own self-preservation.

The good news, heard in the courtroom, is that the rest of us are not afraid. The mostly white jury was not afraid to return the proper verdict. The assistant district attorney Linda Dunikoski was not afraid (and was completely convincing) in her prosecution. The attorney S Lee Merritt was fearless and eloquent in his advocacy for justice. But the bravest, most fearless, most admirable person in this saga has to be Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother.

It’s hard to believe that justice would have prevailed here were it not for Cooper-Jones’ indefatigable efforts to push and challenge prosecutors like Johnson and Barnhill and the whole damn system at every turn. She pushed Georgia’s legislature to pass a hate crimes bill. She filed the federal lawsuit against the men now convicted of killing her son. She even met with the then president Donald Trump to discuss police reform.

Cooper-Jones is a real hero, both for her son and in the fight for a truly just society. She was willing and able to fight a system that, if the past be a guide, was more than willing to exonerate itself.

But here’s the problem: what happens when there is no Cooper-Jones? Why should our rights depend on grieving mothers fighting for the rights of their murdered children? What kind of justice system is that?

I’m thankful that people like Wanda Cooper-Jones exist, but what we really need is more than that. We need a justice system that isn’t afraid of power. We need a justice system that isn’t afraid of doing what’s right. What we really need is a justice system that doesn’t depend on grieving mothers at all.

  • Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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