BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The weekend before the trial of three White men accused of killing a Black man in what some have called a modern-day lynching, civil rights lawyer Gerald A. Griggs stood outside the county courthouse here and reminded the mostly Black crowd of what they have already accomplished.
“We no longer intend to beg for justice. We demand it. We expect it,” he said Saturday, more than a year and a half after Ahmaud Arbery was chased and shot on a residential street in nearby Satilla Shores. Around him were Arbery’s former classmates and church friends of his family. Many brought their children.
“There is a new hate crimes law in Georgia because of an unarmed jogger,” Griggs told them. “There is new leadership in this county because of an unarmed jogger.”
Activism has flourished in this small coastal city where residents once fought for the slightest shreds of accountability in Arbery’s killing. For more than two months after the 25-year-old’s death in February 2020, there were no arrests in the case. But then a graphic video leaked and shocked the country: the first images of Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan confronting Arbery in their trucks before the younger McMichael tussles with Arbery while holding a shotgun.
The local prosecutor who once coasted to reelection here was voted out and indicted on allegations that she helped shield the suspects. The troubled county police department got its first Black police chief. The case united Democrats and Republicans in condemnation, paving the way for not only a hate crimes law in Georgia but also an overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law, which dated back to the Civil War era.
Now those who pushed for justice wonder if the murder trial starting Monday will be the culmination of their efforts or another setback.
“What’s on trial is the importance of African American life in this country,” said Darren West, a Black pastor in Brunswick. He believes that more people are listening now to concerns about racial disparities in one of Georgia’s poorest cities and surrounding Glynn County.
“If people are not held accountable for the death of a young man in the middle of broad daylight in the streets of our community . . . then those in the establishment may not feel the need to change anything,” West said.
The defendants have said they never meant to kill Arbery and followed him on the belief that he was behind neighborhood break-ins, then fired in self-defense. Security camera footage showed Arbery entering a house that was under construction shortly before the McMichaels confronted him, but police found no stolen items on his body. Video from Bryan’s cellphone captured Arbery running around the McMichaels’ truck and then toward Travis McMichael, who struggles with Arbery before shots ring out.
Jury selection could take weeks, as lawyers and officials seek impartial arbiters for a nationally known tragedy that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, R, called “horrific.” President Joe Biden compared it to a lynching.
The local court has summoned 1,000 people for duty – roughly one in every 85 people living in Glynn County. Frank Hogue, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said he “won’t be shocked” if authorities are unable to form a jury and have to move the whole proceeding elsewhere in Georgia. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, said fears of a justice system tainted by racial bias linger.
“A lot of the things that we want to see change have already begun to change,” Merritt said. “However, this is going to be a litmus test about Glynn County itself, because the jury pool, the finder of fact, is going to be from that community where this incident happened.”
Arbery’s case is one of many killings of Black Americans last year that sparked protests, part of a massive racial justice movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd. The trial comes six months after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in Floyd’s death, a moment watched around the world. But Merritt said the trial in Arbery’s killing stands out for the way he expects it to explicitly tackle race in Georgia.
“We’re going to be confronting racism in the South head-on,” he said.
Prosecutors have portrayed the defendants as vigilantes who racially profiled a jogger and cornered him in their trucks. The three men face separate federal hate-crime charges, and Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery – something McMichael’s lawyers deny.
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, say their clients have been unfairly villainized and that race had nothing to do with their actions. Recently they’ve been fighting to keep jurors from seeing a photo of Travis McMichael’s license plate, which features an old Georgia flag with the Confederate battle emblem. The judge has yet to rule on that issue but has already rejected defense requests to introduce evidence on Arbery’s mental health and criminal history.
It is not clear if any of the defendants will testify in the trial, which lawyers say could stretch well over a month. Robert Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, said their plans depend on the prosecution’s and he is not sure whom the other side will call. The district attorney’s office in Cobb County, now prosecuting the case, did not respond to an inquiry about its plans for witnesses.
Whatever the verdict in court, activists say outcry over the case has forced changes from local authorities who faced public mistrust and allegations of uneven justice long before Arbery’s death.
The first prosecutor to touch Arbery’s case, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, R, had faced no serious challenges for 10 years until her case record drew scrutiny after Arbery’s killing. Johnson recused herself from the McMichaels’ case early on, but a grand jury has indicted her on allegations that she showed “favor and affection” to Greg McMichael – a former Glynn County police officer who had just retired from her office – and improperly directed that Travis McMichael should not be taken into custody.
Mark Spaulding, Johnson’s former office manager in Glynn County, told The Washington Post last year that staff never told police what to do. Johnson, whom The Post could not reach, has defended her actions and last fall blamed “people with an agenda who have exploited this case and divided our community for their own purposes.”
