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.

Enforced delusions: Stolen 2020 election myth imposes loyalty test on Republicans

Photo: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The narrative about a stolen election is completely fabricated. None of it is true. None of it happened.

None of it, not in Arizona, not in Georgia, not anywhere, none of it. All “evidence” offered to support that narrative is likewise a mirage; it vanishes completely upon closer inspection. It’s just a fiction, a fiction with the same grounding in reality as tales of flying, fire-breathing dragons or little green men invading Earth from Mars.

Unlike those stories, however, this one is functional fiction. Its creation was conscious and intentional; it was designed not to entertain or instruct or titillate, but to further a criminal conspiracy. It was designed as an excuse by people who needed one, concocted out of nothing to try to justify the overthrow of a legal election and thus destroy American democracy, and it was carried out by those frustrated because that democracy would not produce the outcome that they demanded.

If you only support democracy that gives you the outcome that you want, then you never supported democracy in the first place.

Since the failed attempt on Jan. 6 to reinstate the election loser as president, the narrative has also come to serve a secondary but still quite powerful purpose. For this particular purpose, it doesn’t matter that the story is ridiculous, that no facts or evidence or testimony could be found to support it. To the contrary, the lack of supporting evidence has made it more powerful and useful.

Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has defined itself through two dynamics, one internal and one external. Externally, they seek to define themselves through the opposition that they provoke from others, which is how “triggering the libs” became so central to their identity. They don’t want acceptance, they want rejection. They seek to create distance from the cultural and political mainstream, and anything that gives them that distance is good, which explains to some degree their infatuation with Donald Trump.

Internally, they have defined themselves through the loyalty tests they impose on each other, and anyone who expresses doubt or less than total commitment risks expulsion as a RINO. Trump has proved useful in that regard as well, forcing Republicans to demonstrate to themselves and each other just how deep their loyalty to the tribe really goes. Does that tribal loyalty outweigh any concerns they might have about Trump’s extraordinary character, behavior, racism or intellect? For most, unfortunately, their answer has been yes.

The belief that the 2020 election was stolen has now been embraced as the latest such loyalty test. It serves both definitional purposes, external and internal. If the majority of Americans reject that belief as well as those who espouse it, great! It creates the distance that conservatives need to define themselves. And if a small number of supposed Republicans can’t reconcile their loyalty to democracy with their loyalty to the party, great again. If the likes of Liz Cheney choose to defend the Constitution and the republic over Trump and the GOP, then let the purification rites continue; let she and others be cast aside.

Again, the more ridiculous the required belief, the more groundless and absurd it might be, the more effective it becomes as a test of loyalty. Anyone can believe something that is true, or that might be true. Only the true believer can believe the truly unbelievable, and if you can be swayed to the other side by such things as fact and evidence, then you weren’t really one of us anyway.

It’s also critical to note that for many, this is not a passive belief; believing it requires that action be taken.

Once you have been convinced, by yourself or others, that the election was stolen, then the assault on the Capitol was not merely acceptable, it becomes necessary and patriotic.

Once you believe the election was stolen, then you can only support those politicians and leaders and media figures who will overturn it and future elections.

Put another way, this fiction was designed to have consequences, and if it is not fought and defeated, those consequences will be dire.

Veteran journalist Jay Bookman is a columnist for the Georgia Recorder, which first published this essay.

Veteran journalist: The real Donald Trump shows through in attacks on Georgia’s GOP governor

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In a strange way, Donald Trump is the most honest politician I have ever witnessed.

He’s also the most dishonest, of course. He’ll lie about almost anything, shamelessly, without regard to truth or even plausibility. But it’s funny: He does not lie, almost cannot lie, about his emotions, about his deepest wants and needs. Even when it would do him well to lie about such things, his primal instinct to yell “I want!” pushes him to blurt the truth.

The truth is, he really wanted Brad Raffensperger to find him 11,800 votes, and he told him so. He wanted the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation of Joe Biden. He wanted Mike Pence to subvert the Constitution. And he wants the voters of Georgia to send Brian Kemp packing.

