Update 11:55 am: The jury wasted little time in finding all three defendants in the vigilante shooting of Ahmaud Arbery guilty of murder. The man who pulled the trigger, Travis McMichael, was guilty on all nine counts. Greg McMichael was found guilty on eight counts and William Roddy Bryan Jr. guilty on six. They all face sentences of up to life in prison.

It’s easy — too easy, in fact — to look at the trial in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, as a do-over for the Kyle Rittenhouse case, as a second chance for a jury to reach a just verdict.

And yet, it’s almost impossible not to.

It’s a chance for a different jury to determine guilt or innocence in, yes, a very different case with a very different set of circumstances, but it is yet another case that demands we look closely, once again, at what the Black Lives Matter argument is really all about.

It’s another case of white civilians taking up arms in a time and place where it was entirely inappropriate. And in each case, people died. 

Mike Littwin

In Rittenhouse’s case, the prosecutors would say he was a vigilante, who had come, uninvited, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, to protect property during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. When he was found not guilty, he was all too predictably hailed by some as a hero. Three Republican congressmen would go so far as to say they hoped to hire Rittenhouse as an intern. And one, Paul Gosar — who had just been censured by the House for tweeting a photoshopped animé video showing him killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — joked that he would “arm wrestle” for the right. 

But the Arbery case is really quite different. If the trial of Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery were a do-over, it would be more for George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin.

If it were a do-over, it would be for the trial in the lynching of Emmett Till. If it were a do-over, it would be for thousands of similar stories over hundreds of years.

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If you’ve followed the case at all, you know the bare bones of it. It’s a case of a so-called citizen’s arrest — using a Georgia law that dated back to Civil War times, in a law that the state has since seen fit to change — of someone who looks guilty because he was, as Greg McMichael told the 911 operator when asked to describe the emergency, a “Black male” running through the neighborhood.

Three white men — two of them armed — got into pickup trucks and chased Arbery because they thought he might have been involved in a burglary. It turns out he was not. He was running because he was running. And then he was running because he was being chased.

He was killed because he was Black while jogging. He was killed because he refused to stop when white strangers, offering no explanation, demanded he stop. He was killed because someone had seen a video of Arbery stopping a few times while on runs to look at a house that was under construction. He was killed because there had been a few burglaries in the neighborhood. He was killed soon after Greg McMichael, the elder McMichael and a former cop, told Arbery to “stop or I’ll blow your f—-ing head off.” Those were McMichael’s own words when talking to police after the killing.

When they had him cornered, Travis McMichael, the younger, aimed a shotgun at Arbery and killed him. Like Rittenhouse, he claimed self-defense, saying Arbery might have grabbed his gun. But the Rittenhouse case for self-defense was, we were told by legal experts, far stronger. Rittenhouse probably was scared for his life. He was being chased. In my view, Rittenhouse didn’t have the right to shoot people — particularly those who were chasing him once they thought he was an active shooter — but that’s what the jury decided.

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery was different. The question that some ask — a question that’s both unavoidable and unknowable — is whether Rittenhouse, who shot three white demonstrators, killing two, would have been convicted if he had been Black.

Everything about the Arbery case is too familiar to anyone who — these days — is still allowed to be taught about racial injustice.

It took two months, several district attorneys, and a leaked 36-second video of the fatal shooting, for the McMichaels and eventually Bryan to finally be arrested — each charged with nine counts, including felony murder, although only Travis McMichael fired the gun.

As we know too well, the McMichaels’ explanation for self-defense was accepted by the original investigators. And, if not for the leaked video, that might have been that — the assumption that the Black guy had to be guilty of something to end up with a shotgun blast through his body. It was so egregious that one district attorney would actually be indicted for his inaction while the chastened Georgia legislature would pass a hate-crime law.

And yet, when the jury was chosen, it would be composed of 11 white people and one Black person, in a Georgia county that is approximately one-quarter Black. The defense attorney struck 12 potential jurors, 11 of whom were Black. The prosecution claimed bias. The judge, while conceding it didn’t look good, disagreed.

One defense attorney called for a mistrial because “Black pastors” had come to the courthouse to sit with Arbery’s mother during the trial, presumably thinking that Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton would intimidate all those white jurors.

In a case where the prosecutor decided not to make the case about racial profiling while the defense attorneys talked of an “intruder” in the neighborhood, one of the defense attorneys, Laura Hogue, put all niceties aside, telling the jurors in her closing, “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

There were gasps from the courtroom. There were condemnations from all corners outside the courtroom. But presumably Hogue thought at least some of the jurors would be receptive to this dirty-toenails argument — an argument, apparently, for saying that a citizen’s arrest was justified, even when there was no crime. And an argument that a self-defense plea was justified, even though Arbery, unarmed, had been chased through the neighborhood for five minutes. 

And that’s probably why lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, as she was winding down her closing argument, would tell the jurors, “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the thing. This is not about whether these three men are good people or bad people. That’s not what this is about. It’s about responsibility. It’s about holding people accountable and responsible for their actions.”

And so it was left, after the judge gave his final instructions, for the jurors to decide. As for the rest of us, we can only wait, once again, to see what justice looks like.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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