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It was a 21st-century version of a Jim Crow-era lynching. Ahmaud Arbery was stalked, hunted down and executed in the street by three white men on Feb. 23, 2020. The men claimed they suspected Arbery of being a thief or burglar, but he had committed no crime and was unarmed. He was a Black man who went running in the predominantly white residential neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia.
The three white men who chased Arbery through the streets of Brunswick were Travis McMichael — who shot and killed Arbery — his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan. They attempted to claim self-defense, saying they were carrying out a citizen's arrest of a criminal suspect. The McMichaels chased Arbery in a pickup truck. They cornered him. Travis McMichael would then shoot Ahmaud Arbery three times.
This was a dubious defense on strictly legal grounds, and considerably undercut by the evidence. In a preliminary hearing, investigators said that Travis McMichael used a racial slur to describe Arbery after the fatal shooting. While evidence of the McMichaels' racist views played no role in the criminal trial, it may well become important in their sentencing, when prosecutors may seek to prove the murder was a racial hate crime.
In closing arguments, Greg McMichael's defense attorney, Laura Hogue, sought to rob Ahmaud Arbery — who had already lost his life — of his human dignity. Summoning up bestial white supremacist images of Black men, she told the jury, "Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails." Exactly how the condition of Arbery's feet related to his killing she did not explain. Facing a predominantly white jury in exurban Georgia, perhaps she felt she didn't have to.
In any case, the defense strategy did not work. On Wednesday, November 24, the jury of 11 white people and one Black person convicted Bryan and the McMichaels on various charges, including murder. All three men face mandatory life sentences, potentially without parole.
Ahmaud Arbery's family has some closure. But the conviction of his killers should not be mistaken for justice. Real justice would consist of Arbery, and other Black people, not facing the threat of random lethal violence for being in the "wrong" place. Many Americans are responding to the Arbery verdict with some version of "Well, at least the system worked this time." Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said much the same thing after the verdict, telling the public and the media, "The jury system works in this country. And when you present the truth to people and they see it, they will do the right thing."
Such language reveals an unintended truth. As shown by its routine treatment of Black and brown people, the "system" is broken beyond repair.
What was required for America's criminal justice system to "work this time"?
There was video footage of the McMichaels and Bryan hunting down Ahmaud Arbery as though they were reenacting scenes from a horror movie. That footage was witnessed millions of times on social media. There were weeks of protests demanding a proper investigation of Arbery's murder. To her immense credit, prosecutor Dunikoski conducted a masterclass, demolishing the three men's claims of self-defense. Her tactics and strategy will likely be taught in law schools.
For the most part, the facts of the case were not in dispute, only the intentions and motivations of the defendants. Still, it must be seen as extreme good fortune that no member of the nearly all-white jury sided with Bryan and the McMichaels to any significant degree. (Travis McMichael was convicted on all nine counts, Greg McMichael on eight of nine and Bryan on six of nine. All three were convicted of felony murder, by far the most serious charge.)
And yet, even with all of these factors, conviction was by no means guaranteed, which is why Black America awaited the outcome with great anxiety.
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In all, the saga of Ahmaud Arbery's murder and the resulting trial is another reminder of how race is lived in America (and throughout the West) with different realities and divergent experiences across the color line. For many white Americans, the Arbery murder is to be condemned based on abstract norms of human decency and right and wrong. Taking the long view of American history, it is also a recent development. If many white people now perceive racist violence against Black people as subject to criminal punishment, that is no small amount of progress.
That progress, of course is not shared across divides of party and ideology. Public opinion and other research have consistently shown that Republicans and other white conservatives are more likely to feel racial resentment, if not outright racism, against Black people and other nonwhites than are white Democrats.
That racial animus manifests in many ways, most obviously in how white conservatives support police brutality (explicitly or otherwise), tend to believe that police treat Black and white people the same way, and in general embrace inherently racist "law and order" policies. Social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that those policies serve as a proxy for racial resentment and hostility, particularly toward Black people.
We also should not ignore that these attitudes exist in a current political and social context where white Republicans and other "conservatives" — especially Donald Trump's supporters — have convinced themselves, in the face of all evidence, that white people are the real "victims" of racism in America.
The very idea of a random white man being hunted down and killed by a group of Black or brown people — be they police or self-appointed neighborhood watchmen or "concerned citizens" — who accuse him of an imaginary crime and act out a racist action-movie script is so far-fetched as to be utterly nonsensical.
By comparison, for Black Americans, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery is an intimate, personal experience as well as a traumatic manifestation of cultural memory, an example of the real-life horror stories that are passed down across the generations as a type of survival training.