So no, Trump was neither lying or exaggerating last month when he told a rally down in the town of Perry that he hopes Democrat Stacey Abrams defeats incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp next year. “Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know what I think,” Trump told the crowd, later adding that if Abrams takes Kemp’s job, “It’s OK with me.”

That was a stupid thing to say. It damaged Trump, it damaged Kemp, it damaged the state Republican Party. But it was also the plain, honest truth: Trump truly doesn’t care about Georgia Republicans losing the governor’s mansion; in fact, he hopes they do. He also doesn’t care about splitting the party or what it does to GOP candidates up and down the ticket. What he cares about is personal vengeance. And on Election Night of 2022, if Kemp is defeated, that sly smirk of satisfaction, of revenge publicly exacted, will spread across Trump’s face and for a moment he will be whatever passes for happy in his disturbed mind.

Not surprisingly, a lot of Republicans were shocked and angered by Trump’s remarks, so shocked and angered that one or two even dared to say so, in public. But they should be prepared for even worse in the months to come. Trump clearly intends to be a major player in Georgia. Of all the states he lost in 2020, he seems to have taken his loss in Georgia most personally. His ego just cannot conceive of the fact that he lost a state supposedly this red, this conservative, and he needs someone else to blame.

In addition, Trump has worked hard to recruit Herschel Walker to run for the U.S. Senate next year against Raphael Warnock. I have my doubts whether Walker will really carry through with the grueling campaign under a harsh media spotlight, and I don’t think those pushing his candidacy have Walker’s health or his best interests at heart. They are using him, not helping him.

However, if Walker really carries through with the campaign, then he becomes Trump’s surrogate, and Trump cannot allow his handpicked candidate to lose. A defeat for Walker, particularly in the GOP primary, would be utterly humiliating for Trump, calling into question his death grip on the GOP electorate not just here but nationwide.

So between now and the May primary, the former president will probably be back in the state multiple times, and after his Perry performance, you have to believe that at every rally and every campaign stop, he will lash out in some way against Kemp and to a lesser degree Raffensperger, the two men who have become Trump’s scapegoats.

In a close race, continued attacks on Kemp would be more than enough to throw the election to Abrams. In a close race, using the 2022 state campaign to relitigate the 2020 presidential outcome would also benefit Democrats, just as it benefitted Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the January runoffs.

But honestly, Trump just doesn’t care.

Veteran journalist Jay Bookman is a regular commentator for the Georgia Recorder which first published this essay.

Threats against nurses, school boards rage on as mainstream GOP stands by

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey – Photo: Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder

Madison Cawthorn contributes to the danger infesting U.S. politics

In a press conference at the Georgia Capitol this week, the state’s public health commissioner condemned a campaign of bullying, intimidation and threats directed at health care workers attempting to improve the state’s abysmal vaccination record against COVID- 19.

“Many of our line workers are receiving threats, are receiving hostile emails, harassing emails,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey said. “That’s something that has happened to me early on. Maybe it comes with the territory of someone in my position, but it shouldn’t be happening to those nurses who are working in the field to try to keep this state safe.”

According to Toomey, the harassment has become so threatening that one mobile vaccination effort in north Georgia had to be shut down entirely. “Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” Toomey’s spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, later explained.

Think about that: These people are not only refusing to get vaccinated themselves — and by doing so facilitating the spread of this deadly virus — they are using harassment and intimidation to try to prevent other people from getting life-saving vaccination. That’s outrageous. Yet later in that same press conference, when Gov. Brian Kemp had the chance to strongly condemn such behavior and promise that it would not be tolerated, that it would be investigated aggressively by law enforcement and prosecuted, he did not meet the moment, issuing only a mild call for “unity.”

A few months earlier, at the very spot in the Capitol where Toomey and Kemp stood, Gabe Sterling of the Georgia secretary of state’s office had been far more courageous. State and local elections workers were being threatened, harassed and intimidated by people who bought into false claims by Donald Trump that the election had been stolen from him, Sterling said, and it was up to leaders to intervene.

“You need to step up and say this … stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling said, addressing Trump directly. “Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right.”

