The February 2020 assassination of Ahmaud Arbery at first seemed like a horrific flashback to an earlier era in which white people killed black people to display in places they neither expected nor welcomed. was done, and then instead of being arrested and prosecuted by the local police, they were codified. This brought to mind a distant memory of Emmett Till and more recently Trayvon Martin.
It seemed a bit more modern when, finally, more than two months later, amid mounting public outcry and state pressure, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddy” Bryan Jr. were arrested for murder. Wednesday’s guilty verdict brought the matter to a present day, in which people who engage in such coercive aggression are held accountable, although they are not always.
Arbery was out for a jog when three men in two trucks followed him, apparently because they heard rumors of thefts and ransacks in the neighborhood. The attackers, one of whom was a former police officer, claimed responsibility for pursuing a man they believed to be a suspect. They were taking their place in a long and gruesome tradition of lynchings, vigilantes and so-called civilian policing.
It would be tempting to view convictions, like last week’s acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, as a “win” or “loss” for one side or the other in the country’s smoldering debate over race, politics and justice. That’s a deceptive lens. No jury can bear the weight of such a fight.
If they do their job properly, jurors understand the facts presented and make decisions based on the law of the jurisdiction where they serve. The jurors in the Arbery case appear to have done so. Whether the laws need to be changed, and if so, how, are different questions.
But in this verdict racial and criminal justice triumph. Georgia, for its part, updated its civilian arrest laws last year in response to the Arbery murder. It is also a win-win for professional law enforcement, who believe that police perform a task that should not be assigned to someone who has suspicions or animosity about another person.
This is a counterpoint to the nation’s national debate over the use of the special powers we grant to them by policing and professional law enforcement. Whether those powers should be curtailed remains a matter of discussion, but the verdict argues against extending it to at least everyone, including former cops like Gregory McMichael.
But for now, at least, justice is finally out for Arbery.