Lawyers for the three defendants — Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and their friend William “Roddie” Bryan — played the race card repeatedly throughout the trial, perhaps seeing it as the only card they had. In Brunswick, Ga., a town where almost 60 percent of the population is Black, they managed to seat a jury with only one Black member. They resorted to just about every racist trope used to denigrate and demonize Black men over the years, suggesting that the armed killers had reason to fear the slight Arbery’s allegedly inhuman strength and malice. One defense lawyer, Laura Hogue, even went so far as to tell the jury that Arbery had “long, dirty toenails.”
Those defense attorneys utterly failed. It took just 11 hours of deliberation for the almost all-White jury to find the three White defendants guilty of lynching a Black man. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for justice in these United States after all.
“Mr. Arbery should be here today, celebrating the holidays” with his family, President Biden said in a statement after the verdict was read. He is right, of course. The McMichaels and Bryan made that impossible, and the fact that they now might spend the rest of their lives in prison is little comfort to a family that will have an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table this week and in all the years to come.
But maybe some future potential victim will be spared. Maybe some future potential lynch mob will be deterred. Maybe more White people will come to understand that jogging while Black is not a crime.
Or maybe not. I am relieved and encouraged by the way this horrible episode has ended. But it would be wrong to forget the shockingly retrograde events that started it all.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Arbery was jogging through a White neighborhood. The McMichaels and Bryan decided that he was suspicious — they thought he looked like someone who had been seen wandering through a house under construction and leapt to the conclusion that he might have committed some thefts in the area — and so they grabbed some guns, jumped into their pickup trucks and chased him down.
Arbery tried to run away from them, as any lone and unarmed Black man would do when being chased by a bunch of civilian White guys in pickup trucks. He ran for five minutes before they cornered him.
“There’s a Black male running down the street” Travis McMichael said in a call to 911. That was the defendants’ justification for trying to make a “citizens’ arrest” under a state law dating to 1863, when Whites in Georgia were preoccupied with capturing runaway slaves.
In the confrontation, Travis McMichael killed Arbery with a shotgun blast. Outrageously, local authorities initially decided not to file any charges. The killing never would have drawn national attention had Bryan not captured the encounter on cellphone video, and had that video not been released and months later gone viral.
It is almost possible to reconcile the loud and clear guilty verdicts in the Arbery killing with last week’s equally emphatic acquittal in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. The men whom Rittenhouse shot in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020 did initiate contact with him. Rittenhouse had inserted himself — unwisely — into the chaos and confusion of an angry protest. Prosecutors in that trial allowed the jury’s focus to be narrowed to what was happening during the instants when Rittenhouse fired his AR-15-style rifle, killing two men and wounding another.
I say “almost" possible because these two high-profile trials have delivered a mixed message to a divided nation. What they have in common is that they were both about vigilantism — about civilians, with no authority or training, arming themselves and rushing to “defend” their communities. In both incidents, people died tragically and needlessly. I wish Rittenhouse had been convicted of something, anything, if only as a deterrent to future potential camo-clad crusaders.
But justice is supposed to be specific, not generalized. And the Arbery case was potentially more explosive because it was so specifically about race — and because it had such specific historical resonance.
If White men chase an unarmed Black man down and lynch him, they will be punished. That should be an unremarkable statement. And we should not have to feel so relieved to see it affirmed.