As we know, Trump did not condemn the violence, and people did get killed.

We’re also seeing similar threats of violence directed at school boards around the country, both over mask mandates and the manufactured controversy over “critical race theory.” Again, the idea seems to be that what cannot be won at the ballot box or through debate can and should be won through physical intimidation, even violence. In Pennsylvania, to cite just one of many examples, a GOP candidate for county executive bragged at a state Capitol rally Sunday that he would confront the local school board over its mask mandate not with facts or data, but with “20 strong men.”

“I’m going to speak to the school board, and I’m going to give them an option: They can leave or they can be removed,” Steve Lynch said.

Not surprisingly, Lynch is a Trump supporter who attended the January 6 rally that ended in an assault on our nation’s Capitol. Instead of an act of shame, that attempted coup is increasingly being described by Republicans such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia as an heroic act of patriotism, with the attackers cast as champions of freedom.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn

In North Carolina over the weekend, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn told a campaign rally that if he knew where those arrested in the coup attempt were being imprisoned, he might try to “bust them out.” He also told the crowd that the 2020 elections had been stolen from Republicans, and “if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place — and it’s bloodshed.”

These are people who have been told for decades that they have an inherent right to rule this country, that if they are losing election after election it is only because those elections are rigged against them, and that they have not just the right but the obligation to turn to violence to correct that injustice.

You could argue that this is only the lunatic fringe of the GOP, but we have seen too many times how yesterday’s GOP lunatic fringe becomes tomorrow’s GOP mainstream. And the people who might be able to rein it all back in remain in ominous silence.

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

New report shows how close a Trump DOJ official’s letter came to fomenting a coup

Jeffrey Clark speaks at a 2020 press conference (Photo by Yuri Gripas-Pool/Getty Images)

On Dec. 28, a top official in the Trump Department of Justice circulated an extraordinary, potentially history-altering letter to his colleagues, writing that “I see no valid downsides” to issuing the letter and proposing that they “get it out as soon as possible.”

In that letter, reported this week by ABC News, Jeffrey Clark falsely claimed that there were such “significant concerns” about the legitimacy of the election in Georgia that Gov. Brian Kemp ought to call the state Legislature into special session to overturn the results and give Donald Trump the state’s 16 electoral votes.

That of course was a lie, a lie created to foment a coup.

“Given the urgency of this serious matter … the Department believes that a special session of the Georgia General Assembly is warranted and in the national interest,” the draft letter stated. It also argued that if Kemp balked at calling a special session, the legislature has “implied authority under the Constitution” to call itself into session and act.

At that point, and at several others in the week of Dec. 27, history teetered, putting the fate of our democratic republic in true jeopardy. It was preserved only because a handful of people in crucial positions made the right decisions.

Different people, willing to make different decisions, might have brought it all tumbling down.

For example, if Clark’s proposed letter had been made public, throwing the prestige of the DOJ behind claims of electoral fraud, it would have added enormous, perhaps overwhelming pressure on Kemp and Republican legislative leaders to call that special session, and to alter the election outcome. Because as we’ve learned, Georgia was considered key. The Trump campaign clearly believed that if they could bum-rush Georgia into throwing out the vote of the people, based purely on nonsensical “evidence,” other GOP-leaning states such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania would be pressured to do the same. If Georgia fell, Trump may have been well on his way to remaining in power despite being clearly, and fairly, defeated under the rules laid out in the Constitution.

As we know, that did not happen, but it is only now that we can appreciate how close it may have come. It did not happen only because Clark’s superiors in the DOJ – acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his top deputy — refused to allow release of that proposed letter, understanding that it had no basis whatsoever in fact or law.

We also now know that the day before Clark sent his inter-office memo, Trump himself had contacted top officials at DOJ to pressure them. According to notes of one conversation taken by Rosen’s deputy on Dec. 27, Trump told the acting attorney general that he didn’t have to try to overturn the whole election. “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the [Republican] Congressmen,” those notes quote Trump as saying.

As that week went on, Trump continued his focus on Georgia. Read more