IIt is shocking that Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan have been convicted of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. Yet the shock does not come from a miscarriage of justice. Rather, the Glynn County jury deliberated and made the right decision. Tracking down an innocent black man, chasing him, cornering him, then killing him must have criminal consequences in this country, and each of the three murderers now faces a life sentence.
But the shock is that justice was served in a case where it appeared the criminal justice system and a significant portion of the media coverage were doing all they could to exonerate these men. In fact, everything about this case illustrates how difficult it is to achieve justice for black people in this country, starting with how often Fox News and other media outlets noted the case as “the Arbery trial”, as if Ahmaud Arbery was here the author and not the victim.
The facts of the case have never been disputed, yet they have also often been distorted or ignored to aid the defense. The McMichaels claimed they were attempting to arrest a citizen of Arbery, an avid athlete who jogged just three miles from his home that day. Father and son McMichael found Arbery suspicious, they told police, because there had been “several burglaries in the neighborhood”. This statement has been repeated so often over the past year that it has taken on the status of fact.
And yet, according to the local New Brunswick News, only one burglary had been reported to county police between January 1 and February 23, 2020, the day Arbery was murdered. This singular incident referred to property taken from a vehicle from Satilla Shores – Travis McMichael’s truck. (McMichael reported the theft because after leaving his truck unlocked his gun was taken, he said At the trial.) While surveillance video also captured an unidentified white couple Possibly taking property belonging to Larry English, a man building a house in the area, English testified that nothing was stolen from the construction site of his second home, where Arbery stopped directly before be pursued by the McMichaels. And during the trial, we heard that throughout the year 2019, there had been only four reported car burglaries. So, yeah, barely a runaway crime wave.
So why has it continued to be reported this way?
There is more, of course. It took nearly three months for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which handled 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 to the men ran deep, so deep that Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who initially oversaw the case, was later indicted of violating her oath to serve as a public officer and obstruct a police officer, as she was accused of “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation”, according to the act of ‘charge.
Like Johnson, the next prosecutor, George E Barnhill, was also forced to withdraw from the case. Her son had previously worked with McMichael in what was once again an obvious conflict of interest. Barnhill wrote a letter to the police department explaining his challenge. “It seems that Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and Bryan William [sic] a burglary suspect, with a solid first-hand probable cause, followed in their neighborhood, ”he wrote. We now know how completely and utterly wrong this account of events was.
By the time the trial began, jury selection also looked very problematic. More than a quarter of the population of Glynn County is black, yet the jury sitting for the trial was predominantly white, with only one black juror selected. Even the judge recognized the appearance of “intentional discrimination” in this result, as defense attorneys barred virtually all potential black jurors from serving on the jury.
Defense lawyers have also used every tool at their disposal to dehumanize Ahmaud Arbery. Laura Hogue, lawyer for Greg McMichael, called Arbery a “recurring night intruder” whose presence was “frightening and unsettling”, as if she was adopting all the stereotypes of the “dangerous young black man” she could find. It got even worse when she told the jury that Arbery had “long, dirty fingernails.”
What a morally bankrupt and shameless statement, but such are the efforts that this system will go to to preserve its ill-gotten power. Any honest student of the history of this country will recognize what was going on in this case and in this trial. The exhibition was nothing less than an American fear in all its forms.
First, there is the irrational and racist fear of blacks that has motivated so much white self-defense. It is no mere coincidence that Georgia’s (now defunct) self-defense status dates back to the days of the Civil War. 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 blacks and aboriginals.
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 favoritism. And finally, there is the fear that those who do not look like us will be judged. Thus, a power system built on the racial hierarchy will seek its own preservation.
The good news, heard in the courtroom, is that the rest of us are not afraid. The predominantly white jury was not afraid to deliver the appropriate verdict. Deputy Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski was unafraid (and completely convincing) in her prosecution. Lawyer S Lee Merritt was fearless and eloquent in his advocacy for justice. But the bravest, fearless, and 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 without Cooper-Jones’ tireless efforts to push and challenge prosecutors like Johnson and Barnhill and the whole damn system every moment. She pushed the Georgian legislature to pass a hate crimes bill. She has filed a federal lawsuit against the men now convicted of murdering her son. herself met then President Donald Trump to discuss police reform.
Cooper-Jones is a true hero, both to his son and in the struggle for a truly just society. She was willing and able to fight a system which, if the past was any guide, was more than willing to exonerate itself.
But here’s the problem: What happens when there’s no Cooper-Jones? Why should our rights depend on grieving mothers fighting for the rights of their murdered children? What judicial system is it?
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 is not afraid of power. We need a justice system that is not afraid to do what is right. What we really need is a justice system that does not depend at all on grieving mothers.
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