When Americans around the country and social justice observers around the globe exhaled in a collective sigh of relief for the felony murder convictions of the three men charged with killing 25-year-old jogger Ahmaud Arbery, that sense of relief was palpable.
But with no time to rest on our laurels for this one victory, in justice for an innocent Black man, many are motivated to examine the dubious defense claims and strategies in a litany of cases involving supposed racially-fueled citizen’s arrest and self-defense trial strategies at work in courtrooms across the country.
Travis McMichaels, Ahmaud Arbery’s executioner, admitted on the stand that he shot and killed Arbery in self-defense because the defenseless runner didn’t respond to his order to stop, and ultimately grabbed the barrel of the shotgun McMichaels was pointing at him.
Although the Arbery tragedy caused Georgia legislators to remove citizen’s arrest laws from the books, I have to ask, how often are citizen’s arrests enacted by Black citizens against whites suspected of engaging in some level of criminal activity?
The charge now for Black Americans is as it has always been: to ensure justice for scores of other Black Americans awaiting trial and, ultimately, decisions that will determine behind or before bars in these questionable and complex cases.
I say “complex” because the overt racial themes and heightened social discontent that colors these convictions are constantly countered – even contradicted – with tailor-made verdicts to fit more agreeable outcomes for any given set of political and social circumstances.
The conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers followed closely on the heels and in strange juxtaposition to the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the verdict is more than a little perplexing.
The 19-year-old Illinois resident armed himself with an automatic weapon and travelled to Kenosha, WI, to insert himself in the aftermath of protests after Jacob Blake was shot and maimed for life. Rittenhouse walked using the self-defense argument in the killing of two men and shooting of another.
President Joe Biden commented on the Rittenhouse verdict on Nov. 19, six days prior to the verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery case.
“Look, I stand by what the jury has concluded,” Biden said following the news of Rittenhouse’s acquittal. “The jury system works and we have to abide by it.”
And while we can’t have vigilantes patrolling our communities with assault weapons, we also can’t have self-appointed enforcers provoking volatile situations in order to meet their objectives.
With Trayvon Martin, the teenager gunned down on Feb. 26, 2012, the case sparked a cry across the nation for reforms in the criminal justice system. Trayvon’s armed killer got off with a self-defense plea, even though he had been warned against vigilantism. And his young victim was only carrying a bag of Skittles.
But will Wisconsin’s self-defense rule apply to Chrystul Kizer, who was 17 years old when she shot and killed her White abuser and sex trafficker Randall Volar III in Kenosha in June 2018? She has been awaiting trial for three years on five felony charges, including first-degree intentional homicide. There are too many stories like Kizer’s to list in any detail here, but be assured there are tens of thousands to be determined at some point in the scales of justice.
For now, I hope that these guilty verdicts for the white supremacists who murdered Arbery gives him and other ancestors some rest. For the future, I hope that outcomes like those in this case become the norm rather than a passing anomaly.