US responds to guilty verdict in Ahmaud Arbery murder case

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From the moment the first conviction was handed down in a Georgia courtroom, a cascade of tears and cries of justification flooded the country. Black parents called their children crying. Activists choked and embraced what they called a rare case of justice.

In a country whose cavernous divisions over race, gun and vigilante violence have recently been seen in courtrooms from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Brunswick, Georgia, the convictions were Wednesday against three white men who pursued and murdered Ahmaud Arbery. acclaimed by political leaders and many Americans across the political spectrum.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, said he hoped the rulings would help the country “move forward on a path of healing and reconciliation.” President Biden said the verdict showed that “the justice system is doing its job,” but that Mr. Arbery’s murder and the chilling videotape on which it was recorded were a measure of the country’s continuing racial inequality.

The widespread outcry of support for the jury’s verdict on what some activists called a 21st-century lynching contrasted sharply with the deeply polarized response to the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white 18-year-old who shot two people during the unrest. in Kenosha after the police shooting of a black man last year.

Many conservatives embraced Rittenhouse’s acquittal last week as a victory for self-defense and gun rights, while liberals feared it would encourage armed vigilance in response to protests against racial justice.

“The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict is the America I expect — the Arbery verdict is the America I’m fighting for,” said Rev. Lenny Duncan, 43, a black pastor in Portland, Oregon, who attended many of the demonstrations that stormed the city. last year after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans.

The conviction of all three defendants charged with the murder of Mr. Arbery in February 2020 – Travis McMichael, 35; his father, Gregory McMichael, 65; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, received few reprimands or protests.

Travis McMichael’s lawyers told reporters they respected the jury’s decision but planned to appeal the verdict, which they described as “disappointing and sad.”

“This is a very difficult day for Travis McMichael and Greg McMichael,” said Jason Sheffield, one of the attorneys, adding that they both “honestly believe that what they did was the right thing to do.”

The men are also charged with federal hate crimes and are expected to appear before them in February.

The verdict came as a relief to some black Americans who had watched the trial with sadness and fear. Many had desperately hoped for a guilty verdict but feared the mostly white jury would side with defense attorneys who portrayed the three white defendants as neighbors worried about a wave of crimes in their neighborhood when they saw Mr. Arbery chased as he walked down the street.

“Thank God for this verdict today,” said Warren Stewart Jr., a black pastor and political activist in Phoenix. “I started calling some friends and they are crying on the phone. It’s bittersweet. With two black sons, this is scary. This is real life for us.”

Stewart’s 18-year-old son, Micaiah, paid close attention to the trial, and the family tried to balance its hopes and prayers for a conviction against a long history of high-profile murders of black men and women who have been charged by the justice system. have been declared justified.

“It happens too often that they get away with it,” Micaiah Stewart said. He said Arbery’s murder on a public street seemed to confirm his own fear of just going out as a young black man in the United States.

Some black Americans said the trial was a test of their shaky faith in the justice system. They said the video showing an unarmed black man being chased, cornered and shot left little room for doubt in their minds that Mr Arbery’s death was murder.

“We look forward to the day when it’s no question when a person is lynched by a racist that it’s murder,” said Hawk Newsome, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, which found the guilty pleas a “partial victory.” “

Newsome said the convictions for Arbery’s murder alongside Rittenhouse’s acquittal for shooting three white men protesting the police’s shooting of a black man were a “mixed message”.

“You can’t outright chase and kill black people and those who support them,” he said. “But if you make it look like self-defense, you have a chance.”

In Atlanta, Chris Stewart, a lawyer who has represented several families of black people killed by white police officers, fought back tears as he ponders the Georgia verdict.

“It’s good to see racism losing,” said Mr. Stewart, who belongs to the family of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man who was shot in the back by a South Carolina police officer in 2015. “This case will be remembered for many years to come. You cannot emphasize enough how big this is.”

Mr Stewart said if the verdict had gone the other way: “It would have broken me – I would have lost faith in the system.” He said the jury’s decision “shows African Americans that justice is possible”.

But only occasionally, many said. The three suspects were not arrested until weeks after the shooting, and only once did a video of Mr. Arbery caused nationwide outrage and anger.

“They had no choice but to convict them,” said Wilburt Dawson, 68, as he and a friend sat at Dugan’s restaurant and bar in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward pondering the verdict.

“But none of this will happen without the video,” said his friend, Curtis Duren, 64. If the men had been acquitted, “there would have been such a revolt,” said Mr. To last. “It would have destroyed the moral fabric of America.”

In Brunswick, local officials and activists largely heralded the verdict. Allen Booker, a city commissioner who represents the majority of Brunswick’s black residents, said he was overjoyed for Mr. Arbery, while acknowledging that nothing Mr. Arbery could bring back.

Bobby Henderson, co-founder of A Better Glynn, a local organization formed in the wake of Mr. Arbery’s death to promote greater diversity in local leadership, said he was delighted that Mr. Arbery’s family responsibility, but that more work was needed “to fight the system that failed Ahmaud that day.”

The courthouse in Brunswick, where the trial took place, became a scene of howling celebrations.

Outside, where activists and supporters of Mr. Arbery hugged and cried and grabbed each other’s hands as a gesture of victory, John Howard, 60, a white man from Hazlehurst, Georgia, said justice had been served.

He called the murder “a lynching.” Mr Howard said race relations seemed to be better when he was young. He grew up in the countryside and called his black elders ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’. The chasm is deeper now, he said, but it felt like people gathered to protest injustice. “Black and white citizens are getting tired of it,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

Theawanza Brooks, the aunt of Mr. Arbery, said, “Thank God” as the judge read out each conviction. Another aunt of Mr. Arbery, Diane Arbery Jackson, simply said, “This is great.”

They were both in tears. The day had been emotional, with relatives crying as the video of Mr Arbery’s murder played before the jury in the morning. At various times during deliberations, those present in the overflow room prayed together for a guilty verdict.

When the judge finished reading the verdict, the people in the room raised their fists. Mr. Arbery’s childhood best friend Akeem Baker was silent as the verdict was read. His head was bowed and his eyes were red from crying. “I feel better,” he said.

Reporting contributed by Rick Rojas, Sergio Olmos, Nate Schweber, Robert Chiarito, Ana Facio Krajcer and Christian Boonen.

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