The killers of Ahmaud Arbery—Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan—were brought to justice today in Georgia, as a predominately white jury convicted them on murder charges in a high-profile trial that punctuates the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the American legal system. The verdict in Arbery’s murder case and the $26 million civil judgment against the organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, represent a welcome turn away from the implications of the shocking acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse last week. The teenage vigilante killer was acquitted on all charges stemming from his fatal shooting of two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020.
Today’s verdict serves as an important reminder that violent vigilante retribution is not yet a legitimate and expected feature of racial encounters and protests. That justice prevailed in such conditions is indeed cause for relief—and it is also a desperately needed balm to the spirit of Arbery’s grieving family and friends. But the larger picture here remains distressingly clear: the pursuit of simple justice and accountability on behalf of Americans victimized and killed in defense of white supremacy faces immense institutional and legal obstacles that are simply inconceivable when the racial coordinates are reversed.
The urgent need to continue to agitate and organize for true racial justice in our courts, our workplaces, our neighborhoods and our streets is only amplified by how easily the proceedings in both cases could have tilted the other way. Both the investigation and the prosecutorial decision-making in the Arbery case were riddled with the sort of local law-enforcement corruption and flagrant procedural discrimination that recalls governmental complicity in racist violence in the American South. Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson initially told police not to arrest Travis McMichael, and all three defendants were permitted to resume their normal lives as the investigation stalled. She was eventually indicted for “showing favor and affection” for the defendant Gregory McMichael, who had formerly worked in her office as an investigator.
The second prosecutor, recommended by Johnson after she recused herself, failed to bring charges against Arbery’s killers, accepting the defendants’ claims that they stalked, trapped, and shot-gunned Arbery to death in self-defense. Arbery’s murderers would have walked free had the decisions of these local authorities not been upended by a video of the assault, the Arbery family’s dogged determination, and the support of on-the-ground organizers like Barbara Arnwine and the Transformative Justice Coalition. And while the trial was moved from Brunswick, Georgia to a separate jurisdiction in Cobb County, the long shadow of Jim Crow did not abate there. Once jury selection in the Cobb County trial was under way, defense attorneys were allowed to strike prospective Black jurors so as to produce a nearly all-white jury to try white Southerners for a modern day lynching.
The Charlottesville defendants, meanwhile, were brought to trial under the ingenious use of a Reconstruction-era statute to protect emancipated Black Americans from the vigilante violence of the Ku Klux Klan—itself a grim reminder of how profoundly our national commitment to racial equity has backslid over the past five years.
The verdict in the Charlottesville civil trial must be understood in the context of the wider rehabilitation of white vigilantism in the ongoing erosion of political commitments to racial justice in America. In fact, the broader white nationalist movement that has been recklessly promoted and admired by former President Donald Trump has been emboldened by Rittenhouse’s acquittal. Indeed, as if to drive this very point home, Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired a fawning interview with Rittenhouse, in which he hailed the young vigilante killer as “bright,” “sincere,” “dutiful,” “hard-working” and “exactly the kind of person you want many more of in your country.” For his part, ex-President Trump has invited Rittenhouse to visit him at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, as though he was the hero of a sports contest rather than an armed vigilante who provoked an encounter that left two human beings dead.
The full weight of today underscores the fact that despite the manufactured hysteria over what we teach our children and the book burning and erasures of history that have ensued, our worries should stem not from too much racial justice, but from too little. For those who have shamelessly promoted the belief that “wokeness” and “antiracism” are really what ails us in America today, the very fact that these trials were even necessary should reveal how contemptible their claims really are. That today’s victory was made possible only by the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Arbery’s murder should cause everyone who cares about racial justice to redouble efforts to confront the ugly histories that continue to bear strange fruit even today. White supremacy must be acknowledged, confronted, and unlearned to bury its ugly legacy beyond the reach of politically-motivated efforts to resurrect it. This commitment must include not only the racism that motivated the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, but the institutional accommodation of white supremacy that had to be overcome to hold them accountable.