Say what you want about protests and black pastors, but there’s no guarantee Ahmaud Arbery would have gotten justice without them.
The lawyers for Arbery’s killers were probably right when they said that the presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton and other African-American ministers could influence the jury that ultimately convicted three white men of murdering Arbery after they spotted the black man jogging through their Brunswick, Georgia neighborhood.
So what? If a little face time with the clergy was enough to keep the nearly all-white jury from avoiding historically racist tendencies and actually focus on the evidence, then that was a good thing.
Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 65, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted last week of hunting down Arbery in 2020 because they suspected the jogger of committing burglaries in the area.
The father and son grabbed a shotgun, jumped in a pickup truck and gave chase. Bryan followed behind and caught the chaos on camera, taking cellphone video of the lynching during which Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times.
The tense verdict came a week after a Wisconsin jury acquitted white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse in the vigilante shooting deaths of two white men at a Black Lives Matter protest. Rittenhouse, who said he traveled from his home in Antioch, Ill. ,to Kenosha, Wis. to protect the area from rioters and looters, also wounded another man.
The controversial Wisconsin verdict sparked protests across the country, including New York City among people who believed the Rittenhouse verdict gave armed vigilantes a license to kill.
Tensions were already high in the Georgia courtroom, where defense attorney Kevin Gough objected to Sharpton and other ministers sitting with Arbery’s family.
“We don’t want any more black pastors coming in here or other Jesse Jackson, whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case,” Gough said. Jackson hadn’t even been in the courtroom when Judge Timothy Walmsley rejected Gough’s “reprehensible” request. Jackson showed up days later.
“As the judge said, it was my constitutional right to be there,” Jackson told reporters outside the courtroom after his visit. “It’s my moral obligation to be there.”
Likewise, it is our constitutional right to demonstrate, our moral obligation to peacefully protest, not to sway juries and prosecutors with the threat of riots and violence, but to pressure them into objectively looking at evidence and facts.
Black pastors weren’t the only people the defense tried to keep out of the courtroom. They didn’t want black jurors either. How can ministers like Sharpton and Jackson be accused of trying to influence the jury after defense attorneys struck eight black potential jurors because of their race? Walmsley, the judge, called it “intentional discrimination,” but said Georgia law did not allow him to intervene.
In Glynn County, where Arbery was killed and the trial was held, black people account for nearly 27% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional for attorneys to strike potential jurors solely based on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Still, only one black person sat on that jury.
That helped set the stage for a trial that Sharpton said featured some of the “most racist statements in a court of law that I’ve heard.”
Despite the convictions, Sharpton said “there is still work to do.”
“I think it was a tremendous testimony to the movement of people down through the years that kept going, white and black, saying this is not the kind of country we want,” Sharpton told MSNBC. “Those jurors looked past race and looked at the facts, and that’s all we’ve asked America to do.”