Ahmaud Arbery was the victim. But for weeks, he was painted as a brute and a thug in the trial of the three White men who killed him. This tactic isn’t new, but rather the latest example in a long history of court cases that criminalize and dehumanize Black victims.
Arbery’s family can now feel a sense of justice after Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. were convicted on Wednesday, but that outcome is a rare exception to the rule.
“I wouldn’t want to see no daddy watch their kid get lynched and shot down like that. So it’s all our problem. … Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep doing and making this a better place for all human beings. All human beings,” Marcus Arbery Sr. said after the reading of the verdict.
Race and racial tensions were clearly on display inside and outside the Georgia courtroom where the three men were tried, even as both the defense and the prosecution shied away from those discussions. Instead, the jury heard from the defense a number of racist dog whistles.
From assertions that Black pastors might frighten jurors to a remark about Arbery’s “long, dirty toenails,” the defense’s strategy was rife with rhetoric that sought to dehumanize and devalue Black Americans.
“What I saw was the defense preying on White fears,” said Carol Anderson, a historian and the chair of African American studies at Emory University. “The ‘long, dirty toenails’ – that is an old trope of the ‘Black Beast.’ That is the stuff coming out of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.”
Here’s why the heart-wrenching trial was a textbook example of the criminalization and dehumanization of Black male victims:
Arbery had ‘long, dirty toenails,’ defense attorney said
During closing arguments, a defense attorney for Gregory McMichael, one of the men charged with Arbery’s murder, tried to portray Arbery as a “runaway slave,” said Charles Coleman Jr., a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor.
“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” attorney Laura Hogue told the jurors.
The remark, which appeared to be based on Arbery’s autopsy, brought an audible gasp from people in the courtroom and prompted Arbery’s mother to walk out.
“Regardless of what kind of toenails he had, what size legs he had, that was still my son, and my son actually was running for his life in that description. I thought that was just flat-out rude,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CNN’s John Berman on “AC 360” earlier this week.
To Cooper-Jones, the defense was trying to deflect from the fact that it didn’t “have the proper evidence to get a conviction.”
Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas and the co-author of the 2019 book “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” said that she believes that the defense was trying to put Arbery “in a (specific) category of Black person.”
The toenails comment attempted to signal to jurors that Arbery was “one of ‘those’ Black people who isn’t someone you would admire or respect,” Maxwell said, someone “you can’t trust, and who doesn’t take care of himself.”
Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney who represented Arbery’s father, said that Hogue used “dog-whistle rhetoric.”
“She was saying he’s a scary Black man, and so if you say he’s a scary Black person and make the jury believe that, then you want them to divorce themselves of what they see on that video of a human being being chased down and being lynched in broad daylight,” Crump told CNN.
Those tactics were unsettling for the family and for many watching the trial not because they were novel – but because the country has seen them all before. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Black Americans were depicted as brutes, a caricature that was echoed last year in former President Donald Trump’s description of protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter” as “very bad people” and “thugs.”
Arbery was linked to crimes and fear
Fear was another racist dog whistle used by defense attorneys, who highlighted the worries prompted by a string of unreported crimes in the neighborhood.
Travis McMichael testified that on the night of February 11, 2020 – nearly two weeks before Arbery’s shooting – he saw someone “creeping through the shadows” in the neighborhood.
He testified that the person, whom he later described to police as a Black man, “pulled up his shirt” and went for his “pocket, waistband area.” McMichael said that he assumed that the person was armed, so he jumped back into his vehicle, and the person ran to the house under construction. He called the authorities, but the police never caught, talked to or even saw the person he said that he saw that night, he testified.
When he encountered Arbery weeks later, McMichael was fearing for his and his father’s lives, defense attorney Jason Sheffield argued in court.
Arbery was jogging and stopped by the unoccupied house, his family said. Prosecutors showed the jury surveillance videos of Arbery entering the site, each time wandering around and leaving without incident.
