Brunswick GA: For the black residents of Ahmaud Arbery’s hometown, trust in the justice system is on trial right alongside his alleged killers

At the cultural center, which features a mural of Arbery’s smiling face against a blue and yellow backdrop, Annie Polite takes a break, sitting down in her walker.

“The system has to change,” said the 87-year-old Black woman. “It’s not fair. There’s no justice in what goes on behind closed doors. We all deserve equal justice.”

For many people, the trial is not just about getting justice for Arbery, who has died more two months before the defendants were even arrested. It is also seen as a fundamental opportunity for the justice system to work the way it should – in a fair and equal way – for people of all races.
Across the United States, 61% of blacks have little or no trust in the criminal justice system, a Gallup poll this year found, compared with 41% of whites. Separately, 88% of Blacks feel the criminal justice system favors whites over Blacks, compared with 63% of whites who responded. to a 2020 CNN/SSRS poll.

In Arbery’s hometown, the trial of his death underscored mistrust.

“Many people have said – and I’ve said it too – that this is really testing our justice system in front of so many people,” said John Perry II, a pastor and former president. the president of the Brunswick chapter said. of the NAACP, who lost this month’s bid for the mayor of Brunswick.

“They’re looking intently at this case to see, ‘Can we really trust this justice system?’ … to answer the question in their minds and hearts, ‘Do we have a justice system on which we can depend?’

Quietly waiting for an answer

While the defendants’ actions and motives face scrutiny in court, some Black residents here have their own theories as to why Arbery was killed, often based on their experiences in the United States. Brunswick, where about 55% of residents are Black compared with 27% countywide.

Without a doubt, many white neighbors – including some who joined last week’s march – are deeply concerned about building bridges across the country. Racial divisions are laid bare by Arbery’s murder last year, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. But the relationship between Black and White residents in Glynn County is often no deeper than camaraderie, Perry said, calling it “a lack of intimacy.” “Coexistence and ‘real friendliness have no real intimate relationship’,” he said.

Aundra Fuller, a middle school special education teacher and executive director of the Brunswick African American Cultural Center, believes Arbery’s deadly shooting stemmed from a gap of mutual understanding. each other when the defendants encountered him along a suburban street, she said.

Aundra Fuller stands in front of a mural by Ahmaud Arbery outside the Brunswick African American Cultural Center.

The lack of “cultural awareness” has created a mindset in which defendants feel comfortable enough to “devalue a person because of their color,” she said.

Defense attorneys say McMichaels and Bryan are attempting to make an arrest of a lawful citizen against Arbery, who they suspect of theft. The men chase Arbery through the neighborhood, effectively trap him, prosecutors have said. After struggling for a while, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery at close range with a shotgun. Travis McMichael testify in court that he was acting in self-defense as he and Arbery wrestled with his shotgun.

Helen Ladson, a tour guide here who also unsuccessfully ran for mayor, put it this way: “My question has always been: Why would they feel comfortable shooting the man? this in broad daylight and thought they were going to run away. ? Why are they so relaxed?”

Long before Arbery’s death gained national attention, there were whispers in the community about the plot that Arbery was shot while trying to commit a burglary, residents said.

James Yancey, a black criminal defense attorney, was struck by how little detail about the case was included in a short article in the local newspaper, he recalled. Perry at the time had similar suspicions.

“Because when you say a young black man was shot trying to commit a burglary,” he said, the main questions that come to mind: “Is he armed? Is the threat to someone’s life causing them to try to protect themselves from the perpetrator of the theft? We haven’t heard of any of that.”
Timeline of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the case against 3 men accused of murder

“It’s not new,” said Dwight E. Jordan, a former black state pardoned officer. “To hear that a police officer or someone claiming to be a cop is going to turn around and shoot someone, specifically a black person, specifically a Black person because he was running while Black – that’s not new. to me.”

Perry knows his son already playing high school football with Arbery. He told his father, who was once in line who could make people laugh, who always encouraged the underclassmen.

“Immediately there is another level of passion,” he said. “Because you let them try to paint the story of who Ahmaud is. But then when you start to discover who he is to yourself, it fuels even more resentment that you’re going to try. trying to paint such a negative, negative character on someone who has sown so many seeds of good in our community.”

