Sunday, November 28, 2021

In trial over Arbery death, racial reckoning looms large

Brunswick, Ga. (AP) — A framed photo on the wall of Travis Riddle’s Soul Food restaurant shows the local sheriff arresting a gray-bearded white man with a cuff behind his back, a reminder to all who The puzzles are still waiting for justice. To be served in the assassination of Ahmaud Arbery.

It shows Greg McMichael on the day last year that he and his son, Travis McMichael, were jailed for murder in the murder of a 25-year-old black man.

The McMichaels are accused of chasing Arbery in a pickup truck and fatally shooting him after seeing him running into their neighborhood. More than two months passed before his arrest after videos of the shooting were leaked online and sparked outrage nationally.

Watch: What do we know about the fatal shooting of Ahmed Arbery?

Jury selection in the murder trial of the McMichaels and William “Roddy” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase and took the video, is set to begin Monday. For many, it is not only the three white defendants on trial, but a justice system that allowed them to go free for weeks after a black man was chased and killed.

“You’ve got corruption, then the good ole boy system, then racism — that’s how I see it,” said Riddle, who hopes to part ways with his restaurant, Country Boy Cooking, to take part in some testing.

Local activists plan a weekend rally at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, a working-class port city 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah, and a caravan drive through the neighborhood where Arbery was killed.

“It has shaken the confidence of the black and brown community in their ability to trust the justice system,” said Rev. John Perry, who was chairman of the Brunswick NAACP chapter at the time of Arbery’s murder.

Arbery’s death on February 23, 2020, later became part of a wider calculation on racial injustice in the criminal legal system following a string of deadly encounters between black people and police – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, among others. Arbery’s close friend Akim Baker still walks exactly 2.23 miles on the 23rd of every month to keep his memory alive.

Baker said he is often tagged in social media posts by people who run similar monuments to the UK

“I believe this is going to make the change needed in Brunswick and the nation when it comes to racial justice,” Baker said.

The McMichaels and Bryan have been charged with nine counts each, including felony murder, felony assault, and other offenses. The men told police that they used pickup trucks to stop Arbery from fleeing the Satilla Shores neighborhood. Security cameras at an open house under construction had previously recorded him on site, and they suspected he was stealing.

Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the area’s district attorney, can be seen playing off his law enforcement ties on recordings taken by police body cameras of officers sent to the scene after the shooting.

Prosecutors argue that Arbery was walking down a street just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from his home. They say he was unarmed and the police found no evidence that he had stolen anything.

It remains to be seen how much prosecutors insist on the evidence of racism in Arbery’s murder. At a court hearing last year, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified that Bryan told investigators he saw Travis McMichael standing over Arbery and received a racist slur — “f—ing n—er” — while Arbery was bleeding in the street from three shotgun blasts.

Travis McMichael’s lawyer denies this.

Investigators also found text messages on Travis McMichael’s cellphone a year before the shooting in which he used the N-word twice in an exchange. Prosecutors included the texts in evidence recorded in public court records, but did not request their use during the trial.

Read Also:  Max Cleland, a former Georgia Senator and a veteran who lost his limbs in Vietnam, dies at the age of 79

Read more: Former prosecutor Ahmaud Arbery charged with malpractice in death

Meanwhile, defense attorneys want judges to prevent prosecutors from showing jury photos of the truck the McMichaels used to chase Arbery, a front of Georgia’s former state flag with a symbol of the Confederate fight. The bumper shows the vanity plate.

Lawyers for McMichaels and Brian insisted they had committed no crime, saying they had reason to suspect Arbery and were trying to legally stop him. At the time, Georgia law allowed arrests by private citizens. They argue that Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense after Arbery attacked him with his fist and scuffled for his gun.

“The jury will see that this case is only about protecting your neighbors and yourself,” Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said in an email to the Associated Press.

Arbery’s family has long said that he was targeted because of his race. When the US Justice Department brought federal hate crime charges against McMichaels and Bryan in April, their relatives rejoiced. A separate hearing in that case is scheduled for February.

“There will be a race in this whole affair,” said Lee Merritt, civil rights attorney for the Arbery family. “The nation is going to get a front row seat where Glynn County, Georgia, culturally, is in 2021, or where it was in 2020 at the very least.”

Georgia was one of just four US states without a hate crime law at the time Arbery was murdered, although Georgia lawmakers quickly adopted one amid outcry over his death. He also broke the state’s citizen’s arrest law.

Arbery’s aunt Thea Brooks says she was the victim of “modern-day lynching”. She noted that the McMichaels suspected security cameras at the same construction site that Arbery had looted, which others, including white men and children, had entered for viewing.

“It really makes me feel like, on that day, it was a racially profiled situation,” Brooks said.

For local activist Eliza Bobby Henderson, Arbery’s murder exposed the boundaries between white and black Brunswick residents, which she called “a comforting tension between races.” He recalled being told as a child that black children shouldn’t be trick-or-treating in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery died.

“As long as everyone respects those boundaries, there can be peace,” Henderson said. “Ahmud dared to cross one of those limits.”

James Yancey Jr., a black criminal defense attorney in Brunswick who is not involved in the Arbery case, said issues of race will loom large in the trial, whether prosecutors insist on it or not.

“Whenever you have a case specifically involving a white person and a black person … I think it’s probably impossible to ignore that fact,” Yancy said.

Arbery’s death inspired Henderson and other black activists in Glynn County to form Group A Better Glynn to promote racial and socio-economic justice. In its first year, the nonprofit registered voters before the 2020 election, defeating longtime District Attorney Jackie Johnson. The county also appointed its first full-time black police chief after the group pushed for a national search.

Meanwhile, Perry and Riddle are among eight candidates running for the next mayor of Brunswick in the November 2 election.

The Rev. James Woodall, former Georgia NAACP chairman, called the electoral progress a sign that more changes would come to Brunswick and other communities like it.

“You’re seeing a wave of events taking place in that community to raise issues and engage people like never before,” said Woodall, who is now a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“We are looking forward to building a state where justice is literally the order of the day and not just the expectation of a seemingly small segment of our community.”

Morrison reported from New York City.

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