But the defense insisted that, even if he hadn’t stolen anything, Arbery was committing burglary because he entered the under-construction house illegally.
Anderson, the historian, said that people of many races and ethnicities look at houses under construction, and their behavior is seen as standard or normal.
“But for a Black person to do that, somehow that’s criminal. So you have the criminalization of Blackness coursing through this thing,” Anderson said.
The property’s owner, Larry English Jr., testified in September that several people besides Arbery entered the property and that he never authorized the McMichaels to confront anyone.
The McMicheals’ decision to chase Arbery was rooted in the idea that Black people are criminals, Anderson said.
“This was like the slave patrol that felt that it had the right to question Black people, to police the movements of Black people, to challenge Black people wherever they were,” Anderson said.
Defense argued Black pastors were intimidating
Defense attorney Kevin Gough’s attempt to ban Black pastors from the courtroom during the trial was an affront to Black pastors’ role in comforting grieving families.
Gough said that having high-profile figures was intimidating and an attempt to pressure or influence the jury. While he apologized for his comments, days later, more than 100 Black pastors formed a “Wall of Prayer” to show their solidarity with Arbery’s family and their opposition to Gough’s comments.
For Anderson, the author of the 2021 book “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” the attorney’s remarks recalled those made by the defense attorney for the men who killed Emmett Till in 1955.
“When he looked at the jury and said something like, ‘Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you knows that this is what we’re fighting down here. You’ll find these men not guilty.’ That’s what that sounded like to me,” Anderson said.
“It sounded like, ‘Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you knows that Black people are threatening. They’re intimidating. And they’re out to destroy our community. What the McMichaels and Bryan did was protect our community,’” she added.
A nearly all-White jury
The trial jury that found the McMichaels and Bryan guilty consisted of 11 White jurors and one Black juror, a breakdown that fueled the Black community’s lack of confidence in the criminal justice system early on in the trial.
Scholars and law experts said that the racial breakdown was reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and quickly drew comparisons with the aftermath of Emmett Till’s death.
“Here some 65 years later, we’ve advanced to the point of having potentially one Black juror who will sit on this jury,” said Daryl D. Jones, an attorney with the Transformative Justice Coalition, referring to the 1955 trial in which the two men arrested in Till’s slaying were acquitted by an all-White jury.
During the jury selection, defense attorneys drew criticism when they expressed their concerns over the lack of “Bubba” men.
“It would appear that White males born in the South, over 40 years of age, without four-year college degrees, sometimes euphemistically known as ‘Bubba’ or ‘Joe Six Pack,’ seem to be significantly underrepresented,” Gough, the attorney who represented Bryan, told the court at the time.
Other cases are ‘eerily similar’
Over the past decade, many unarmed Black men and boys have been dehumanized during court procedures.
“Remember they assassinated the character of Trayvon Martin after he had been assassinated, and now they’re doing the exact same thing almost 10 years later with Ahmaud Arbery. I mean, the similarities are eerily similar,” Crump, the attorney representing Arbery’s father, said 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 years old when he was shot to death by George Zimmerman in 2012. The shooting and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal in 2013 launched the Black Lives Matter movement and reminded Americans that they weren’t living in a post-racial society.
After Martin’s death, protesters nationwide wore hoodies in a nod to the shooter’s description of the teenager. Zimmerman told a 911 operator that he saw a “suspicious” person wearing a “dark hoodie” moments before he shot the teenager in what he said was self-defense, according to the police. Martin’s family and supporters said that they believe that race played a role in the shooting.
But nearly 10 years after Martin’s death, civil rights activists and protesters secured some solace from Wednesday’s verdict in the Arbery death trial case.
Speaking outside the courtroom following the convictions of all three defendants, family attorney Crump said, “Think about how long he (Marcus Arbery Sr.) and Wanda have been enduring all the innuendo, all the allegations, all the character assassinations, long legs with dirty toenails. Just imagine all they went through.”
CNN’s Alta Spells, Angela Barajas, Theresa Waldrop and Amir Vera contributed to this report.