Some people soon compared the killing of Arbery by Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man who was shot dead in 2012 in Florida by a neighborhood member who was on guard. The shooter was later acquitted.

“There were people on Facebook who said, ‘Hey, you guys are talking about Trayvon Martin, but we have a case of Trayvon Martin right here, and no one talks about it,'” Ladson recalls.

Tension flared up – but unsurprisingly, somehow

It’s only after video of the shooting, filmed by Bryan, publicized in early May 2020 that the McMichaels and Bryan had been arrested.
Community tension flared up. Fuller calls it “the shock.” Perry “terrified”. And Yancey “didn’t expect” that the authorities didn’t release the footage earlier. Brunswick District Attorney at that time later accused violated her oath as a public servant and obstructed a police officer in connection with her alleged actions following Arbery’s death.
Then prosecutor Jackie Johnson directed two Glynn County police officers not to put Travis McMichael under house arrest shortly after the shooting, according to her indictment. She was also charged with violating her oath of office by “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, a former investigator in her office.

But as sad as the video is, it doesn’t surprise the Black residents here.

“Having been a Negro all my life, living in America all my life, I was pretty much expected to see bad things happen to Negroes,” Yancey said. “Watching that video, it just further affirms the value of the lives of exceptional black men in America.”

Asked what he thought when he watched the video, Jordan quote Childish Gambino: “This is America.”

Nurse Sonia Richardson, mother of three boys and grandchild Black, “couldn’t believe it.”

Sonia Richardson poses for a portrait outside Glynn County Courthouse.

“It’s like (the case) is just being played around with, like people don’t take it seriously. The law doesn’t take it seriously. Our criminal justice system doesn’t take it seriously,” she said.

The episode, he said, shook Perry’s faith in the justice system.

“There’s nothing we can do about McMichaels’ decision (to go after Arbery). What’s in a man’s heart and how he chooses to act, you can’t control that,” he said. “But if something like that happens, you certainly hope that when law enforcement shows up, they’ll make an arrest, that they’ll say this is very serious, and that as As a civil society, this is not how we operate. But that’s not what we have.”

Perry is grateful for the work of the state Attorney General Chris Carr and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, took over the case around the time the video was released. With their involvement, Perry is confident that some level of justice will prevail. But as a citizen, he wondered, “Should I have reached such a high level to get justice at the local level?”

“We trust them to be the ones doing justice,” he said. “And this horrible incident happened, and they turned a blind eye.”

Sadie Rhone, standing back left, watched marchers pass her home in Brunswick.

Lady Justice facing a moment of truth

As the jury deliberated, these Black residents were largely optimistic, hoping for a guilty verdict for all three defendants. And The jury’s racial makeup Fuller said: If a jury of one Black and 11 Whites found guilty of three white men in the murder of a Black man, conviction would not be admissible.

“The jury has a responsibility to follow the law,” the special teacher said. “And if they follow the law, it doesn’t matter what color they are. So it might be surprising that this all-white jury convicts them.”

But she, like everyone else, is bracing for disappointment. Acquittals in this case would be “another day at the beach” for Blacks in America, she said. “We have suffered injustice for too long … we do not expect justice.”

Perry believes in an “absolute truth”, which for him means that the defendants will be found guilty. But it also means seeing the justice system live up to its promise that “justice is blind – it doesn’t consider color.”

Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, took her sister's hand and left, while being led away to pray outside Glynn County Courthouse.

“To see the process of justice work like the promise of justice, that’s justice to me,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the person on trial here is the United States, the justice system,” said Jordan, the pardoned former officer. “Lady Justice has to show that she can peek from anywhere to see injustice, to see that her scales aren’t, and to try to balance it if she can – if she can – if She’s willing to do it.”

Returning to the march, Polite rose from her walker and stepped to her knees with protesters, clergy and members of the Arbery family to pray for that justice.

“This is a battle that has been going on all my life, and it continues,” she said. “As long as there is a challenge, I must be in the battle.”

CNN’s Demetrius Pipkin contributed to this report.


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