By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 29, 2021
On March 17-18, 2011, I was invited to deliver two lectures at Albany State University in southwest Georgia on the topics “Caribbean Intellectual Thought” and ARF Webber, a Tobagonian who spent most of his life (from about the age of 19) in Georgetown, Guyana.
During a luncheon on one of those days, my host informed me about the violence that was ever present for black people who live in Georgia. He related an incident that he had seen with his own eyes. A black man and a white man had an argument/altercation. The white man did not agree with what the black said, and did not accept the outcome of their interaction.
The white man calmly walked back to his pick-up, brought out a gun, shot the black man to death as he departed. The white man was never held accountable for this murder and presumably walked free until his death. This incident, my host told me, took place in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Black lives were cheap then. We did not matter. At least, things are beginning to change.
Albany is about 170 miles west of Satilla Shores in Brunswick where three white men brutally killed Ahmaud Arbery in August 2020. But for the presence of a video camera, the killers of Arbery (Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, Travis’s father, and William Bryan) would have walked away from their crime in the same way as the white man who blew out the brains of the black man whom my host had spoken about.
This time around, a jury of 11 white people and one black found these three white men guilty of killing Arbery although Jason Sheffield, the defence attorney for Travis McMichael, sought to depict Arbery as an animal during his closing argument of the trial.
The McMichaels and Bryan’s defence team sought to depict the action of these men as constituting a citizen’s arrest or their acting in self-defence. Even before the founding of the United States, colonial citizens were allowed to detain anyone they saw committing a crime. Georgia and other southern states expanded that law to include anyone they “reasonably suspected” of trying to escape a felony.
In 1863, Georgia extended that law to catch any black person whom they felt was escaping from slavery. Cornell University criminal law expert Joseph Margeulies explained: “It was basically a catching-fleeing-slave law” (NPR, October 26). This was the version of the law under which the McMichaels and Bryan were tried. That law was only repealed last year after protests about its inhumanity.
There are other laws in the South that make living black in America a crime. In addition to the now-repealed law, there is also Georgia’s “open carry” law that allows Georgians “to openly carry firearms if they have a permit for them”, and a “stand your ground” law if a person “reasonably believed that they are at risk of serious bodily injury or death”. This is the defence Kyle Rittenhouse used to escape responsibility for killing two men and injuring another in the Black Lives Matter protest that took place in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The three white men who murdered Arbery used a similar defence, but it was not successful. A person cannot jump out of his pick-up, stop someone and decide to kill him/her because s/he did not stop and answer his questions. James Yancey Jr, a defence lawyer in Brunswick, noted: “You cannot have instigated the incident and then say you had to kill the other person because you are defending yourself.” (ABC News, May 13, 2020)
It took 74 days to arrest someone for Arbery’s murder, so faithfully did these Brunswick prosecutors believe in the racist laws of their state. Two prosecutors (Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill) refused to prosecute the killers. Barnhill argued that since Arbery “initiated the fight… McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself”.
At present, Jackson is charged with using her position to shield the men who killed Arbery from being charged with a crime. It took a Superior Court judge, Timothy R Walmsley, from Savannah, Georgia, to hear the case because no one in Brunswick had the courage to prosecute one of their own for killing a black person.
Like in the George Floyd case, it took a video to gain a guilty conviction against the killers. What if we didn’t have a video? Is it that black people in Georgia or the nation at large cannot receive justice unless someone takes out a video of the actual crime? Justice in America must go beyond the capturing of white violence on a video camera.
When the verdict was handed down, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, exclaimed: “My prayers were answered. To hear that the accused murderers were actually found guilty, I mean, that was huge. We finally got the justice for Ahmaud that he deserved back in 2020.”
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney decided that African Americans were not US citizens and therefore not able to file suit in federal court. They were “beings of an inferior order, and 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; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit”.
This is the racist legacy that Arbery assuaged when the McMichaels and Bryan were found guilty of murdering him. Perhaps their conviction will allow white people to see black people as fellow human beings.
I hope that my Albany host is comforted by Arbery’s conviction. Maybe things are changing for the better.