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Carla Hall is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board who writes about homelessness, reproductive rights, popular culture, and human rights.
The brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery echoed a hundred lynchings, beatings and fatal shootings of unarmed Black men before him at the hands of white men. So you can forgive the Black man in the Georgia courtroom who let out a cry of triumph on Wednesday when the first verdict of guilty in a long string of guilty verdicts was read out against Travis McMichael, followed by similar guilty findings against his father and his neighbor.
The man, Marcus Arbery, the father of Ahmaud, shouted “Wooo!” Judge Timothy Walmsley had already warned the courtroom that he would not tolerate outbursts, so he ejected Arbery. Fair enough. But when the judge added that if anyone else was going to feel compelled to respond out loud, then they should leave the courtroom now, the only surprise was that most of the courtroom didn’t stand and exit.
I don’t think that outburst was about enjoying seeing someone found guilty of felony murder. It was about exulting at a still rare thing: justice done on behalf of a Black man in a Southern courtroom. It was a reaction to seeing a jury swiftly and unflinchingly convict men who invoked a Civil War-era law about citizen’s arrest to chase down Arbery, corner him, pull out a shotgun and shoot him dead. (The Georgia Legislature has gutted the law as a result of the Arbery case.) The three men claimed they were scared he would take the gun and use it against them.
Those outside that courtroom who understood the emotion behind the outburst would have been remembering the centuries of unarmed Black men shot down or lynched or beaten beyond recognition by white men who were never held to account — which almost happened in this case. Authorities initially didn’t want to charge Travis McMichael, the shooter; Gregory McMichael, his father; and William Bryan, their neighbor. It was only after the recusal of two district attorneys in Brunswick and the appearance of a graphic video of the killing that the three would be indicted — nearly three months after the shooting.
And even during the trial there were disgusting moments with racist overtones. Attorney Kevin Gough, who defended Bryan, announced to the judge that he didn’t want to see any more Black pastors sitting in the courtroom. (Travis McMichael’s attorney, Jason Sheffield, later called his remark “asinine.”)
On Monday, Laura Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael’s defense attorneys, described Arbery to the jury during closing arguments as wearing khaki shorts “with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails” evoking an image of a runaway slave. One of the pieces of evidence the jury asked to review again was the 911 call that Gregory McMichael made on the day they chased Arbery telling the dispatcher “there’s a Black male running down the street.”
So forgive the outburst in the courtroom. What I hope is that either people stop thinking they can get away with these crimes or that their prosecution is so fair and just that a verdict won’t prompt a cry of grateful surprise from anyone.