The oft-discussed "talk" that Black parents and other caregivers must give Black children about how to survive encounters with the police (or other white people who hold literal power of life and death) is often a history lesson as much as it is practical advice. There is the nightmarish but unfortunately real vision of white lynching parties in pickup trucks and muscle cars, chasing down Black folks while flying their Confederate flags (or, these days, Trump flags), while brandishing guns, howling and screaming racist obscenities.
As graphic novelist and author Nate Powell explains in his comics essay "About Face", it is no coincidence that the Republican fascists and their foot soldiers use modified pickup trucks as literal weapons against their "enemies" and as symbols of their "real American" values and fake patriotism.
One common thread of this experience, be it the extrajudicial racial violence directed against Ahmaud Arbery or more quotidian encounters with day-to-day racism, is an attack on Black people's inherent human worth.
Are we still deemed to be three-fifths of a person? Are we "respectable" enough? Do we hide our Black genius and other gifts as to not make white folks uncomfortable? What happens when a white person (or others who identify with Whiteness) decide that they have the "right" to stop or harass a Black person? Or where such a person wants, as appears to be the case in the Arbery tragedy, to live out their fantasies of being a slave-catcher in 21st-century America?
Legal scholar Marjorie Cohn writes on this at Consortium News:
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.
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….
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."
Cohn also signals here to an exclusive type of imagined "white freedom": the freedom to humiliate Black people (or members of other marginalized groups) without consequences.
We see this in America's public discourse when, after a Black person is unjustly killed by the police or a white vigilante, one common deflection is to claim that this person would be alive if he hadn't tried to run away. There is also the question, "Why didn't he (or she) just follow directions and cooperate?"
Such prevarications offer an updated version of Chief Justice Roger Taney's infamous statement in the Dred Scott case that Black people have no rights that the white man is bound to respect. When black people say no or otherwise exercise their human rights and civil rights by resisting humiliation and domination, the consequence can be a literal death sentence, as it was for Ahmaud Aubery.
In the new book "Chasing Me to My Grave," artist Winfred Rembert shares a memory about growing up in rural Georgia during the 1950s and the Jim Crow terror regime:
There was a laughing barrel on the town green. White folks call you — "Come here, nigger!" — and you walk over. You have no idea what they're talking about. One of them would tell you a joke, and you'd have to stick your head in that barrel and laugh at the joke. It would be some old crazy joke about yourself, something you didn't want to laugh at but they thought was funny, and you'd have to laugh. I never had to laugh in the laughing barrel, but I saw people getting humiliated in front of their wife and children. And you could be punished if you didn't laugh in the laughing barrel. They had some crazy name for the crime of refusing to laugh in the laughing barrel. They'd give you six weeks and make you clean up around the city. They had a lot of six-weeks crimes in my hometown. Now what would you rather do, stick your head in the laughing barrel or go to jail for six weeks? There were a lot of things that degraded Black folks.
There are no more laughing barrels in America, at least not to my knowledge. But in the Age of Trump and beyond, the white supremacist values and beliefs that barrel represented are being earnestly resurrected. President Barack Obama experienced such treatment. Vice President Kamala Harris is experiencing it now. Everyday Black folks, whatever their socioeconomic class or background, must always be wary of today's equivalent of the laughing barrel.
Ultimately, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery is a tragic example of how the color line is a story both of continuity and change.
His murderers were found guilty and will be punished for their crimes. That is meaningful. But there are many stories like Ahmaud Arbery's in America — some we already know and others we may never hear. Many such killers have gone free, and some are still walking around free today. That too is "the system" in America, working precisely as designed.
It’s impossible not to make all the connections regarding the terrible school shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County, Michigan, in which four students were shot and killed by 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley and several others were injured.
The shooter’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, now charged with several counts of involuntary manslaughter and held on $500,000 bond each, bought him the gun that he used, had a very clear idea of what he was going to do — after being warned by school officials about violent drawings he made, and after he was found searching on his phone for ammunition — and they didn’t try to stop him.
They didn’t take out him of school. They let him proceed. And they knew he’d kill.
The Crumbleys are a family deep in the far-right Trumpist movement, radicalized just like the January 6th insurrectionists into a cult of violence. They’re akin to a militia family or a familial terrorist cell, taking cues from what they see in the culture or on social media, inspired by messages from those they view as their leaders.
A clear motive isn’t necessary to deduce from their actions that the Crumbleys are angry and they are trying to intimidate others, enabled by a hate movement that promotes grievance and sees violent actions as a means to an end.
Jennifer Crumbley, who praised Donald Trump and grotesquely bragged on social media about getting her teen son a firearm as a “Christmas present,” appears to have been taking orders from extremist politicians within the Republican Party — the same ones who have defended the January 6th insurrectionists as “political prisoners.”
