Veteran Georgia journalist: Guilty verdicts in Arbery killing give no pleasure, only relief

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones his hugged by a supporter after the jury convicted Travis McMichael in the trial of McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. The three defendants were found guilty Wednesday in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

There’s no pleasure to be taken from the guilty verdicts returned Wednesday by a Glynn County jury in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery; there is only relief and thanksgiving that in the end justice could be done, at least in a case in which the evidence was so well-documented and seemingly obvious.

Given that they reached their weighty verdicts in just a matter of hours, the jury members – 11 white Georgians, one Black Georgian – must have thought it was obvious as well.

However, it’s crucially important to remember that this just and necessary resolution almost didn’t happen, that if justice was served in the end, it came almost accidentally. For 74 days after Arbery’s murder in February of 2020, no charges had been filed; no arrests were made, no presentment was made to a grand jury. Even though law enforcement possessed the now-famous video as well as much of the testimony that the jury found so convincing, two different district attorneys looked at the case and basically determined that Arbery deserved his fate, that if anything Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan should be lauded rather than prosecuted.

The local district attorney, Jackie Johnson, knew Greg McMichael from his work as an investigator for her office. She allegedly forbid police officers from making an arrest, and then arranged for the case to be transferred to the neighboring Waycross Judicial District, where George Barnhill worked as district attorney. As she was aware, she was referring the case to someone who had already made known that he too had no desire to pursue the case.

According to a memo written by Barnhill at the time, after what he called an “extensive” review, the actions by the McMichaels and Bryan had been “perfectly legal.” It was Arbery “who attacks Travis McMichael” in the video, it was Arbery “who initiated the fight,” it was Arbery’s “apparent aggressive nature” that drove him “to attack an armed man.”

“Given the fact that Arbery initiated the fight, at the moment Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia law, (Travis) McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to defend himself,” Barnhill advised the Glynn County Police Department.

Johnson was defeated for re-election in November of 2020; two months ago, she was arrested and charged with interfering with a police officer in the case and with violating her oath of office. Barnhill remains in office.

I’ve called this a modern-day lynching, an evocative phrase that should not be employed lightly. However, it meets the two-part test: One, it was a brutal act of vigilante violence; two, the local political elite stepped in afterward to protect the perpetrators. Only when the video was leaked to the public and reached an audience outside the local corridors of power was the coverup thwarted.

And if a case like this, with its obvious evidence of criminality, could come so close to being covered up, think about how many other such cases had been handled over the years, not just in the Waycross and Brunswick districts but all across Georgia, all across the country.

Think about the effect that those cases, the cultural memories of those cases, have had on the mindsets and power relationships in these communities. The McMichaels were not unusual in thinking that they had the right to treat Arbery as they did, that they had the power to tell this Black man what to do and that he had the obligation to obey. The attitudes and the arrogance that they demonstrated that day in the Satilla Shores neighborhood did not come from nowhere, it came from everywhere.

Over their lifetimes, they had been taught that it was their right to act in that fashion, that it was their duty to enforce the unwritten code, that people like themselves had power while others did not, and that they would be protected for defending that system.

They were right.

Until they finally weren’t.

Jay Bookman is a regular contributor to the Georgia Recorder, which first published this essay.

Jury finds 3 Georgia men guilty of Ahmaud Arbery murder: 3 essential reads

William “Roddie” Bryan, right, sits with his attorney’s before the start of closing arguments to the jury during the trial of he, Travis McMichael, and his father Greg McMichael, at the Glynn County Courthouse, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The three men charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

It took jurors around 11 hours of deliberations to arrive at guilty verdicts in the trial of three men accused in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2021, before a courtroom that included members of Arbery’s family, all the three defendants – Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan – were found guilty of counts including murder. They each now face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, after being pursued through the predominantly white suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores, near Brunswick in Georgia.

For many, the manner of his death raised questions over the role race played in the killing, evoking a U.S. in which gangs of white men killed Black men and boys with impunity. But race played a backseat role in the trial, only being brought up in the prosecutor’s closing argument. Instead, the near all-white jury – 11 of the 12 jurors were white – were invited to focus more on whether the defendants were justified in trying to apprehend Arbery as he jogged down the road.

The Conversation’s authors have explored how race and law intertwine in the following stories related to Arbery’s murder.

