Arbery’s Killers & the Logic of Slave Patrols

All three suspects were found guilty on Wednesday. It is clear that racism infected every aspect of the case, writes Marjorie Cohn.

Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia. (Michael Rivera, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

[Update: All three suspects have been found guilty of murder]

By Marjorie Cohn

The testimony has concluded in the Georgia murder trial of the three white men who targeted Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black and then killed him. Evidence presented at trial transported us back to the days of the infamous slave patrols. Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. are on trial for killing Arbery on Feb. 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.

Beginning in 1704, slave patrols empowered every white person to control the movements and activities of every Black person. Citizen’s arrest laws date to 13th century Europe and were later brought to the British North American colonies. 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.

Depiction of slave patrol. (AEsquibel23, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that the defendants are relying on 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 Ralph, director of the Center on Transnational Policing at Princeton University. In 2012, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and was acquitted of second-degree murder the following year.

In the present case, the defense is claiming that the three men suspected Arbery, who was unarmed and jogging, of committing recent burglaries in the neighborhood. The McMichaels, armed with a .357 Magnum handgun and a pump-action shotgun, began chasing Arbery, and their neighbor Bryan joined the pursuit 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.

The McMichaels and Bryan are also claiming that they acted in self-defense. But they appear to have been the aggressors, which would negate their self-defense under Georgia law. 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.

Ahmaud Arbery memorial in Debs Regional Park, Los Angeles. (Steve Devol, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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 insult when referring to Arbery after his death.

Neither the McMichaels nor Bryan were arrested until a video of the shooting became public on May 5, 2020, causing national outrage.

The jury is composed of 11 white people and only one Black person, even though more than one-quarter of the residents of Glynn County are Black. 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.

Defense attorney Kevin Gough 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 rights leader who attended 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 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 Till, who was murdered by white men in Mississippi. Arbery’s family called the killing of Ahmaud a “modern-day lynching.”

The three defendants are each facing nine charges in Georgia state court, including murder and aggravated assault. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. The defense gave closing arguments Monday. 

In late April 2021, a federal grand jury indicted Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan Jr. for hate crimes and kidnapping 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.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of the bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her books include Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.

This article is from Truthout and reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

12 comments for “Arbery’s Killers & the Logic of Slave Patrols

  1. observator
    November 26, 2021 at 09:58

    It’s one of the great ironies of the south’s “peculiar institution” that the slave catching patrollers of antebellum days seamlessly morphed into the Confederate Home Guard during the insurgency. These men formed what was the closest thing (so far) to a genuine American Gestapo. As the “Spirit of ‘61” faded and Richmond became ever more tyrannical, the dread “patty rollers” of slave lore turned their brutal attentions to whites. They ruthlessly hunted down and murdered dissidents, routinely tortured family members to reveal the whereabouts of the many army deserters, commandeered desperately needed food stocks from poor farmers, “paying” for them in worthless Confederate scrip, and eventually engaged in battles with the many local counterinsurgencies that sprang up almost everywhere in the upland regions of the south. Their appetites for blood sharpened by wartime atrocities, these groups easily formed the core of the KKK after the insurrection was suppressed. President Grant’s 1871 “Force Acts” temporarily ended the reign of terror, at least for six years, until a thoroughly corrupt GOP covenanted with their former adversaries to abandon the freedmen and their allies in order to hang on to the White House, even though their candidate lost the 1876 election.

  2. peon d. rich
    November 25, 2021 at 12:00

    If we are to have jails and not something that seeks justice and humanity radically in its social structures, then these guys belong in it. In cells next to Cheney, Bush, Clinton, Obama, Biden, Pompeo, Bolton, Blinken, and all those Dems and Repubs who signed on to sanctions against Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, etc. Oh yeah, and any oligarch who tries to resist just distribution.

    • renate
      November 26, 2021 at 12:05

      Well said, not to forget Bush Sr.

  3. maxim gorki
    November 25, 2021 at 09:46

    When are the murder trials of Clinton, Bush, Obama , Trump and Biden going to begin?

  4. robert e williamson jr
    November 24, 2021 at 18:53

    Two local prosecutors recused themselves, another faces possible charges, in addition the prosecutor who tried the case was not from the local jurisdiction nor the judge. The jury I will remind everyone did their job, as well as the prosecutor and judge who had to be brought in to facilitate function of the court.

    It seems entirely possible the defense team never had a chance. I mean with all those ministers present and all.
    and in the future One might be more careful about agreeing to film a cold blooded murder.

    As for justice being served, IMHO it was. It sure sounds as if the local citizens were up to the task.

    Now was that I heard about Kyle Rittenhouse having to travel out of the state of Illinois to Wisconsin to pick up the AR he used? Kyle got much much more that he bargained for, some of which helped pay for his defense. But I will say this as the law reads he was innocent, the same Gaige Grosskreutz would have been had he shot Kyle when he pointed his gun at him.

    Th guy who wins the gun fight must use his gun. Gaige needs to get rid of his. This is the reality of having and carrying deadly weapons like talking about it or not!

    Seems there are still plenty of turkeys to go around!

    Thanks CN

  5. Peter and Val SCHWEINSBERG
    November 24, 2021 at 17:38

    America needs a Revival, the imaginary Jesus we see preached needs to be driven out by the real Jesus Christ coming back and into the hearts and minds of all Americans.

    When asked by authorities, Jesus recounted two great commandments and they need to be front and centre in this issue.
    They are:
    1. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength.
    2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
    When asked by His questioner “Who is my neighbor?” , Jesus went on and gave him an example Lk 10:29 .

    Then when we turn to Jn 3:16, we read these words:
    “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
    In these words and by the word “world”, He meant every human being ever created, whatever their colour or class.
    All equal in the sight of God.

    • maxim gorki
      November 25, 2021 at 09:49

      God expresses His love for the world by having His son crucified?

  6. Aaron
    November 24, 2021 at 05:30

    While it seems clear that the self-defense contention is false, I suppose that in Georgia when it’s “three white men” vs. “one black man” there will probably be enough rednecks in the jury to acquit.

  7. James Simpson
    November 24, 2021 at 03:19

    “If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.” That sentence should not be available to any judge. It is effectively a living death sentence and utterly dismisses opportunities for rehabilitation. Any punishment-based criminal justice process itself highly motivates suspects to deny guilt at every opportunity because even a slim chance of acquittal is better than none. I’m disappointed that in Left media’s coverage of this trial and the now-ended Rittenhouse trial, there was no mention made of restorative or transformative justice practices, despite their appropriateness. It seems that the Left is still relying on the tools of the carceral capitalist state which will generally result in failure and in those tools being used against the Left. When will we learn that the police and the entire criminal justice apparatus are designed against the people, not for us?

    • CityHall Fred
      November 24, 2021 at 10:16

      Is restorative justice possible if the defendant is found not guilty and has himself admitted no guilt?

      • James Simpson
        November 25, 2021 at 03:02

        Restorative practices don’t have to involve criminal justice processes. There are many versions of it – some of which, as here in the UK, are rendered close to worthless by their adoption by the state as merely another means to punish. The website transformharm dot org is a central repository of restorative and transformative justice practices.

    • rosemerry
      November 24, 2021 at 14:10

      Surely the main issue if their guilt. Later any changes can be made to the conditions once they are convicted.

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