Those extremists who encourage violence — from gun-toting anti-Muslim Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Beobert of Colorado to white supremacist sympathizers Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina — now control the House GOP. They aren’t punished by leadership for their violence-inciting speeches and actions because leaders like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are immensely fearful of them, bowing to Trump, who emboldens these extremists.
After the not guilty verdict two weeks ago in the case of another teen killer, Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who killed two people at a Black Lives Matter protest and claimed self-defense, Cawthorn gloated about the verdict, urging his legions to follow Rittenhouse’s lead and to be “armed and dangerous.”
And only a few weeks ago, Cawthorn, speaking at an event, warned about attempts in American culture to “demasculate” boys, and he issued a command: “And I’m telling all you moms here — the people who I said are the most vicious in our movement — if you you are raising a young man, please raise them to be a monster! Raise them to be a freedom-loving patriot.”
To end this thread, everyone needs to be clear that this is the GOP strategy. The GOP wants more mothers just like this. Just ask Madison Cawthorn who recently said, \u201cIf you are raising a young man, raise them to be a monster!\u201dpic.twitter.com/KS590W6Cgv— MeidasTouch.com (@MeidasTouch.com) 1638467426
To end this thread, everyone needs to be clear that this is the GOP strategy. The GOP wants more mothers just like this. Just ask Madison Cawthorn who recently said, “If you are raising a young man, raise them to be a monster!”
Jennifer Crumbley followed that command, whether she directly saw the video or picked up on it and all the other similar demented messages coming out of the extremist and violent white supremacist movement which is now embraced by the Republican Party. She’d written an open letter to Trump days after the election in November of 2016, praising him, including for his vows to allow more weapons to proliferate in society.
The letter is actually a case study of indoctrination into the Trump cult, particularly chilling because Crumbley describes herself as having been a “pro-choice” feminist and supporter of LGBT rights who “used to be a Democrat” and who struggled with voting for Trump for those reasons. But she gave in. No matter any of her prior beliefs, Crumbley was perfectly primed to get drawn into the Trump cult as Trump tapped into the toxic white grievance that consumed her.
She loved his vow to build “the wall,” she wrote, which would stop “people that come over here from other countries and get free everything,” while she and her husband are “good fucking Americans that cannot get ahead.” (Like many racists, she even announced, "I am not a racist,” in making these statements. )
In the open letter she also lauded Trump for his empty (and now, even more laughable) promises to “shut down Big Pharma” and “make health care affordable for me,” in addition to his promise of “allowing my right to bear arms.” Crumbley ended the letter by showing how deeply she’d been sucked in: “I have NEVER had this much belief in one person, and you are it.”
People like that never turn back. They make excuses for the failures of Dear Leader, and just keeping following on the road to even more extreme, violent actions. By 2021 this woman was buying her son a gun for Christmas and sitting on the sidelines after learning he’d engage in violent actions.
Jennifer and James Crumbley even allowed their son to post a photo of the hideous “gift” to his Instagram account, where he wrote, “Just got my new beauty today. SIG SAUER 9mm. Any questions I will answer.” According to the AP, he included “an emoji of a smiling face with heart eyes.” The next day Jennifer Crumbley posted on social media, apparently from a shooting range, that it’s “mom and son day testing out his new Christmas present.”
When school personnel contacted Jennifer Crumbley by voicemail and email, warning her that Ethan was seen by a teacher searching on his phone for ammunition, she didn’t respond — but she did text her son: “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”
The next day the Crumbleys were called to the school after a teacher saw a drawing and notes Ethan made, including a drawing of a handgun and the words: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.” The parents refused to take him out of school and decided to just go back to work. Of course they could surmise what he was planning. And hours later, not surprisingly, Ethan went on a shooting rampage.
Just like many of the January 6th insurrectionists — equally drawn into the cult of violence that is Trumpism — the Crumbley parents went on the run, cowards refusing to face the consequences of their recklessness. After their son was arrested and after the Oakland County prosecutor announced they’d be charged on counts of involuntary manslaughter, the Crumbleys became fugitives, attempting to hide out until they were apprehended over the weekend in Detroit (and they’ve shown “no remorse,” according to the Oakland County sheriff).
These people were ready to let their son rot in prison — the son they enabled to engage in mass murder — while playing out their own little insurrection.
All the while, the Crumbleys were likely proud they’d raised a monster, just as they’d been told to do by the white supremacist terrorist movement that has been embraced by the GOP.
Defending themselves against accusations of gerrymandering, the Ohio House speaker and Senate president hired a team of lawyers with a history defending North Carolina against what a federal court called one of the “largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered.”
