Ahmaud Arbery’s hometown hopes for change after convictions

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Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, speaks to reporters as Wanda Cooper-Jones stands by his side Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022 outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. The three men convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery have been convicted of hate crimes. A jury delivered its verdict on Tuesday after several hours of deliberation. (AP Photo/Lewis Levine)

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The white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery as he ran down a residential street have gone free for more than two months, with police and prosecutors appearing to accept their story that the young black man was a fugitive criminal on the run. returned and attacked before being fatally shot. .

Two years after Arbery’s death on Feb. 23, 2020, the trio responsible for the murderous prosecution have had their version of events thrown out in court. After two trials held within months of each other, the three men were convicted not only of murder, but also of federal hate crimes.

Amid a national toll of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, back-to-back guilty verdicts have bolstered Arbery’s family and local activists who initially feared the murder just outside the port city of Brunswick in Georgia does not go unpunished.

“It shows that there is hope for our justice system,” said the Reverend John Perry, who was president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter when Arbery was killed. “I don’t think it’s an absolute game changer.”

Activists are hoping for a similar outcome in Minneapolis, where jurors began deliberating Wednesday in the federal trial of three fired police officers charged with violating the civil rights of George Floyd. Floyd, a black man, died on May 25, 2020, when then-officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground and pressed one knee to his neck for what authorities say was 9½ minutes. .

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, attended an event honoring her son on the second anniversary of his death on Wednesday in Atlanta, where state lawmakers passed a resolution declaring the February 23 Ahmaud Arbery Day in Georgia.

“When we hear the name of Ahmaud Arbery, we will now hear and think about change,” Cooper-Jones told those in attendance.

About 50 supporters joined one of Arbery’s aunts, Thea Brooks, on Wednesday night in a procession through the Satilla Shores subdivision where Arbery was killed less than 2 miles from his home. They chanted: “I run with Maud!” – a phrase that became the family’s rallying cry after his death.

Shanesha Sallins walked to the back of the group. His mother and Arbery’s mother worked together, she said, and Arbery often ran past his nearby home.

“I just hope that’s a lesson for a lot of southerners,” Sallins said of the court convictions, though she’s not sure if they signal lasting change. “It’s a start. But once the lights go out and everyone goes back to their normal lives, the system is still down.

Arbery had enrolled in a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician, like his uncles, when he was killed at age 25. His parents stopped short of calling a jury’s hate crime verdicts on Tuesday a victory, noting the convictions will not bring their son back.

Yet many residents of Brunswick and surrounding Glynn County, a community of nearly 85,000 where black residents make up 26% of the population, saw the Arbery murder trials as a test of the justice system as well as an opportunity to confront what they saw as blatant racism.

Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and used a pickup truck to chase Arbery after spotting him driving past their home on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan joined the chase in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.

Despite the men’s suspicions that Arbery was a criminal, investigators found no evidence that he stole anything or committed any other crimes in the neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified at the murder trial that he opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked with his fists.

Evidence from the week-long hate crimes trial included about two dozen text messages and social media posts in which the men used racial slurs and otherwise disparaged black people. Bryan mocked Martin Luther King Jr.’s vacation and reacted bitterly when he learned his daughter was dating a black man. Travis McMichael complained that black people “mess it up” and commented on a video showing a black man pranking a white person: “I’d kill that f—-ing n——r.”

Travis Riddle owns a soul restaurant Brunswick where a framed photo of the sheriff arresting Greg McMichael in May 2020 hangs on the wall. Riddle, who is black, said he hopes calling out the racism embraced by the McMichaels and Bryan will make other like-minded people reluctant to share their views.

“There are other people who think what they did was right, but with the outcome of this case, they’re going to suppress those thoughts and actions,” Riddle said. “Brunswick has shown them twice that we don’t agree.”

The legal battles are not over. Former District Attorney Jackie Johnson, ousted in 2020 by voters who blamed her for late arrests in the Arbery case, was indicted last year on misconduct charges alleging she used her office to protect the McMichaels.

Greg McMichael had worked for Johnson as an investigator and left him a phone message after the shooting. Johnson has denied any wrongdoing, insisting she immediately referred the case to an outside prosecutor. His case is pending in Glynn County Superior Court.

“There was a major breakdown in our system that stole a young man’s life,” said Perry, the former NAACP leader. “Our system failed to make an arrest. The blame is somewhere, and I believe this investigation is an honest attempt to find out where the outage occurred.

Brunswick activists have also pushed for reforms to the Glynn County Police Department. His investigation into Arbery’s death languished until May 2020, when graphic video of the shooting was leaked online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case.

Last summer, county commissioners hired the department’s first black police chief after agreeing to a nationwide search. A Better Glynn, a local group formed after Arbery’s death to promote racial and socioeconomic justice, had urged officials to seek candidates outside of Georgia.

The group is still urging commissioners to create a citizen review board for the police department, a proposal that has seen no action in the past year.

“We’re not necessarily going to be here to change a lot of hearts,” said Elijah Bobby Henderson, one of the band’s founders, “but we’re going to be changing a lot of policies.”

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Associated Press writer Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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