Many also hope an indictment is coming for Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, whom Johnson’s office brought in to advise police. He eventually recused himself after Arbery’s family said he had a conflict of interest, but in a letter to police, he argued the accused made a lawful “citizen’s arrest” and used justified force when Arbery “initiated the fight.” Barnhill did not respond to a request for comment.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said in a recent interview that she had “a happy moment for once” when Johnson was charged.
“I do think that we will get justice,” said Cooper-Jones, who plans to attend the trial every day.
Another focus of surging activism in Brunswick has been the Glynn County Police Department, which is mired in scandals and lost its state accreditation several years ago. West, part of the Community First Planning Commission, a network of pastors and other leaders, said the outcry over Arbery’s death gave them new “leverage” for long-standing calls to hire more minority officers.
The group successfully pushed to participate in the police department’s search for a new chief, enlisting the help of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Jacques Battiste, the final pick, vowed a “complete review” of the agency’s procedures, praised the idea of a citizens review board and called delays in Arbery’s case “unacceptable.”
Glynn County police arrived as Arbery was still gasping for air out on the street on Feb. 23, 2020, according to body-camera footage obtained by media outlets late last year. But police officers did not immediately move to help him – or arrest the men standing by.
“Why would he be in cuffs?” one officer said of Travis McMichael. Defendants detailed their pursuit, and some officers appeared to recognize the McMichaels.
Vincent Williams, a Brunswick commissioner running for mayor, said he is waiting to see whether Battiste’s appointment translates into deeper change. He still hears complaints about Black residents’ interactions with police in Glynn County.
The department has mostly declined to address Arbery’s case publicly, citing a desire not to interfere, and declined to answer questions about any internal review of officers’ actions. Department spokesman Earl Wilson said in an email that the agency recently appointed new command staff who are reviewing the agency.
“I can put a Band-Aid on – ‘Okay, well, we got a Black police chief,'” said Williams, who knows Arbery’s father and whose daughter is a police officer with Brunswick schools. “But does that change the culture of the way policing is done?”
As the trial looms, both Black and White residents are anxious about how their town will handle the influx of crowds, how local law enforcement will treat protesters and whether violence could erupt. Police have planned for months in anticipation of large demonstrations and busloads of out-of-towners who consider the trial a meaningful platform to denounce racism.
One D.C.-based group, the Transformative Justice Coalition, is funding transportation and lodging for about 100 people from around the country, said founder Barbara Arnwine, who has gone to previous court hearings in support Arbery’s family. Her colleague Daryl Jones, also in Brunswick for the trial, spoke of an “Emmett Till moment” – a visceral turning point in the national consciousness like White vigilantes’ torture and murder of a Black teenager in 1955.
Speaking to residents Thursday at a town-hall-style meeting at the library, county police Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist tried to quell concerns. Officers would have a small footprint throughout the trial, he said, and wanted to help people gather peacefully.
But Sandra Jackson, who is Black, said she is not sure she will join the planned justice marches. “I don’t know if I trust how the police is going to deal with us,” she said. Toni Bennett, a White mother of two teenagers, also said she walked away from the briefing feeling on edge.
“This is something that is completely different for our small community, and it really has rocked us to the core,” Bennett said.
During Saturday’s courthouse rally, volunteers handed out water on a sunny day amid lawn chairs. Brunswick resident Annisa Pettibone – a dialysis nurse who came with her 8-year-old nephew and 13-year-old niece – said that “it’s not 1820, but sometimes it feels like that in Brunswick.”
The Black mother of two hadn’t heard about the Arbery killing until video of his death went viral more than two months later. She was at work at the hospital, she said, when a White colleague asked her if she had seen it. They cried together as they watched.
“I have been demonstrating for justice ever since,” she said.
When the three-hour rally wrapped up, the county sheriff – whose office handled security – led a 35-vehicle convoy of demonstrators from downtown to the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed. The group went down the highway where Arbery ran on his last day, past the tidal marsh grass and sparkling coastal riverways into the suburban subdivision where the McMichaels lived.
Gospel music streamed from Harley-Davidson motorcycles. A driver further down the convoy chose another theme song: N.W.A.’s “F— tha Police.”
Turning the corner at the 200 block of Satilla Drive, where Arbery was shot, convoy participants shouted out his name. “No justice, no peace!” they shouted. Away from their route, a single house had a homemade lawn sign reading, “We Run With ‘Maud” – the slogan activists have taken up for a monthly vigil in which they re-create Arbery’s running path.
The secluded, mostly White neighborhood itself was quiet. But five residents came out with a labradoodle on a leather leash and paid a silent tribute to the demonstrators.
“We are all hoping for the right outcome” when the trial starts, said one homeowner, who did not want to give her name. “An innocent person was killed here.”