The guilty verdict in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder trial wasn’t just a sigh of relief. It was an exhale after weeks of apprehension that defense attorneys’ dog whistles and appeals to white fears might sway a mostly white jury.
We have seen time and again unarmed Black men depicted as menacing, blamed for their own deaths. In Trayvon Martin’s case, it was his height, his marijuana smoking. In George Floyd’s, it was his drug use. In Arbery’s, his “dirty toenails” were the problem.
Arbery was accused by a defense attorney of “running away instead of facing the consequences” and “making terrible, unexpected, illogical choices.” But nothing attorney Laura Hogue said in her closing remarks was as jarring as this:
“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in khaki shorts, with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” Hogue, who represented defendant Gregory McMichael, told the jury.
“Wow,” Arbery’s mother said before leaving the room briefly.
We shared in her disbelief, but we also wondered: Has this country truly made progress, or are white folks still susceptible to images of dirty, scary Black men that have been normalized since the time of “Birth of a Nation?”
There were good reasons to worry that McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, Jr. might convince jurors that they were acting in self-defense after chasing and shooting Arbery, whose family said he was out for a jog. The makeup of the jury — 11 white people and one Black member — was admonished even by the judge in the case, who said “that there appears to be intentional discrimination” by the defense in selecting it. Yet he still allowed the case to go forward. In Glynn County, Georgia, where the trial happened, more than 26% of residents are Black, and about 69% are white, according to U.S. Census figures.
Americans were right to feel there was an orchestrated effort to allow the McMichaels and Bryan to skate. It took more than two months for the men to be arrested — and that only happened after video of the shooting surfaced. A former district attorney was indicted in September for allegedly preventing two police officers from arresting Travis McMichael and “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation.” Greg McMichael was an investigator with the Brunswick District Attorney’s office.
In Miami, this trial compels us to think of Trayvon. He was 17, walking back from a quick trip to a convenience store for Skittles and iced tea in Sanford, when George Zimmerman deemed him suspicious. There was no video, in that case, to disprove Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. But we have to wonder if things would have changed if there were.
Zimmerman’s supporters and defense team portrayed 17-year-old Trayvon as almost 6 feet tall, wearing a dark hoodie. They talked about his suspensions from high school and his interest in guns. They dug up social-media photos of him in attempts to depict him as a thug. Prosecutors , though, called him an unarmed child, who did nothing wrong, the victim of a vigilante with a chip on his shoulder, who told a police dispatcher that “those a--holes, they always get away.”
Though Zimmerman was acquitted, we will never know to what extent the racist tactics of Zimmerman’s defense persuaded the jury. Just like we don’t know whether the skewed depiction of Arbery might have worked had there not been video of his encounter with the defendants.
The lead prosecutor in the case said the guilty verdicts were “based on the facts.” That’s the outcome we hope for in every trial, but we know from the country’s painful history that has not always been the case. At least we can say this time that race-baiting didn’t work.
After the jury’s decision, Hogue, the defense attorney said, “I’m floored, floored with a capital ‘F,’” CNN reported.
So are we — this time, in a good way.