1. The use and abuse of citizen’s arrest

In the course of a two-week trial, jurors heard evidence from more than two dozen witnesses. At the heart of the defense was a claim that the three men accused were protected by the state’s citizen’s arrest law.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley made a point of explaining the law in his final instructions before the jury retired to consider its verdict. He told them citizen’s arrests can be made only if a crime has taken place in the presence of the person making the arrest, “or within his immediate knowledge.”

The verdict in the case suggests jurors sided with the prosecution’s view that the citizen’s arrest defense did not hold water.

Following the death of Arbery, Georgia weakened its 150-year-old citizen’s arrest law. But as Seth Stoughton, professor of law at University of South Carolina, explains, many states retain similar legislation. In fact, citizen’s arrest laws have been around for centuries – but they have often been open to abuse. Such laws can be “badly misused by those who believe their higher social status gives them authority over someone they perceive as having lower status.”

“Frequently, this falls along racial lines,” Stoughton adds.

2. Criminalizing Black joggers

Lawyers for the three defendants claimed in the trial that the accused men were within their right to conduct a citizen’s arrest because they believed Arbery had committed a burglary despite there being no evidence to suggest that the 25-year-old had stolen anything.

Sociologist Rashawn Ray focused on the setting and circumstances surrounding the shooting – that the victim was a Black man jogging in a white suburban neighborhood.

In Ray’s study of race and physical exercise, he found that Black men living in white neighborhoods were far less likely to go for a run in the areas surrounding their home than were white men, white women and Black women. The reason? “Black men are often criminalized in public spaces – that means they are perceived as potential threats and predators,” Ray writes.

Black joggers interviewed as part of Ray’s research reported having the police called on them, seeing neighbors cross the street as they approached and shutting screen doors as they passed.

“For Black men, this means that negative perceptions about their propensity to commit crime, emotional stability, aggressiveness and strength can be used as justification for others to enact physical force upon them,” Ray concludes.

3. Cellphone footage: Evidence or exploitation?

During the trial, jurors were shown the graphic footage depicting the last moments of Arbery’s life. For some, it may not have been the first time they were seeing the grainy images.

Such videos have emerged in several recent deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers – or, in Arbery’s case, citizens.

To Allissa Richardson at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the images that circulate are the modern-day equivalent of the grotesque photographs that accompanied the lynchings of the Jim Crow era.

Just as these images from the past serve a purpose today – to educate America about race relations in the U.S. – so too can the video images shot on bystanders’ cellphones. For example, they can be used as evidence in court.

But Richardson cautions that casual viewing of Black people dying online and on TV can become exploitative.

“Likening the fatal footage of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd to lynching photographs invites us to treat them more thoughtfully. We can respect these images. We can handle them with care. In the quiet, final frames, we can share their last moments with them, if we choose to. We do not let them die alone.”

Matt Williams, Breaking News Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New ‘must read’ report documents the impact of COVID-19 on low income households in NC

Dr. Jim Johnson Jr.

It’s well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on communities across the globe, but as a new report from the North Carolina Community Action Association documents, that havoc has been especially destructive in low income communities in North Carolina.

The report, which includes the voices of many directly impacted by the disaster, is entitled “Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on Low-Income Households and Communities in North Carolina,” and it was actually prepared by a team of experts led by the acclaimed demographer, Dr. Jim Johnson (pictured at left) — the Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the UNC Kenan-Flagler School at UNC Chapel Hill.

This is from the executive summary:

The North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) commissioned a study to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its efforts to combat poverty and facilitate self-sufficiency in low-income communities throughout the state. We conducted focus groups with individuals served by Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and conducted a corresponding set of key informant interviews with identified leaders in five communities across the state. The research focused on five themes:

  • Behavioral responses to recommended protective measures
  • Hardships and economic fallout
  • Coping strategies
  • Adequacy of relief measures
  • Perception and beliefs about COVID-19 vaccines

Among the key takeaways from the research:

  1. COVID-19 exacted a disproportionately heavy toll on low-income families, especially in terms of both exposure to and deaths from the coronavirus.
  2. Above and beyond disparate exposures and deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic created major employment challenges and forced low-income households to make difficult decisions and choices regarding work versus personal safety and the health and well-being of their families.
  3. The shift to remote learning during the pandemic shed new light on deficiencies in infrastructure related to availability, access, quality, and cost of internet services for low-income families.
  4. The pandemic heightened personal and familial stress and anxiety posing, in the process, major socio-emotional and mental health challenges for low-income individuals and families throughout the state.
  5. Government safety-net programs were an important  lifeline but fell short of addressing the range of assistance low-income households needed during the pandemic.
  6. Beyond government support and private sector assistance, residents have pursued a wide array of coping strategies, tactics, and practices to survive the pandemic.
  7. Augmenting personal resiliency, nonprofit organizations were instrumental in creating a therapeutic community for the most vulnerable
    families, providing much needed supports—financial and socio-emotional as well as basic-necessities such as food and personal protective equipment—during the pandemic.
  8. Compliance with safety precautionary measures—with only a few exceptions—is high but vaccine hesitancy is widespread among North Carolina’s low-income families and households.

The report goes on to present a host of findings regarding the lived experiences of low-income people from across the state and to offer several specific recommendations — many of which advise leveraging the experience and reputation that community action agencies possess in the most impacted communities to “develop trusted messages in the current and any future crisis.”

Click here to explore and share the full report. Let’s hope it helps to raise the profile of community action agencies

Giving thanks to America’s medical community for life-saving vaccines

School children wait in line for immunization shots in the 1940s at a child health station in New York City. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

If we were not still in the grip of a deadly pandemic, with the seven-day average U.S. death toll from the coronavirus hovering just over 1,100 a day, I probably would not have thought of giving thanks this year for the medical researchers who have given this country protection against many life-threatening illnesses.

Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when I became aware of vaccinations, my thoughts were anything but thankful. When a doctor or nurse brought out a needle, they had to pry me out from behind the furniture to administer a shot. I refused Novocain in the dentist’s office.

Then came the 1952 polio epidemic, which was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. We saw pictures of kids in iron lungshuge mechanical devices to help kids breathe.

We did not know what caused polio, but we were told not to gather together or drink from public fountains or swim in public pools. My uncle, Uli, got polio and his legs withered, bringing the disease close to home. When the Salk polio vaccine became available in about 1955, everyone in our community and across the country could not get shots fast enough.

That softened my fear of needles. It further softened over the years when the effectiveness of various vaccines was proven time and again — measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and so on. When I developed hay fever, it was a mixed blessing. I did not have to work in the hay, which was the worst work on the farm, but I did have to get regular injections, which my mom did very slowly so as not to hurt. Yikes!

Then, in 1968, I volunteered to fight in Vietnam and had to get a long list of vaccinations. Everyone had to take the vaccinations for the protection of the entire unit the old thing about the chain breaking at the weakest link, obviously the unvaccinated one. They included plague, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, and the very worst, gamma globulin in the posterior for hepatitis. It left a big bump in the rear that slowly dissipated over a week or so.

As one continues through life, it is easy to take for granted the fact that you don’t have to worry about the dread diseases that our ancestors had to face on practically a daily basis. Plague and smallpox wiped out entire populations before the scientific community developed means of prevention that could be administered in a painless injection.

We don’t know how very fortunate we are and how thankful we should be.

When I was a kid and we learned that someone in the community had been diagnosed with cancer of practically any variety, we all thought it was a death sentence. When Dr. Gupta called on Jan. 13, 2017, to say that I had pancreatic cancer, that was my very question: “Is this a death sentence?” His response was, “Not necessarily.” I was told later that chemotherapy would increase my chances of survival to 30%.

In order to get chemo, you had to get a whole range of shots, which I gladly accepted and would have taken many more. It was not a question as to whether the Food and Drug Administration or anyone else had given its blessing to any of them. My trusted physicians had said they were necessary, and that was enough. They put a port in your chest so they could mainline it, and you were happy to put up with all of it for a chance of survival.

You see many other dear souls in the injection lounge taking in stuff that some would call poison, just for the chance of more life with their loved ones not a lot of bellyachers and dissidents in that venue. I’m now four years cancer free.

So, let me raise a toast this Thanksgiving weekend to the doctors, nurses, medical researchers and other medical personnel who have strived so hard over the many years to find ways of saving the public from illness and death at the hands of deadly diseases such as COVID-19 and all of the other scourges I’ve previously mentioned.

We owe you, we salute you, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, which are still beating because of you.

Jim Jones served as Idaho attorney general for eight years (1983-1991) and as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years (2005-2017). His columns are featured regularly in the Idaho Capital Sun, which first published this essay.

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