Brunswick verdict elicits surprise, joy but also lingering concerns about racial justice

By Ernie Suggs, Shelia Poole | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
| November 24, 2021

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Leaders and pastors exit Brunswick Courthouse with Ahmaud Arbery family after guilty verdicts for his murderers.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, third from the left, holds hands with Ahmaud Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones, right, and Marcus Arbery, left, as they react outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Hannah Joy Gebresilassie was playing with her twin 2-year-old nephews at a metro Atlanta park when she heard the news.

Watching them laugh and take turns going down the slide, the community activist was glad that they were oblivious to what was happening a little more than four hours away in a packed Glynn County courtroom.

They were unaware that Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, had been shot and killed as he jogged through a Brunswick area neighborhood last year. Unaware that the three white men charged in the February 2020 shooting death all had just been convicted.

As she watched them, two young Black boys, she said the moment was bittersweet.

“This is literally showing us that we are not going to tolerate an innocent Black man’s life being stolen by racist individuals trying to play God,” Gebresilassie said about the verdict. “Even though all three of those men got justice, it is still hard to process. Because justice would have been Ahmaud Arbery, still being here as a Black man going through society. There is a lot more work to do in this nation, but this is one step in the right direction.”

 

05/11/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Activist and organizer Hannah Joy Gebresilassie poses for a portrait outside of the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Gebresilassie is the founder of the Promote Positivity Movement and executive director and cofounder of Protect the Vote GA. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

On Wednesday, in what might have been one of the most polarizing cases in Georgia in decades, a jury of 11 whites and one Black man, convicted Travis McMichael of malice murder for the shooting death of Arbery in February 2020. McMichael was also convicted of felony murder, along with his father Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryant.

Across Georgia, news of the verdict hit quick, as religious, political and civil rights leaders weighed in on what some of them called surprising while others saw the jury’s decision as a sign of progress and change.

“The pain and loss resulting from Ahmaud Arbery’s murder can never be rectified, but this is a significant moment of accountability and justice,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “The men who murdered Mr. Arbery were tried and found guilty of the crime, sending a resounding message across Georgia and the United States that racial violence — especially that committed under the false guise of vigilantism — is unacceptable. Mr. Arbery did not die in vain.”

The 25-year-old Arbery’s death fueled numerous protests in Brunswick and elsewhere and became international news. NBA star LeBron James and filmmaker Ava DuVernay expressed outrage about the case. When lawyers for the Arbery family had to make a probable cause hearing, rapper and businessman Jay-Z chartered a jet to get them to Georgia.

 

Portrait of Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery is shown in an undated family photo.

Following last week’s acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in a similarly polarizing case in Wisconsin, this case was followed closely. After the verdict, President Biden, Vice President Harris and a host of others, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms chimed in with opinions.

“Georgia is better off than Wisconsin. And this was so flagrant,” said former Atlanta Mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young, who said he was not surprised by the guilty verdict. “Georgia was particularly concerned about this case. There has to be some respect for justice. And if you can do a killing on television and get away with it, it threatens the very stability of our country.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church said while the verdict upheld a sense of accountability, true justice was still not served.

“True justice looks like a young Black man not having to worry about being harmed—or killed—while on a jog, while sleeping in his bed, while living what should be a very long life,” Warnock said. “Ahmaud should be with us today. I am grateful to the jury for their service and for a verdict that says Ahmaud Arbery’s life mattered.”

Josh Clemons, co-director of Atlanta’s OneRace Movement, a faith-based reconciliation initiative, echoed the feeling of many people around the nation.

Surprise.

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)

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)

Surprise that three white men would be found guilty of murdering a Black man in the South. ”To be honest, I’ve been bracing for them to clear them of all charges,” said Clemons, citing last week’s acquittal of Rittenhouse in the killing of two men and the wounding of a third last year during tumultuous protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Clemons said the Arbery case was a heavy weight on his shoulders that people would even have to question whether or not a jury would vote to convict three men who chased down and shot to death an unarmed Black man running through a neighborhood with no proof he did anything wrong.

“We rejoice in the fact that justice has been served and that the Arbery family is getting the justice they deserve, but their son should still be with us today,” Clemons said.

 

Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, noted that the case led to the repeal of Georgia’s Citizen’s Arrest law.

“With their verdict, the jury rejected the vestige of Jim Crow and the assertion of white supremacy that was at the center of this case,” she said. “This is a vitally important step, brought about because of the determination of Ahmaud Arbery’s family and his community and the public protests.”

Andrea Young, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

Andrea Young, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

“Black Georgians must have a voice in our state and local governments that fully reflects their share of the population,” Young continued. “And we must protect the right to protest without which these men would never have even been arrested.”

James Woodall, the former state president of the Georgia NAACP and an Atlanta minister, said his first thoughts were for the family of Arbery, who had a number of obstacles thrown in their way in seeking justice for their son.

“I don’t find joy in this moment,” he said. “I’m very, very relieved but I’m not overjoyed because Ahmaud is still dead. He’s still dead and a legal system that was supposed to uphold the standards of due process and impartiality in analyzing whether or not a crime was committed refused to do so. Right now although there was a conviction, the system has shown its flaws and we have to address that otherwise there will be more Ahmaud’s that we will mourn.”

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, the senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and a native of Brunswick, was ecstatic at the verdict.

He’s fielded calls from high school friends in Brunswick and around the nation.

McDonald, along with other clergy members, have met with the family and he helped pull together a gathering of hundreds of pastors last week outside the Glynn County courthouse. He said the efforts of the faith community and daily prayers paid off.

“This one has special meaning,” he said. “I’m very, very happy, particularly in light of the other verdict we got in the Rittenhouse case. We’re proud of our city right now and grateful for the jury and, especially, grateful for that judge. I think he was fair from the start.”

Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and daughter of the civil rights leaders the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, tweeted that “the relief is because we weren’t sure that a jury in this nation would find White men who clearly lynched a Black man in board daylight guilty. So the trauma is real. We need continued justice, which my father defined as “love correcting everything that stands against love.”

In Brunswick, Rabbi Rachael Bregman, co-founder of Glynn Clergy for equity, a nonprofit formed after the death of Arbery to address the disparity of treatment of people, and to build relationships across all sectors of race, gender and religion, said the importance of the verdict cannot be overstated.

It was important for the nation and for the local community that the McMichaels and Bryan were held accountable for their actions.

Still, “as a community leader, my heart breaks” for the Arbery family and “the families of those who are now facing the realities of their loved ones and the consequences of this verdict. I don’t want it to get lost that while this is a moment of victory in arc of the fight for equity and justice in the lives of these people, there are real losses in all of these families.”

The verdict also has many in Glynn County thinking about what’s next.

The Rev. Abra Reed Lattany, senior pastor of Harper’s Chapel UMC in Brunswick said the trial and the verdict means “a resetting of our transformative work as a community. As a pastor and person of faith, I’m in the business of reconciliation and hope and bringing people together. This incident helped galvanize us to go forward and decide what that looks like. For an all-white jury and one person of color to render this verdict is particularly transformative and it speaks volumes about who we are and where do we go from here.”