By Jakob Stein
On Wednesday, the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man jogging through a neighborhood in southeastern Georgia, were found guilty on nearly all charges, including murder, aggravated assault, and false imprisonment. The three killers are facing mandatory life sentences as a separate hate crime trial is scheduled for 2022. The State prosecuting these men to the full extent of the law stands in stark contrast to the way the case was initially handled, with several district attorney’s offices refusing for months to file charges until the videos of Arbery’s slaying went viral online.
On February 23, 2020, Arbery was jogging through Satilla Shores near Brunswick, Georgia, when father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael began to chase him in a truck. The McMichaels were armed, and in their defense arguments claimed they believed Arbery was a burglar. When he heard the McMichaels were on the hunt for Arbery, their neighbor, William “Brodie” Bryan, joined in the chase, filming the encounter.
Bryan aided in the pursuit by cutting off Arbery’s escape path with his own vehicle. In Bryan’s video, Travis is seen jumping out of the truck with a shotgun, attempting to carry out a “citizen’s arrest” without any proof of a criminal act as Arbery tries to evade the attack. It is at this point that Arbery tries to defend himself, and is subsequently shot by Travis McMichael. As the police arrived on the scene, Arbery was still alive, but they did not tend to him, and let him die.
Of the three killers, Travis was the only one convicted of “malice murder,” a charge specific to Georgia in which a homicide is committed with deliberate intent, while the two others were convicted of “felony murder,” which includes killing without intention as part of another crime.
After Arbery’s killing, Brunswick district attorney Jackie Johnson instructed police not to arrest the racist killers, later passing the case to Waycross district attorney George Barnhill, who then twice recommended against arrests or charges. The assessments from both Johnson and Barnhill mirrored the police reports, which took the killers’ words as fact, and were followed by both recusing themselves after revealing that one of the suspects, Gregory McMichael, had previously worked as an investigator for their respective offices.
The case was then passed to yet another prosecutor, Atlantic Judicial Circuit district attorney Tom Durden; however, no charges were filed until a video of the killing was shared with the local monopoly radio station WGIG, and outrage spread across the country. It took 74 days from the murder of Arbery for the State to file charges against the killers, and only because video evidence began circulating around the country which directly contradicted the words of the perpetrators, the police, and district attorneys.
Only a few weeks later, the video of the police killing of George Floyd sparked massive, combative protests in Minneapolis and fueled a nationwide swell in actions known as the May Uprisings, the scale and intensity of which had not been seen in many years. It was these conditions which pressured the State to proceed with the investigation and trial of the three racist murderers in Georgia, a subjective factor which undoubtedly influenced how the case was pursued as Arbery became a rallying point for protesters along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The Arbery case marks a rare case of a successful conviction of reactionary killers, whether of the police or those acting in support of the police, and is being hailed by liberal politicians as proof of the US court system’s “accountability” and “justice.” One cannot forget that only last week the teenage reactionary and amateur cop Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted after murdering two protesters for Black lives and maiming another. The US justice system is by no means a vehicle for progressive change, and even the convictions of Arbery’s killers, and of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, were heavily influenced by the political mobilization of the people and clear video evidence of the perpetrators’ guilt.
What is all too commonly lost in all of this is that the reports from the police and civilian reactionaries that carry out these crimes are seldom accurate. The State normally takes police accounts from reactionary murders like this as fact, and did so until mass rebellion gripped the country and forced their hand. These convictions should be seen as an exception that proves the rule: that the State will work to avoid convicting reactionary murders unless the furious rebellion of the people forces the State to convict those trying to protect it, for fear that the people will rise up again.
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