It’s happening. The movement works. The past 10 years of pain, protest, violence, suffering, blood, sweat and tears have pushed, pulled and sometimes dragged America to a better place.
At least for now – injustice is still just a fresh ball for black people. But the verdict in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is measuring how far we’ve come.
The three white men who killed Arbery were found guilty on Wednesday. Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were convicted of murder, forcible confinement, aggravated assault and other charges carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The verdict was delivered by an almost all-white jury in Southeast Georgia after the defense used an argument that so far has had historic and infuriating success: White men feared being killed by an unarmed black man, so they had to kill him. It was the twisted racist rationalization that led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement almost 10 years ago. At the time, the unarmed black man was Trayvon Martin, 17. His assassin, George Zimmerman, acted under the same false assumptions as Arbery’s murderers, claimed the same justifications, used the same self-defense argument – and a jury found Zimmerman not guilty.
Wednesday, the verdict is guilty. Arbery’s life is still lost, but the court system has said his life matters. This shouldn’t be a remarkable thing – “While the guilty verdicts reflect that our justice system is doing its job, it is not enough,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. But given where we started the final chapter of the African-American journey, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the struggle.
On February 26, 2012, Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking through his neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. There had been burglaries in the neighborhood. Trayvon was returning from the store with a packet of Skittles in his pocket, but Zimmerman racially profiled him as a suspect. He followed Trayvon into his car, got out and confronted the teenager. There was a fight and Zimmerman absorbed a few hits before killing Trayvon with a bullet to the chest.
Even though he caused the whole confrontation, Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense. Police and prosecutors first bought her story. Zimmerman was not charged with a felony until much later, and only after a national outcry. During his trial, Zimmerman’s lawyer said he was “not guilty of anything other than protecting his own life.” An almost all-white jury has found Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter.
When justice was not served for Trayvon, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born, along with a new era of activism. It gained momentum when police killed person after person – Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, etc. On February 23, 2020, the 25-year-old former high school football player was jogging in a residential area in Glynn County, Georgia. There had been burglaries in the neighborhood. Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old retired police officer, saw him running past. Gregory and his son Travis, 34, grabbed their guns and chased Arbery in Travis’ van, along with Bryan, who was in another van. Arbery, who was unarmed, attempted to dodge their vehicles but was eventually cornered. He wrestled with Travis McMichael, who then killed him with two shotgun blasts to the chest.
As with Zimmerman, authorities initially refused to charge the McMichaels and Bryans. They decided that these white men could racially profile an innocent black person, arm themselves, create an unnecessary confrontation, make the victim react and then kill them – and it should all be legal.
This thought rests on an assumption of astounding superiority – the assumption that a black person, unarmed and minding his own affairs, is required to obey the orders of a white man. In closing arguments in the trial of the Arbery assassins, defense lawyer Laura Hogue claimed that Arbery was responsible for her own death, “running away instead of suffering the consequences” and “making choices terrible, unexpected and illogical ”.
As if it didn’t make perfect sense for a black man to try to escape a group of armed white civilians driving a van with a Confederate flag in front, one of whom threatened to “blow your head off.” “. As if it didn’t make sense for Trayvon to retaliate when he is accosted by a strange adult with a gun. Arbery’s murder came at a pivotal moment. During the 74 days it took for the killers to be arrested, the coronavirus pandemic set in. An innocent black woman, Breonna Taylor, was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky. The combination of a locked-in population and a new set of outrageous injustices created pressure that erupted into historic protests after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin.
Ahead of Chauvin’s trial earlier this year, there was a widespread sense of terror. Zimmerman and so many other unarmed black killers had been acquitted. So many aspects of the justice system have been stacked against black interests. When Chauvin was convicted of murder, there was a tremendous sense of relief and almost disbelief. Justice was not beyond the reach of blacks.
But justice was still not certain for Arbery. Even though 2020 has seen the biggest racial justice protests in history, even though Chauvin is in prison and many institutions are finally recognizing and slowly responding to systemic racism, we cannot ignore the backlash from recent racial advances. From demonizing the word “awakening” to organized resistance to teaching about how racism affects America, the pendulum was in motion. How would that change for Arbery?
Judging by the starting point of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is the Trayvon Martin tragedy, it has swung pretty far. It is tempting to exist in a perpetual state of bitter indignation at the cumulative injustices that plague black people. It makes sense to measure this verdict against the systemic racism that still maintains inequality. The pendulum did not go far enough to end the suffering or stop the protests. But Wednesday, he switches to justice.