(CNN) – Ahmaud Arbery was the victim. But for weeks he was painted as a beast and a bully in the judgment of the three white men who killed him. This tactic is not new, but the latest example in a long history of court cases that criminalize and dehumanize black victims.
The Arbery family may now have a sense of justice after Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. were convicted Wednesday, but that result is a rare exception to the rule.
“I wouldn’t want to see any dad watching his son get lynched and shot like that. So it’s all our problem … Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep doing it and making this a better place for all human beings. All human beings, “he said Marcus Arbery Sr. after reading the verdict.
Race and racial tensions were clearly manifested in and out of the Georgia courtroom where the three men were tried, even as both the defense and the prosecution shunned those discussions. Instead, the jury heard a series of racist dog whistles from the defense.
From claims that black shepherds might To scare jurors into a comment about Arbery’s “long, dirty fingernails,” the defense strategy was riddled with rhetoric that sought to dehumanize and devalue the black community.
“What I saw was the defense taking advantage of the fears of the whites,” he said. Carol anderson, historian and director of African American studies at the Emory university. “The ‘long dirty toenails’ – that’s an old ‘Black Beast’ motif. That’s what comes out of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.”
Here’s why the heartbreaking trial was a textbook example of the criminalization and dehumanization of black male victims.
Defense attorney said Arbery, a black victim, had ‘long, dirty nails’
During closing arguments, a defense attorney for Gregory McMichael, one of the men charged in Arbery’s murder, attempted to portray Arbery as a “runaway slave,” said Charles Coleman Jr., a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor.
“Making Ahmaud Arbery a victim after the decisions he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts and no socks to cover his long, dirty nails,” said the attorney Laura Hogue to the jury.
The comment, which appeared to be based on Arbery’s autopsy, elicited an audible gasp from people in the courtroom and caused Arbery’s mother to leave.
“Regardless of the type of toenail he had, the size of his legs, that was still my son, and my son was actually running for his life in that description. I thought that was just rude,” the woman said. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CNN’s John Berman on “AC 360” earlier this week.
For Cooper-Jones, the defense was trying to avoid the fact that he “did not have adequate evidence to obtain a conviction.”
Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas and co-author of the 2019 book “The Long South Strategy: How the Persecution of White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” said she believes the defense was trying to put Arbery down. “in a (specific) category of black person.”
The toenail comment tried to point out to jurors that Arbery was “one of those black people who is not someone you would look up to or respect,” said Maxwell, someone “you can’t trust and who doesn’t care. of himself”.
Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney who represented Arbery’s father, said Hogue used “dog-whistling rhetoric.”
“She was saying that he is a scary black man, so if you say that he is a scary black man and you make the jury believe that, then you want them to divorce what they see in that video of a persecuted human being and lynched in broad daylight, “Crump told CNN.
Those tactics were disturbing to the family and to many who attended the trial not because they were novel, but because the country had seen them all before. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, African Americans were portrayed as brutes, a cartoon that was repeated last year in former President Donald Trump’s description of protesters singing “Black Lives Matter” as “very bad people” and ” bullies “.
Lawyers linked Arbery to crime and fear
Fear was another racist motive used by defense attorneys, who highlighted concerns sparked by a number of unreported crimes in the neighborhood.
Travis McMichael testified that on the night of February 11, 2020, nearly two weeks before the Arbery shooting, he saw someone “crawling through the shadows” in the neighborhood.
He testified that the person, whom he later described to police as a black man, “rolled up his shirt” and went to find his “pocket, in the waist area.” McMichael said he assumed the person was armed, so he jumped back into his vehicle and the person ran toward the home under construction. He called authorities, but police never caught, spoke or saw the person he claimed to have seen that night, he testified.
When he met Arbery weeks later, McMichael feared for his life and that of his father, defense attorney Jason Sheffield argued in court.
Arbery was jogging and stopped by the vacant house, his family said. Prosecutors showed jury surveillance video of Arbery entering the site, wandering around and exiting without incident.
But the defense insisted that, even if he had not stolen anything, Arbery was committing a robbery because he illegally entered the house under construction.
Anderson, the historian, said that people of many races and ethnicities see houses under construction and their behavior is considered standard or normal.
“But for a black person to do that, in a way that’s criminal. So you have the criminalization of blackness going through this,” Anderson said.
Property owner Larry English Jr. testified in September that multiple people other than Arbery entered the property and that he never authorized the McMichaels to confront anyone.
The McMicheals’ decision to go after Arbery was based on the idea that blacks are criminals, Anderson said.
“This was like the slave patrol that felt it had the right to question blacks, to monitor black movements, to challenge blacks wherever they were,” Anderson said.
An almost all white jury
The jury that found the McMichaels and Bryan guilty consisted of 11 white jurors and one black jury, a conformation that fueled the lack of trust of the black community in the criminal justice system at the beginning of the trial.
Scholars and legal experts said the racial makeup was reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and quickly drew comparisons to the aftermath of Emmett Till’s death.
“Here, some 65 years later, we have advanced to the point of potentially having a black jury sitting on this jury,” said Daryl D. Jones, an attorney for the Transformative Justice Coalition, referring to the 1955 trial in which the two Men arrested in Till’s murder were acquitted by an all-white jury.
During the jury selection, defense attorneys drew criticism when they expressed concern about the lack of “Bubba” men.
“It appears that white men born in the South, over 40, without four-year college degrees, sometimes euphemistically known as ‘Bubba’ or ‘Joe Six Pack,’ appear to be significantly underrepresented,” said Gough, the attorney who represented Bryan, to court at the time.
Other cases are “eerily similar” to other black victims
Over the past decade, many unarmed black men and boys have been dehumanized during court proceedings.
“Remember they murdered Trayvon Martin’s character after he was murdered, and now they’re doing the exact same thing almost 10 years later with Ahmaud Arbery. I mean, the similarities are eerily similar,” said Crump, the attorney representing Arbery. father, hours before the verdict was read on Wednesday.
Crump also called the case “Trayvon Martin 2.0” on CNN’s New Day.
Martin was 17 when George Zimmerman shot him dead in 2012. The shooting and subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman in 2013 launched the Black Lives Matter movement and reminded Americans that they did not live in a post-racial society.
After Martin’s death, protesters across the country wore hooded sweatshirts in a nod to the shooter’s description of the teenager. Zimmerman told a 911 operator that he saw a “suspicious” person in a “dark hoodie” moments before shooting the teen in what he said was self-defense, according to police. Martin’s family and supporters said they believe race played a role in the shooting.
But nearly 10 years after Martin’s death, civil rights activists and protesters got some comfort from Wednesday’s verdict in Arbery’s death trial.
Speaking outside the courtroom following the convictions of the three defendants, the Crump family’s attorney said: “Think about how long he (Marcus Arbery Sr.) and Wanda have been enduring all the innuendoes, all the accusations, all the character murders, long legs with dirty toenails. Imagine everything that happened. “
CNN’s Alta Spells, Angela Barajas, Theresa Waldrop, and Amir Vera contributed to this report.