After a week of controversial verdicts, activists say white vigilantism still a threat to racial justice

·5-min read
Protests outside Ahmaud Arbery trial
A woman reacts as pastors gather outside while Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan are tried in the Glynn County Courthouse over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, in Brunswick, Georgia, U.S., November 18, 2021.REUTERS/Octavio Jones
  • Many Black activists say online they're not surprised by the outcomes of high profile trials.

  • Many highlight longstanding racial inequalities and how the system was designed.

  • Activists say racial justice isn't defined by one trial or guilty verdict, their fight continues.

Three men were found guilty for murdering Ahmaud Arbery in a decision that bookends an emotionally taxing few weeks for Black activists.

However, regardless of the trial's outcome, activists say between the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the parallel Travis, Greg McMichael and William Bryan proceedings, the history of white armed vigilantism doesn't seem to go away even with justice in the criminal legal system.

"It really is this pattern that has always existed in America being brought to the forefront," Ben Crump, who represented Arbery's family, told Insider. "We are now making it legitimate for lynch mobs to go out and engage in vigilantism."

Arbery, then 25, was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia when he was fatally shot by Travis McMichael, who was joined by his father, Gregory, and neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan as they confronted, chased, then killed Arbery.

All three men were found guilty of murder Wednesday.

For Black Americans, Arbery represents a familiar trauma

Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, walking with Rev. Al Sharpton
Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, arrives at the Glynn County Courthouse with Rev. Al Sharpton as the jury deliberates in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery.Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Many activists say Black Americans are re-traumatized by white male violence, accelerating the fight for racial justice.

The traumatization includes frequent exposure to graphic videos and images depicting Black death at the hands of white law enforcement officers or vigilantes.

Arbery's plight had reached public outcry only after his final moments were shared in a viral video last year.

Whether it is a white police officer pulling the trigger, or an armed citizen, activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham - whose advocacy began after the 2014 police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri - cautioned supporters against celebrating the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

"[The] verdict was not the symbol of progress some wanted it to be," she tweeted Friday following the Rittenhouse verdict.

There will be some legal wins, she went on, but that doesn't mean there isn't systemic racism built into the system.

Organizer and activist, Bree Newsome Bass took it a step further, warning that "focus on any single headline-grabbing case as proof of whether the legal system is fair completely ignores all the statistics & data" exposing it as "demonstrably racist in its organization & daily operation."

Several activists noted that it took 74 days after Arbery was killed - then weeks of protest - before charges were even brought in the case.

Knowing that justice might not have come had it not been for the work of activists has taken its toll.

"As grateful as I am that the jury got it right in convicting the defendants in the murder of [Arbery] , it's troubling to realize how all three nearly got away with it," writer Rob Gobble, tweeted.

"The original local prosecutor effectively aided in a coverup that only fell apart due to a leaked video," he added.

The Arbery case wasn't the only case activists kept an eye on this week. They monitored the contrasting ways in how white defendants who kill someone are treated to Black defendants who continue to maintain their innocence.

Lyden Harris, A founder of Hidden Voices, who's activist work has led her to advocating for a number of police murder victims, recalled the emotional roller coaster of learning Rittenhouse was found not guilty after shooting and killing two people just as she was fighting to preserve Julius Jones' life on Oklahoma's death row.

Jones, was convicted by an all white jury in 1999 of murder and was sentenced to death. Hours before he was set to die, however, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted Jones' sentence to life without parole.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted twice to commute Jones' sentence recommending it be converted to life with the possibility of parole because he was 19 at the time of his conviction. There were also doubts about Jones' guilt.

He maintains he did not kill Mr. Powell.

"We all felt an immense sense of relief that Julius Jones wasn't killed by the state," Harris said in an email to Insider.

"At the same time, it isn't a celebration when an innocent man is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It should give us all pause that our current legal system makes space to question 'why' a white man killed two people, but the only space it makes for an innocent Black man is a 6'x9' prison cell."

For Black communities, the fight for justice doesn't end with a verdict

Cardboard sign on the dirt ground that reads '4 Ahmad, Justice begins now."
A sign for Ahmaud Arbery sits on the ground outside the Glynn County Courthouse as the jury deliberates in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery.Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Activists and civil rights attorneys alike have echoed that these parallel trials set a precedent for the continuation of white male vigilantism because, such as the Rittenhouse case, the violence often goes unchecked.

Both McMichaels and Bryan were also charged by the Justice Department last year for kidnapping and interfering with Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race.

All three face hate-crime charges in federal court in February.

While the conclusion of the trial resulted in a guilty verdict, experts and activists say the decision marks only a single step in the direction of justice, and that the work to ensure a more equitable, anti-racist justice system persists.

"There are two justice systems in America, one for white America and another for the rest of us, when we have to continue to fight to have equal justice for all citizens of the United States of America," Arbery family attorney Ben Crump said.

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