Although the outcome of a southern Georgia trial this past week should have been almost considered a slam-dunk from the outset, the truth is that many observers in the US and around the world were awaiting the jury’s verdict with bated breath, because they (we) were not at all sure that there would be justice for the African American homicide victim in a community where white-supremacist passions apparently run high, and in a courtroom where the jury consisted of eleven whites and only one black. But the process ended up offering a demonstration of how the court and jury system in the US should always work—even if, all too often, it doesn’t. That said, however, even in this case, the process leading up to the trial cast initial doubt on justice being served.
|Murdered jogger Ahmaud Arbery|
Many advocates of the rule of law had indeed had their confidence in the justice system shaken only hours earlier when, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing after he illegally possessed and carried an assault rifle to the scene of civil rights unrest, in a state where he didn’t live, and used it to kill two men and seriously injure another. In that case, not only did the defense and, indeed, the judge portray his victims—whom the court barred the prosecution from referring to by that term but allowed the defense to call them “arsonists and looters”—as the victimizers, but also, the defendant, who shot and maimed them, was presented in court as their innocent victim.
To add insult to injury, Rittenhouse was not only exonerated, and hence, his vigilante actions tacitly condoned, but he also, almost immediately on his release, traveled to Florida to receive a hero’s welcome from former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Trump publicly praised Rittenhouse and vindicated his use of deadly force, at a protest demonstration at which, as a minor, he had no business acting as part of a self-appointed militia in the first place, and less still after a government-imposed curfew. And he certainly should not have been there with an illegally possessed firearm that he had no reason or legal right to be carrying.
While most mainstream news media considered the verdict “fair” within the specific context of the trial, this generally-held view in the press failed to mention that the verdict didn’t just support the defense’s claim of self-defense, but went further to also dismiss out of hand charges arising from the teen’s having been in illegal possession of a dangerous, military-grade weapon, and a misdemeanor charge for government curfew violation that would have at least underscored the undeniable fact that Kyle Rittenhouse had basically created the violent situation in which he found himself when he shot to death two of his three pursuers who engaged with him in the belief that he was an active shooter. Only one of the men—the one wounded but not killed—was also carrying a firearm. Of the two that Rittenhouse shot to death, one was armed only with a skateboard, and the other with just his bare hands.
|Rittenhouse clowning around with Trump following acquittal|
At best, the Rittenhouse case showed how justice is not always blind, or served, in cases where the judge is predisposed to an outcome and “instructs” the jury into an impossibly tight corner, and where it all boils down to being a matter more of judicial preference than of compelling evidence. At worst, it encourages white vigilantes and firearms fundamentalists to take the law into their own hands whenever they feel the slightest bit threatened—to “stand their ground” with military-grade weapons, even when those posing the threat that they perceive are not also packing firearms or other lethal weapons.
Did that case jealously guard Kyle Rittenhouse’s constitutional rights? Absolutely, and so did the jury. Were the rights of the two men Rittenhouse killed and the other one that he severely injured—all three of whom saw him as an aggressor rather than as a self-appointed guardian of private property—also served? It’s very hard to see how. Which makes the mainstream media’s full-embracing of the verdict seem more than a little facile and like an oversimplification of the facts.
The verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case in Georgia unquestionably served justice. And it’s difficult not to strike a parallel with the Kenosha trial. Both cases involved white vigilantes seeking to take the law into their own hands, and in both cases, there were physical struggles between the fatal victims and their killers prior to the shootings. Both Kyle Rittenhouse and the three men who murdered Arbery claimed to be defending private property, to be concerned citizens seeking to impose law and order. In both cases, race was a dominant factor. In the Arbery murder trial this is obvious and blatant. In Rittenhouse’s case, despite the fact that all three of his victims were white, the killings came within the context of racially charged unrest over yet another unjustifiable police shooting of a black man.
|Convicted killers "Roddie" Bryan and Travis |
and Greg McMichael
But if the shooter got off scot-free in Wisconsin on a self-defense plea, in the southern Georgia case, neither the court nor the jury was buying it. In that case, judge and jury saw the actions and profiles of the three defendants—Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan—as what they were: three white vigilantes who appointed themselves enforcers in a neighborhood where the only faces they wanted to see were white faces. Indeed, when one of them called 911, the recording of the call presented in the trial made it clear that race was the prevailing factor in Arbery’s slaying. More specifically, when asked the nature of his emergency, the caller told the dispatcher that the emergency was “a black man running” down the street.
|The McMichaels go after Arbery, guns drawn|
In fact, Ahmaud Arbery, like millions of other Americans who try to keep in shape, was out for a jog. Could there be any more basic right than that of a citizen to ambulate—whether walking or jogging or running flat-out—along a public thoroughfare without fear of harassment? And yet, his killers took it upon themselves to “interpret” that simple action in which Arbery was freely engaging. In their narrow, racist minds, a black jogger was a contradiction in terms. If a black guy was running, it was “away from” somebody or something, and it meant that he was up to no good.
