Arbery’s Killers Are Using the Logic of Slave Patrols to Defend Themselves

The testimony in the Georgia murder trial of three white men has ended. They targeted Ahmaud Abery because he is Black, and then killed him. The evidence presented at trial took us back to the days when slave patrols were common. Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. are on trial for killing Arbery on February 23, 2020, during a purported “citizen’s arrest.”

Racism has infected every aspect of this case — from the defendants’ racial profiling of Arbery, to the 10-week delay in filing charges, to the seating of a nearly all-white jury, to the defendants’ racist statements, to the defense’s attempt to ban Black pastors from attending the trial.

Since 1704 slave patrolsEvery white person was empowered to control the movements, activities, and decisions of every Black person. Citizen’s arrest lawsThese slaves date back to Europe in the 13th century and were later brought to North America by the British. In 1863, Georgia adopted a citizen’s arrest statute to replace the slave patrols with another avenue to vigilante “justice.” The law deputized any white Georgian to seize and detain any Black person on suspicion of being an escaped slave.

Georgia’s citizen’s arrest lawThe defendants are relying upon in this case stated that “a private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” Although they never mentioned it to the police, the defendants are now seeking to use the citizen’s arrest law to shield them from responsibility for racially profiling Arbery.

“The birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement is a result of a botched attempt at a citizen’s arrest,” according to Laurence RalphDirector of Princeton University’s Center on Transnational Policing. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch Captain, shot Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, and was acquitted in the second degree murder the year after.

The defense claims that Arbery was unarmed and jogging when they met. They suspected him of committing recent neighborhood burglaries. Arbery was pursued by the McMichaels, who were armed with a.357 Magnum gun and a pump-action shotgun. Bryan, their neighbor joined the chase in his truck.

In fact, only one burglary had been reported in the area — seven weeks before Arbery was killed — and the defendants had no evidence that Arbery had committed it.

Boxed in by Bryan’s truck, Arbery was shot by Travis three times at close range. Arbery “was trapped like a rat,” Gregory McMichael said. The shotgun blasts made a hole in Arbery’s chest, causing massive bleeding.

Bryan and McMichaels also claim that they acted in self defense. They appear to be the aggressors, which would negate Georgia law’s self-defense. Travis testified on cross-examination that Arbery was “just running” and didn’t verbally threaten him or draw a weapon before Travis shot him.

“Under color of law, Black people are targeted, surveilled, brutalized, maimed and killed by law enforcement officers with impunity,” the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States wrote in its recent report.

Like a racist white police officer, these three white men saw Arbery “as being Black first, therefore being intimidating, therefore being a problem, therefore being somebody in the wrong place, therefore being somebody that needed to be purged, destroyed, killed, murdered,” Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign said on Democracy Now!. “In essence, they saw Black, they saw a n*****. They saw someone to be destroyed.” As U.S. history demonstrates, Barber added, “the Blackness itself is the crime.”

Indeed, Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery and “numerous times” on social media and messaging services. Gregory McMichael also used a vulgar insultArbery after he died.

Bryan and the McMichaels were not arrested until the video of the shooting was made public on May 5, 2020, which caused national outrage.

The jury is made up of 11 white people and one Black person, despite the fact that more than one-quarter are Black in Glyn County. Although Judge Timothy R. Walmsley said the defense challenges of Black people in the jury pool during jury selection had the appearance of “intentional discrimination,” he nevertheless seated the almost exclusively white jury.

Kevin Gough, defense lawyer, said that the Rev. Al Sharpton’s presence in the courtroom was “intimidating” the jurors, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here.” Gough mused about what would happen “if a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back.” Judge Walmsley called Gough’s comments “reprehensible” and denied the defense motion for a mistrial.

Barber, another civil right leader, was present at the trial. said of the defense motion, “It says something that has been long part of the racist mind-set, that Blackness equals intimidation.” The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was also present at the trial. Calling the defense objection to his presence a “diversion,” Jackson drew a parallel between the Arbery case and the 1955 case of 14-year-old Emmett TillMississippi white men killed Ahmaud, who was his victim. Arbery’s family called the killing of Ahmaud a “modern-day lynching.”

Each of the three defendants is facing nine charges in Georgia state courts, including murder and assault. They could be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole if they are convicted. The jury could begin deliberations in November 22.

Late April 2021 saw the indictment of Travis McMichael (Greg McMichael), and William Bryan Jr. by a federal grand jury for hate crimes, kidnapping and other charges. The Department of Justice said the three men had “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.” The federal trial is scheduled to begin in February 2022.