As the verdicts were being read Wednesday, Arbery’s relatives leaped to their feet, embraced another and spoke through their tears.
“Oh my God. Thank you, Lord,” said his aunt, Ruby Arbery.
Outside the courthouse, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, spoke of the family’s struggle to get any kind of justice. “It‘s been a long fight, she said. “It’s been a hard fight. But God is good.”
It took authorities 74 days to arrest her son’s killers. Two prosecutors recused themselves, including the first to touch the case; she later was indicted on allegations she helped shield the defendants. In the end, it was a leaked cellphone video of the encounter — shot by one of the defendants — that cast the case into the national spotlight, sparking outrage and pushing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over.
“Back in 2020, I never thought this day would come,” Cooper-Jones said.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented the family, hailed the verdicts as a victory for justice.
“We all did this together,” Crump said when he emerged from the courthouse. “Black, White, activists, faith leaders, lawyers and prosecutors — we did this together, and we told America we will make us better than we saw in that video.”
But, he added, “this is not a celebration. It is a reflection to acknowledge that the spirit of Ahmaud defeated the lynch mob.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton struck a similar tone. “Let the word go forth all over the world, that a jury of 11 Whites and one Black, stood up in the Deep South and said Black lives matter,” he said as he left the courtroom, clutching Arbery’s mother. “And almost 10 years after Trayvon [Martin] . . . we knew if we kept marching and we kept fighting, we would make you hear us. We have a lot more battles to fight, but this was an important battle today — this has proven our children know their value.”
Added Sharpton, “Brunswick, Georgia, will go down in history as the place where criminal justice took a different turn.”
Dozens of Brunswick residents rushed to the courthouse to celebrate. Many were Black fathers who brought their sons.
“We feel like justice was served, and it was a relief to know the system actually worked in this case, and they didn’t find a loophole,” said Shawn Golden, 48, who was with his 10-year-old son. “We talk about a lot of things that have been going on around the country, and being here and bringing him face-to-face to what is going on around us, this is special and something he will remember for the rest of his life.”
That relief was felt across the country, as elected officials and civil rights leaders heralded the verdict as proof that the criminal justice system could deliver for African American people. But residents here said much more work has to be done to make their community whole. The problems and dangers facing Black people in Glynn County, Ga., remain largely the same as they were the day Arbery was murdered. So, along with the immediate sense of relief, there also was an eye toward building a better future for Black residents.
The Rev. John Perry, senior pastor at Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, said the guilty verdicts “literally brought tears to my eyes.” He also said they had helped restore his faith in his White neighbors.
“Our system isn’t perfect. It’s in need of a lot of tweaking, but this proves it’s not totally broken,” said Perry, a former president of the Brunswick NAACP.
“We were shaken by only having one Black juror,” Perry said. “But this particular case showed that there’s an awakening in the consciousness even of our White community and that they want to see justice despite skin color.”
The Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights activist, told CNN that it was “a good and powerful day,” but also a complicated one.
“It’s a sad and ridiculous day that we even had to have a trial like this, that a person would be shot down in this way, that a life would be wasted in this way, that Ahmaud can’t be with his family,” Barber said. “It’s a sad day that we had to hear the mother, even today, say ‘I never thought this day would come,’ that she didn’t even think justice was possible.”
And like many African American people around the country, Barber was left wondering what would have happened if Arbery’s murder hadn’t been captured on video.
“It’s a complicated day because we have to ask questions like, ‘What if the killers had not taken video of themselves,’” Barber said. “We look around America, and the cases that are often successful, George Floyd and this case, are all cases where there’s been video. What if there wasn’t video?”
Eric Terrell, a veteran civil rights activist and vice president of the National Action Network, said the verdicts will only help Black Americans feel somewhat better about the fairness of the justice system. He said the country still has a lot of work to do to undo ingrained racism within police departments.
“People still feel like they cannot trust our law enforcement, and what we need most of all is to be able to trust them,” Terrell said. “With this state of mistrust, it will still bring nothing but anger.”
Terrell cautioned that the outcome of this trial is only a partial victory because many Black Americans still worry the country is creeping back to its more openly racist past. Terrell, 63, has been participating in civil rights demonstrations since the 1970s. He said that since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, there has been widespread belief in the Black community that civil rights “are going backward instead of forward.”
Brunswick resident Shemeka Frazier Sorrells, 41, said her community still has a long way to go.
“There’s a sense from some people that the community is fine, that we’re unified and that this particular act was an anomaly,” said Sorrells, a founding member of a nonprofit called A Better Glynn County. “I don’t believe that to be the case. It was homegrown racism, and that same racism is evident in the problems we have here with poverty, housing, employment, wages, all of those things.”
Sorrells said that the societal problems that led to Arbery’s murder are deep-rooted and that it’s going to take more than these verdicts to end them.
“From an early age, I can recall hearing my family, grandparents, mother, father, cousins, aunts, uncles, say, ‘We don’t go to the other side of town’ because they’re not welcome there,” she said. “My husband and I have a home here in a historic district downtown, and I still hear Black people say, ‘Oh, they don’t want us there.’ That sentiment is still in the air, there’s still a divide.”
The Rev. DeWayne Cope of Saint Athanasius Episcopal Church in Brunswick said the Arbery case has made him and other Black parents more aware of the threats their own children face.
“I have a 16-year-old son, so I do have concerns about where I live, and trying to raise him, and graduate from high school and go on and do great things in life,” Cope said.
Those concerns will persist, even after the verdict, he said, including his belief that people in Georgia are now “a little bit more open with their true feelings” compared with when he grew up four decades ago.
“Now, they don’t mind sharing exactly how they feel if they don’t like you,” Cope said. “They will just say, ‘I don’t like you because you are Black.’ Or ‘I don’t like you because of what you stand for’ or ‘I don’t like you because of what you support,’ and people are just more open in how they voice their true feelings.”
Still, Cope is optimistic that, at least in Glynn County, he has witnessed a diverse, multiracial coalition of faith leaders, business owners, activists and neighborhood leaders work together to try to bring the issue of race and injustice to the forefront of local politics and community discussion.
“This [trial] is a small step, but what I have seen is the work that at least they are attempting to do says that they recognize that everything is not right in this county, let alone the world, but they are willing to at least have a conversation.
“And the conversation doesn’t mean that things change overnight, but at least they are willing to come to the table and say these are things that we know are wrong,” Cope continued. “And enough people, White and Black, are saying, ‘These are things we can do.’ And if it takes this moment to be the spark for us to try to make a shift, no matter how small it may be, I think it’s worth us being in conversation.”
A lot has changed here since Ahmaud Arbery was murdered. The chief of police has been removed, there are new county commissioners, and voters installed a new district attorney. State lawmakers overhauled a slavery-era citizen’s arrest law after Arbery’s slaying. But Perry hopes calls for further reform don‘t disappear after these verdicts.
“St. Simons Island, one of the richest communities in America, is literally about a seven-minute drive from the city of Brunswick that was listed two years ago as being the poorest city in the state of Georgia,” Perry said. “That’s a great contradiction and we’ve got to figure out how we improve equality of opportunity in this county.”
For Sorrells, addressing that contradiction is what Arbery and Brunswick’s Black community deserve.
“True justice would have been that he would be alive here with us,” she said. “He’d be with his family, that he could run on any street without anyone questioning his place there. And so I see this as the punishment fitting the crime, not necessarily justice. We have to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Hannah Knowles in Washington contributed to this report.