By Rich McKay
BRUNSWICK, Georgia (Reuters) - Community leaders in Brunswick, Georgia, are preaching unity ahead of the trial of three white men accused of racially motivated murder in the shotgun death of a Black jogger, anxious it does not stir racial tensions or violent protests in their small coastal city.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday for a trial expected to draw hundreds of protesters outside the court building. The killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, sparked outrage across the country.
"After the trial is over and the bus-loads of demonstrators and media leave, we still have to live here. We still have to live with each other," said Allen Booker, who represents Brunswick as the only Black Glynn County commissioner.
Former police officer, Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, are charged with murder and other crimes. All have pleaded not guilty. They face life in prison if convicted.
Community leaders are proud that Brunswick, population 16,000, was once dubbed a "Model City" for the collaboration by local Black and white leaders to desegregate schools, grocery stores, bowling alleys and other facilities even as racial conflict gripped other southern cities in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the issue of race is likely to be at the forefront of the trial. Prosecutors have alleged that Arbery's death was racially motivated.
Arbery's case, together with the high-profile killings of George Floyd and other African-Americans in 2020 at the hands of law enforcement helped fuel months of nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
The McMichaels and Bryan say they suspected Arbery was a burglar and chased him in pickup trucks as he ran through a suburban neighborhood. Cellphone video shot by Bryan shows Arbery first tried to run away and then grappled with Travis McMichael, who was armed with a shotgun and shot him dead.
Defense attorneys will argue during the trial that McMichael fired in self defense, but civil rights activists and Arbery's family say it was another example of a targeted attack on a Black man.
"He was killed because he was a Black man in Brunswick," Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud's father, told Reuters as he stood in his son's tidy bedroom holding a portrait sent by a stranger to honor his son.
"There's a God who is watching and he will put this all right," said Arbery, 58, who plans to largely shut down his landscaping business so he can attend every day of the trial.
Arbery said he holds back "a feeling of rage," bottled in by the religious axiom "love thy neighbor."
With a phone that never seems to stop ringing, Arbery's aunt, Thea Brooks, 37, is organizing demonstrations to take place outside the courthouse during the trial.
"We want justice, but we don't want conflict," she said standing in her yard among a half-dozen signs that read "I run with Maud," and "Justice for Maud."
As some townsfolk fear outsiders could use the protests to stir trouble, Brooks says her message to everyone is "Keep calm."
KEEPING THE PEACE
Community leaders in Brunswick, a predominantly Black city that is one of the poorest in Georgia, are embracing a similar message of peace, conscious that the trial has the potential to rip apart a city that avoided the violent protests that accompanied the police killings of Black men last year.
A group of about 20 white and Black clergy will stand outside the courthouse every day to help keep the peace among demonstrators, said community organizer and businessman Cedric King.
"We know that this is a tragedy, but what we don't want is angry people in front of a camera for three minutes and the spotlight, and then they leave town," he said. "We're mobilizing to discourage that. We'll be there."
Among other preparations - the Glynn County school system has brought in consultants to coach teachers on how to talk about the trial with students, he said.
And a local group called Community 1st that was formed to work with the county on social issues has joined the Chamber of Commerce and business leaders to make a commercial for social media and local TV with the theme, "We are better together."
'WE'RE PEACEFUL, STICK TO OUR OWN'
Brunswick is about 55% Black, while the surrounding Glynn County is about 80% white. Economic segregation is acute. While the county is prosperous, Brunswick has a median income of just $18,000 a year.
Away from the red-brick Victorian-era buildings that define downtown, many neighborhoods are overrun with dilapidated houses that have sagging roofs and boarded-up windows.
Across the East River in the mostly white neighborhood of Satilla Shores, where Arbery was shot, residents are worried about how the trial will portray their community. Many were reluctant to talk to a Reuters reporter knocking on doors.
"The world is painting us as racist," said one resident, who declined to give his name. "Anything I say will be taken wrong, but we're peaceful, stick to our own."
Rabbi Rachael Bregman from the local Temple Beth Tefilloh synagogue said that when the trial gets underway, Brunswick will face more intense scrutiny and must rise to the challenge.
"We need to communicate to the world beyond Brunswick, we need to be positive. This community is working hard to stand together," she said.
She said this had been proved by the approach of residents who demonstrated during bond hearings for the defendants.
When one man came to a demonstration wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and seemed to be spoiling for trouble, she said, some in the crowd went up and told him, "We love you."
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Brunswick, Georgia; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)