Lawyers for three white men accused in Ahmaud Arbery’s death spent much of Monday in a Georgia courtroom blaming a dead Black man for his own murder.
During closing arguments, Jason Sheffield, defense attorney for Travis McMichael, spoke of Arbery’s “odd” behavior and how McMichael believed there was “something off about this guy.” Laura Hogue, representing Greg McMichael, claimed that Arbery made “terrible, unexpected, illogical choices” that ended with Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times on a coastal Georgia road.
What did Arbery do that Sheffield and Hogue found was so “odd,” and “illogical”? He didn’t speak to a white man. If the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict was a travesty, allowing the men charged with Arbery’s murder to walk free would be cataclysmic.
Last week, Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges in the shooting of three men during protests after the August 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Two of those men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, died.
Rittenhouse, the McMichaels, and William Bryan, the third defendant charged with Arbery’s murder, are cast from the same mold. They harbor a foul belief that equates whiteness with permission to arm themselves and mete out law and order as they define it, by any means necessary.
Like Huber and Rosenbaum, Arbery would still be alive if he had not been tagged as a threat to white supremacy’s sense of unchallengeable power. Sheffield claimed Travis McMichael pulled up next to Arbery and did “what a reasonably prudent person would do: ‘Hey man, what’s going on? Can you stop for a second please, I just want to talk to you.’ ”
Arbery did what any reasonably prudent Black person would do when white strangers in a pickup truck pulled up next to him and tried to mind his business — he ignored McMichael and kept jogging. That fed McMichael’s irrational suspicions. According to Sheffield, “Mr. Arbery looked him in the eyes, didn’t say a word — doesn’t have to — but that’s information for Travis. Is it so offensive to pull up next to someone and say, ‘Hey man, can you stop for a second? I just want to talk to you.’ Is that so offensive?”
Yes, it is. It reminds me of women been murdered simply because they rejected a man’s unwanted advances because his ego takes precedence over her life.
When he testified in his own defense last week, McMichael admitted that Arbery never raised his voice, brandished a weapon, or threatened him on Feb. 23, 2020. Arbery presented no threat to McMichael beyond the fact that he was Black and refused to acknowledge some random white man’s order to stop and answer questions. That’s why he was killed.
As Sheffield made his fallacious arguments about Arbery’s behavior, it evoked for me the words of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court’s former chief justice and a staunch proponent of slavery. In 1857, Taney wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, which ruled that Black people, whether free or enslaved, were not citizens and could not avail themselves of rights guaranteed to all Americans.
Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” Taney wrote in a decision widely considered one of the worst in the court’s history.
“No rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Neither the McMichaels nor Bryan respected Arbery’s right to jog in their neighborhood, exercise his freedom of association, or continue living his life.
“All three defendants made assumptions about what was going on that day, and they made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street,” said prosecutor Linda Dunikoski in her closing argument.
Not surprisingly, the defense attorneys tried to portray Arbery not as a victim chased by vigilantes but as someone who, as Hogue put it, was “running away instead of facing the consequences.” Arbery started out jogging; he wound up running for his life. And he was shot because there is nothing as threatening to white supremacy as a Black person who refuses to capitulate to its demands.
Travis McMichael claimed he killed Arbery in self-defense. Like Rittenhouse, McMichael and his codefendants acted only in defense of white supremacy. And the killings of Huber and Rosenbaum proved again that this isn’t only an existential threat to Black people.
Defending vigilantism before a nearly all-white jury worked for Rittenhouse. With another virtually all-white jury now deliberating the McMichaels/Bryan case, it could work again. For the second time in a month, racist lawlessness could be vindicated, and the violence and grief unleashed would ravage this nation.