Of course, “bad” neighborhoods and streets are predominantly white ones, many of whose residents aim to maintain an exclusively white community. Some people who live in these neighborhoods want their schools, restaurants, business owners, delivery people – and politicians – to be all white. They also want the criminal justice system to maintain white dominance in everything from whoever holds the hammer in the judge’s bench to whoever sits in the jury gallery.
This is why Arbery’s murder is such a step backwards; it is an example of classic racism embedded in social institutions. Citizen arrest laws, and the criminal justice system correspondingly, perpetuate and sanction the protection of white communities from people who resemble Arbery. These laws allow people to focus on perceptions of criminalization, and then subsequently use self-defense laws, such as “hold on tight”, as a justification for their use of force.
My research focused on the experiences of black men in predominantly white communities and their experiences with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In a quantitative and qualitative study, I found that middle-class black men were significantly less likely than others to exercise in predominantly white neighborhoods. This means that they are much less likely to run on their own streets. Why? Their darkness becomes a weapon. Even when they are unarmed and do not commit any crime, they are seen as a threat – and this subsequently justifies surveillance and the use of force.
In situations similar to the Ahmaud murder, whites are more than eight times more likely to be found not guilty when claiming self-defense if the victim is black, compared to when the victim is not black. These murders speak of a key social psychological concept: subjective uncertainty, which states that when there is little information, people rely on stereotypes to discriminate. In Ahmaud’s case, this discrimination resulted in homicide.
The consequences of subjective uncertainty are not limited to murders. On the contrary, there is a fallout effect of the criminalization of black lives. It trickles down to black people when the police call them. It allows people to treat them as suspects and pursue them in virtually every day-to-day aspect of their lives: while traveling, exercising, delivering packages for companies like Amazon, and visiting ‘a new home or commercial property. My research highlights the impact of criminalization on the mental and physical health of blacks, their professional activities and their ability to build wealth.
When Arbery was murdered, the criminal justice system was originally functioning as intended. Every step of the lawsuit process seemed to predict the likelihood that the McMichaels and Bryans would be exonerated.
First, the district attorney’s office initially advised the police not to make any arrests. (A former district attorney faces charges for her role in the Arbery case.) Second, the jury had a racially biased makeup relative to the region (11 whites and one black in a county that has about 30% of the population). Black). Third, a defense attorney attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban black pastors from the courtroom, describing them as a threatening presence – another attempt to police black people in public space.
Apparently, the mere presence of Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson sitting quietly in the courtroom posed a threat, in the same way that Ahmaud’s mere presence in Satilla Shores posed a threat.
Travis McMichael, who ultimately shot Arbery, testified that he just wanted to talk to her and make a citizen arrest. Black people instinctively know that “we just wanted to talk to him” is the code for “we wanted to put him in his place”.
Collectively, these tales are straight out of the hunter’s playbook, dating back to the origins of the American police slave hunters and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. These stories are used to justify the treatment of blacks and prevent them from truly experiencing the freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution. (And, in fact, Georgia’s Citizen Arrest Law was originally used to catch slaves fleeing bondage.)
These accounts can play out in a frowning fashion, as when a defense attorney described Arbery’s fingernails as “long” and “dirty,” prompting gasps inside the courtroom. and indignation outside.
That’s at the heart of it. That’s not what Arbery was doing. It’s about who he was, what he looked like – his chocolate skin being the biggest threat of all. Blacks in white communities represent a danger. It’s a story we’ve seen play out in pop culture, like in the classic movie “The Birth of a Nation,Who portrayed blacks as congressional boobies picking their toenails and violent bullies attempting to rape innocent white women. In the film, the KKK saves the situation of blacks and blacks as an ideology. Although many people no longer wear white hoods, at least publicly, the ideology of the KKK is ingrained in some local communities and has a chilling effect on objectivity within the criminal justice system.
But despite all these classic racist tropes prevalent in the courtroom, the outcome of this trial was different. Why? First, the video is powerful. The jury watched video of the murder at least three times at the end of the trial. Without the video, which Bryan filmed and later posted, most people wouldn’t know about Arbery’s murder. The system would have worked as expected. There may not even have been charges in this case.
Second, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to oversee the case. My law enforcement research suggests that this additional state-level or federal-level oversight helps create more transparency, objectivity, and accountability for criminal proceedings. This surveillance model was used in the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd. Another example of successful oversight: In Georgia, the Republican-led Legislature voted to repeal its 1863 Citizen Arrest Act. Given the history of these laws, other states should follow suit.
Collectively, the conviction of these three men and the jurors who made that decision suggest that things may change for the better. The self-defense of whiteness may no longer prevail in our courtrooms. But, again, there’s 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse whose self-defense allegations resulted in his acquittal. (Although Rittenhouse killed two white men and injured a third, he shot them during a Black Lives Matter protest, infusing the shootings with distinct racial overtones.)
So, while many rejoice that “the spirit of Ahmaud has defeated the mob of lynchings,” as lawyer Ben Crump said, we must continue to work together to ensure that those who perpetuate acts of vigilance unjustified grounds are also held responsible.