A spate of special interest and voter advocacy groups have filed four lawsuits alleging that Ohio officials produced maps that segment voters to give Republicans an unfair partisan advantage and cement in a veto-proof majority. House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, both Republicans from Lima, opted against retaining counsel through the attorney general and hired their attorneys from the Nelson Mullins law offices in North Carolina.
Two lawyers they chose, Thomas Farr and Phillip Strach, are well-known in legal circles for defending North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting proposal and the state’s sweeping voter restriction law passed in 2013. After years of litigation, both were overturned by the courts, which found they were designed to dilute and disenfranchise Black voting power.
“It’s not a mistake. I’m sure they looked at their resumes and said, ‘Wow, we need them,’” said Bob Hall, former director of voter rights advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, of the hiring. “They’re hard-nosed, win by whatever it takes for their Republican clients.”
After hearing arguments on the North Carolina redistricting plan drawn and enacted in 2011, a three-judge federal court panel in 2017 stated the maps were “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court” that amount to a “widespread, serious, and longstanding” constitutional violation. In a similar lawsuit regarding the composition of two majority-Black congressional districts, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the maps, deeming them unlawful racial gerrymanders.
Nelson Mullins was first hired as “special counsel” Aug. 17 to “provide the Ohio General Assembly with redistricting advice,” according to a letter sent to Strach from the Attorney General’s Office, obtained in a public records request. Roughly one week later, the Ohio Redistricting Commission held its first public hearing. Republicans unveiled their first redistricting proposal Sept. 9.
Both Farr and Strach also defended North Carolina against a challenge to a 2013 North Carolina law that required voters to present state-issued identification at the polls, limited early voting, rolled back “souls to the polls” Sunday voting, ended same-day voter registration and more. A panel on the 4th Circuit of Appeals overturned the law on constitutional grounds. The judges wrote that the law targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision” and purports to solve voter fraud and other “problems that did not exist.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to resurrect the law on an appeal.
A third lawyer representing Cupp and Huffman, John Branch, reportedly represented Republican Mark Harris in a state investigation after Harris’ campaign operative was criminally accused and later convicted of ballot fraud in a 2018 North Carolina congressional election.
Spokesmen for Cupp and Huffman did not respond to inquiries about the North Carolina lawyers’ role advising lawmakers on the maps or why or how they selected counsel. Strach did not respond to an email or voicemail. Farr declined to comment.
Then-President Donald Trump nominated Farr in 2017 to serve as a federal judge in North Carolina. Despite the U.S. Senate’s historic confirmation churn of Trump’s judicial appointments, the Republican-controlled Senate declined to confirm Farr.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina and the only Black member of the Senate GOP caucus, withdrew his support and effectively foundered the nomination, according to The Washington Post. Scott cited a 1991 U.S. Department of Justice memo that detailed Farr’s work as counsel to the 1984 and 1990 campaigns of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican.
The U.S. Department of Justice had settled with Helms’ campaign after determining it mailed nearly 124,000 postcards to Black voters as part of a “ballot security” campaign, suggesting they were ineligible to vote, and could be prosecuted for doing so. The DOJ memo states this was part of an attempt to “intimidate and threaten black voters.”
“Farr’s lifetime crusade is to disenfranchise African Americans and deprive them of their rights,” said Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau in 2018, joining a coalition of civil rights groups opposing Farr’s nomination. “He belongs nowhere near a bench of justice.”
‘A pretty clear choice’
Several people familiar with North Carolina politics indicated Farr and Strach are well-known names in Republican circles — Strach serves on an “Election Integrity Committee” for the state Republican Party. Given the swirl of lawsuits filed around redistricting and voting restrictions in the state, they said it makes sense that Ohio would look to North Carolina given the circumstances.
“I would say that it’s probably a pretty clear choice,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of history and politics at Catawba College. “They wanted the experience and expertise of having to deal with a fairly intensive and divided dynamic.”
Hall, from Democracy North Carolina, said while North Carolina may have ultimately lost in court, the state legislature was effective in drawing out the litigation so several election cycles could be held using district maps that would later be overturned.
“That’s what this team is experienced at doing,” he said. “Helping their clients. Even if they ultimately lose, they can delay the ultimate decision so they can have another cycle or two or three with the maps that are already drawn.”
Gerry Cohen, a professor of public policy at Duke University who worked for the North Carolina legislature for more than three decades, said defending Republicans in the state is Strach and Farr’s bailiwick.
“I would say that Farr and Strach are among the most competent redistricting lawyers nationally,” he said. “If you were looking for folks, they would be some of the ones that would come to mind right off the bat.”
Susan Tebben and Nick Evans contributed reporting.
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