We must be shocked and appalled that “jogging while Black” is a capital crime in this country. But at this point, sadly, we can’t be surprised.
The only reason we know about the circumstances of Arbery’s killing, and the only reason his three accused killers are on trial for murder, is that one of them recorded the whole thing on his smartphone. The man who made the video, William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, claims he did nothing but use his truck to help chase down Arbery. The other two defendants — Greg McMichael, 67, and his son Travis McMichael, 35 — are seen confronting Arbery, attempting to “arrest” him in an encounter that ends with Arbery dead after three gunshots.
Incredibly, local prosecutors initially took no action at all against the McMichaels and Bryan — a decision that may or may not have something to do with the fact that Greg McMichael is a former county police officer and a former investigator for the district attorney’s office. Authorities deemed the White men’s actions justified under a Georgia law permitting citizen’s arrests, although the McMichaels saw Arbery do nothing suspicious except jog past their house. While being Black, of course.
At this point, I need to remind you that all of this took place in 2020, not 1920. I’m tempted to paraphrase The Who: Meet the New South, same as the Old South. But the unacceptable truth is that this sort of thing — the killing of unarmed Black people who are just minding their own business — happens in other parts of the country as well.
The wheels of justice creaked into motion only after Bryan’s video went viral, more than two months after the slaying — and just weeks before the nation erupted in turmoil over the killing of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd. If there had been no video, there would almost surely be no accountability whatsoever for Arbery’s death.
The difficulty now, as jury selection in the trial of Bryan and the McMichaels enters its second week, is that so many potential jurors have seen the video — and, like me, have formed strong opinions about the case. As one told Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, “Some things you can’t just unsee.”
The video shows Arbery jogging along a tree-lined road when he comes upon the McMichaels’ truck, where Travis McMichael stood beside the driver’s side door with a shotgun and Greg McMichael was in the pickup’s bed with a handgun. Arbery tries to run around the truck and is hidden from view for several seconds. Then he and Travis McMichael come back into view, engaged in a struggle, and we hear the fatal shots.
The citizen’s arrest theory of the defense involves Greg McMichael’s claim that Arbery resembled a man captured earlier by a security camera walking suspiciously through a house under construction. There had apparently been some burglaries in the neighborhood, and, well, we all know that a Black man in a White neighborhood is by definition a likely suspect. We also know that Black men, in general, are assumed to have superhuman strength and malign intent.
The basic facts of the incident are not in dispute. The verdict on Bryan’s and the McMichaels’ guilt or innocence will likely hinge on two questions of law: whether the trio were justified, under a Civil War-era statute (which has already been repealed, in response to Arbery’s killing), to detain a man they believed, rightly or wrongly, had committed a crime; and whether Travis McMichael, as he struggled physically with Arbery, was justified in killing him in self-defense. The defense will likely argue that race had nothing to do with the tragic encounter.
If I were one of the prosecutors, I’d ask the jury to do a thought experiment. I’d have them imagine Travis McMichael jogging through one of Brunswick’s majority-Black neighborhoods and being physically detained by three Black men, two of whom are brandishing firearms and one of whom ultimately kills him. Would they call that a legal arrest? Or would they call it murder?
This one looks open and shut. Then again, this is America. So we’ll see.