One consequence of living in our current era of absurdities is that you are cured of a belief in foregone conclusions. Anything can happen, and the most surreal possibility is no more distant than the most mundane. In the moments before his death, in February of 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was pursued by three white men in two pickup trucks as he jogged through the leafy, bucolic streets of a suburban subdivision called Satilla Shores, near Brunswick, Georgia. One of those men, Travis McMichael, acting on a belief that Arbery, who was twenty-five, looked suspicious, confronted him with a shotgun and fired the weapon three times. Arbery was unarmed, but the gunman sought to declare that he had acted in self-defense. The fact that a jury, on Wednesday, convicted all three men—McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan—for their actions in this murderous safari is less significant than the fact that this outcome was never a certainty. It might not have even been a probability.
This skepticism is anchored in both the far reaches of American history—more than four hundred Black people were lynched in Georgia between 1882 and 1930—and the most current of events. Perspectives on potential outcomes in this case were freighted with lingering anger and disillusionment stemming from a verdict last week, in a case tried a thousand miles away. On November 19th, a Wisconsin jury acquitted the eighteen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three men, two of them fatally, during protests in Kenosha following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, in August of 2020. Rittenhouse successfully claimed self-defense despite having ended the lives of two unarmed men with an AR-15-style rifle. The theme animating both the Rittenhouse and Arbery cases was a question of what exactly constitutes self-defense. Over the past several decades, the enactment of reactionary, N.R.A.-backed gun legislation has elevated the old football dictum of “the best defense is a good offense” to the level of actual public policy.
It has been nearly a decade since the unarmed Trayvon Martin died at the hands of the armed vigilante George Zimmerman, and eight years since a Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges in Martin’s death. For these reasons, it was not entirely shocking when George Barnhill, the local prosecutor in Brunswick, Georgia, initially suggested that there were no crimes the McMichaels and Bryan could be charged with. Their pursuit of Arbery, Barnhill reasoned, was justified by the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s-arrest statute (which was repealed last May), and killing him was legal because Travis McMichael had stated that he had feared for his life in the seconds before he fired the fatal rounds. Barnhill’s position became inscrutable when it was revealed that Bryan told investigators that one of the men used a racial epithet as Arbery lay dying—a point that will likely become central when the men are tried on federal hate-crime charges.
That charges were ultimately brought against the men is a direct result of the pressure the Arbery family and activists had placed on the local authorities, which resulted in two prosecutors recusing themselves from the case owing to ties to the McMichaels, the elder of whom is a former police officer. Ultimately, a Department of Justice review of the case and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation examination supported the filing of felony homicide and related charges. As with the death of George Floyd, video of Ahmaud Arbery’s final moments proved central to achieving a legal outcome that otherwise might not have been possible. The graphic video, which shows Arbery running through Satilla Shores as the men’s vehicles box him in, and the horrific, indelible scene of him falling to the ground, mortally wounded, ricocheted around the Internet in May of last year. Two days after the footage became public, charges were filed against the McMichaels. Bryan’s arrest soon followed. And, as with the death of George Floyd, the case’s outcome cannot necessarily be taken as evidence that anything fundamental has changed about our skewed judicial system. The point is not whether justice was achieved in this case. It’s the overwhelming, uncommon circumstances under which it occurred, and the scale of the effort that was required to bring it.