In trying to justify the killing, the McMichaels pointed to security footage that purportedly showed Arbery snooping around inside of a construction site for a house being built in their same block. It is now thought that the jogger stopped occasionally at the construction site to drink water, since there were sources of water at the back and front of the site. Although the owner of the site had reported “a colored guy” wondering around on his property, he would also later admit that nothing was missing from the work site, so there was no reason to suspect Ahmaud of anything more sinister than curiosity or, perhaps, simply thirst from running.
|Arbery tries to deflect the shotgun pointed at him|
Context is important: this was southern Georgia, the truck had a Confederate flag emblazoned on the bumper and the African American jogger, who was on foot and unarmed, found himself being pursued by armed white men, one of whom—the elder McMichael—ordered Arbery to “stop or I’ll blow your fucking head off.” It wasn’t a situation in which any black man who didn’t have a death wish would be likely to stop and ask the three white guys what they wanted. Nor should he have needed to do so since the McMichaels were no one to be ordering anybody to do anything at the point of a gun. Arbery did what any black man in a white racist world would do—tried his best to escape.
|Mortally wounded, Arbery stumbles a few steps|
and then falls to the pavement
When police arrived, Greg McMichael told them that he had suspected Arbery of being responsible for recent break-ins in the neighborhood. He also claimed that his son Travis had only shot Arbery after the jogger attacked him. The story was improbably thin and couldn’t possibly have stood up to even the most absent-minded of scrutiny. Especially since Bryan was in possession of a video demonstrating how he and the McMichaels had hunted Arbery down and killed him. Despite that fact, it took the police and prosecution ten weeks to bring any charges against the three men. And one can easily speculate that they never would have done so had it not been for ever-increasing calls for justice from the African American community and from local and nationwide media.
One of the main issues that this case brings into focus, then, is the incredible level of judicial insecurity to which African Americans remain subject. In the midst of these two key trials, word also came of a court decision to exonerate sixty-two-year-old Kevin Strickland who has spent the last forty-three years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Strickland said that he received word of the decision to release and exonerate him in a breaking news feed that interrupted the soap opera he was watching at the Western Missouri Correctional Center, which has been the closest thing to a home he has had for nearly four and a half decades.
|Kevin Strickland, free at last|
Need I mention that Mr. Strickland is African American? Had I read the paragraph that precedes this one, I would have assumed it. While Kevin Strickland’s wrongful incarceration is one of the longest in US history, it is certainly not the only one. A report by the National Registry of Exonerations reveals some interesting statistics: Innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about fifty percent more likely to be innocent than other prisoners convicted of murder. Wrongful convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were twenty-two percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. And finally, most wrongful convictions are never discovered. There is, then, no way to gauge all convictions of innocent murder defendants, but to the best of the registry’s knowledge and estimates, they outnumber those we eventually learn about many times over. And judging from exonerations, at least half of those innocent murder defendants are African Americans.
Anyone who still believes that black and white rights became equal with passage of federal civil rights laws in the nineteen-sixties is living in a fantasy world. As are those who seriously believe that racism is dead in the United States. Far from it, it is once again fast on the rise, and virulently so. And this judicial insecurity is once again being openly incorporated into state laws, just as it was from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era right up until just prior to the civil rights era, with the most outward manifestation being blatant voter suppression measures being introduced in some staunchly Republican states.
The Kevin Stricklands of the world can’t immediately raise two million dollars in bail like Kyle Rittenhouse did. They don’t have gun lobbyists and ex-presidents in their corner. They are alone and overwhelmed by legal systems in which they have two strikes against them from the outset because of their race and social standing. Basically, while things may be decisively better than they were before the civil rights era, the rule of thumb is still that if you’re poor and black in America, you’re screwed.
Despite the outcome in the Ahmaud Arbery homicide trial in which the jogger’s three assailants were convicted of murder, the actual judicial process underscored the undiluted racism seething just beneath the surface in American society. This is clear not only in the justification cited by the defendants for their violent actions—that there was “a black man running”—but also in the reluctance of law enforcement to get to the bottom of what happened.
Worse still, racism was blatant and rampant in the defense of the three killers. One of the defense attorneys described Arbery in openly contemptuous terms—citing his “long, dirty toenails” and making references to his running shorts, as if these were an acceptable contributing factor to his being murdered, and seriously thinking that it somehow justified the actions taken by the defendants—or at least that saying such reprehensible things in court would be successful in acting as a dog-whistle to the preponderantly white jury about how whites should stick together to protect their community lest blacks take over. And another defense attorney appealed to the judge to limit “the number of black pastors” present in the courtroom for the public trial.
It’s not hard to understand, however, why many Americans who believe firmly in the rule of law were ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief when the Ahmaud Arbery murder case ended with exemplary verdicts against his three killers. We white Americans who abhor racism want to fervently believe that our justice system is perfectly capable of coping with racial injustice and racial hatred. But that viewpoint is unrealistic and a contributing factor in maintaining barely veiled racism in American justice. A single verdict can’t assuage the effects of hundreds of cases that clearly underscore inequality. Nor can it disguise the fact that, time and again in America, blacks go to prison or are executed for crimes they didn’t commit, while whites are absolved of the crimes that they did.