BRUNSWICK, Ga. — In the seconds after a "guilty" verdict came down — ending the emotional trial of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery — the anxious throng assembled outside the Glynn County Courthouse erupted. Strangers embraced, tears flowed and people prayed.
Mostly, however, was a sense of shared relief.
The sheath of impending unrest that hovered over this small coastal town lifted like cloud cover. The specter of an uprising was gone; the hope that justice for Black people can be received was restored — if only momentarily.
“Hallelujah,” said Cee Cee Warner, a Brunswick native who said she skipped work in anticipation of a verdict. “We can breathe again. We tried to downplay it, but there was a lot of tension, especially in the Black community. We were scared what could happen with the verdict — the wrong verdict. And that scared me because I think there would have been rioting and everything else. It would have become ugly. Our city could have burned down.”
Instead, Black America in general and Brunswick in particular waited for the verdict.
The nearly all-white jury convicted Travis McMichael of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. His father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were acquitted of the top charge. All now face up to life in prison.
The three white men tracked Arbery, who was Black, in a pickup truck and gunned him down in the street on February 23, 2020.
The McMichaels toted weapons — the father a handgun; the shooter, Travis McMichael, a shotgun used to blast three shots at close range into Arbery. Bryan followed without a gun, but blocked Arbery’s path, leading to the fatal confrontation in a quiet subdivision.
Media from around the world descended upon this nondescript town that has been the center of attention since jury selection began in October.
“Maybe everyone will go away now,” Warner said. “Everyone has known the name of our city for the wrong, horrible reasons. This verdict can at least be a positive for the city.”
“I’m more relieved than happy,” Michael Irvin, a teacher from the Orlando, Florida, area told NBC News outside the courthouse. He said he drove more than three hours to Brunswick in anticipation of a verdict Wednesday. “I don’t want to be a spoilsport, but what if that video had not come out several months later? A young Black man would have been taken from his family and community with no one held responsible. That part, I can’t ignore. So, I’m happy justice was served. But even in a case that seemed pretty obvious to me and most people, we had to pray and hope and wish and pray some more for justice. It shouldn’t be that way. We shouldn’t have to go through all these emotions just to feel like a Black life matters.”
At Brunswick High, where Arbery graduated in 2012, students said the discussion around the building on the case was limited. But the tension was pervasive.
“If the verdict was not guilty, the city would have been hot,” student Keon Leggett, 17, said. “What they did to him was wrong. And we all felt it. He was one of us.”
The jury deliberated for one day to convict the trio of men who had claimed they were making a citizen’s arrest. Because Thanksgiving was approaching and the jury discussed the case for an extended period after it received the case Tuesday, the anticipation of a verdict Wednesday mounted. The crowd doubled in anticipation of the verdict between Tuesday and Wednesday.
The atmosphere outside the courthouse was festive after the verdict, with chants of “Justice for Ahmaud” and “Say his name ... Ahmaud Arbery,” a sustained calling. When Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and father, Marcus Arbery, exited the courtroom and walked toward the steps of the courthouse, the crowd erupted.
“You all know him as Arbery; I know him as ‘Quez.’ He can now rest in peace,” Cooper-Jones said. “I never thought this day would come back in 2020. But God is good.”
“In one sense, the jury had no choice — it was evident they hunted down and killed this young man,” Mary Lewis Richards said. She said Brunswick is her hometown, but she lives in Atlanta. “In another sense, we have seen what happens when white people kill Black people — nothing. So I couldn’t be comfortable at all that they would get what they deserve. But I tell you what, I feel so good right now.”
At a mural of Arbery a few blocks from the courthouse at G and Albany streets, a small crowd gathered and rejoiced.
“Ahmaud didn’t deserve to die, especially like that, hunted in the streets,” Gloria Johnson said, glancing at the large image of him as a high school student. “Look at that beautiful young man. He had so much to live for. It would have been worse if justice had not been done. Thank God it was. He deserved at least that. And with the Minnesota case, let’s hope this means change.”
She referred to the conviction of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd last year.
“We have had a lot of losses in cases like this, where Black people are killed by white people,” Will Bethune said. He drove from Savannah with five friends to wait for the verdict at the courthouse.
“We were cramped up in that car, but it was important to be here,” he added. “For the family. For history. For Ahmaud Arbery. In times like these, we have to come together because no one is coming to save us. We’ve seen obvious cases like George Zimmerman get off for killing Trayvon Martin. So we couldn’t take it for granted this would happen.
“But now that it has, a lot of stress has been let go. Maybe we can get back to living without everything hanging over us. Maybe.”