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Black residents feel tension in Georgia town where Ahmaud Arbery was killed

They hope for justice in Arbery's death but fear volatility if there are no convictions.
A woman waves a Black Lives Matter flag outside the Glynn County Courthouse, where jury selection in Ahmaud Arbery's murder trial is underway, in Brunswick, Ga., on Oct. 19, 2021.
A woman waves a Black Lives Matter flag Tuesday outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., where jury selection is underway in the murder trial of three men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Octavio Jones / Reuters

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — At the intersection of Burford Road, Satilla Drive and Holmes Road, there was nary a sign Monday morning of the horrific event that occurred there more than a year and a half ago.  

There were no remnants of Ahmaud Arbery’s blood on the streets of this coastal town after he was fatally shot on Feb. 23, 2020. No flowers or stuffed animals to memorialize the 25-year-old Black man who had been on a jog when prosecutors say two white men tracked him down and killed him.

Other than a man mowing his lawn, it was uneventful on the streets that are lined with modest homes and prodigious trees.

Nine miles away, inside the Glenn County Courthouse, though, jury selection had begun for the trial of the two men — Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael — and a neighbor, William Bryan, who videotaped the encounter on his cellphone. Lawyers for the three men say they were acting in self-defense; all three are charged with murder.

Outside the courthouse, a collection of religious and civic leaders — Black and white — met on the steps of the building in a show of unity. 

It was as much a collective prayer for the survival of the town as it was an attempt to comfort Arbery’s family.

All eyes on the jury

While the courthouse rally Monday emphasized the community's coming together as the trial began, the possibility that the McMichaels and Bryan may be acquitted is leaving residents tense and anxious.  

“Bottom line,” said Micah Rich, a Brunswick native who now lives in Savannah, “if these men are not found guilty, the jury is telling us that our lives don’t matter, that you can see a guy get killed on video, a guy who was doing nothing but jogging, and no one pays for it. If we have to go through the jury somehow justifying that, well, I’m not predicting an explosion. You can count on it.”

Ahmaud Arbery with his mother, Wanda Cooper.Family photo

And therein lies the pressure on the 12 people who will make up the jury. It’s not just three defendants on trial, local leaders said.

“The criminal justice system is on trial — again,” said John Perry, a former president of the Brunswick NAACP who resigned to run for mayor. “Part of my message has been that we can passionately pursue justice without peace being the expense. ... But for the Black community, we’ve been appalled by what we saw on that video. So the trial will let us know as Black and brown people if we have a justice system that we can trust to be fair for all people.”

Of major concern for the Black community is the jury pool. Brunswick is majority Black, but the trial is taking place in Glynn County, where 27 percent Black, 7 percent Latino and 64 percent white. Jury selection for the trial is expected to last at least two weeks, as 600 people are were called for the process this week and potentially another 400 next week to find 12 jurors and four alternates.

“It is a lived experience for Black people in America that we can never take for granted that a white person will be convicted for killing a Black person,” attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said near the courthouse. “We are here focused on justice. A slap on the wrist would not be enough.”

A woman holds a placard Tuesday as people visit the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Ga., where Ahmaud Arbery was killed, as jury selection continues in the murder trial of three man charged in his death.Octavio Jones / Reuters

Mario Williams, a civil rights lawyer from Atlanta, said the video, while decisive to many, may not be enough to sway a jury that he predicts will probably be composed of mostly white members.

“Even with video evidence, you’re doubtful,” Williams said. “And it also makes us have doubt because of where they are drawing that jury pool from. You’re in southern Georgia, which does not have a stellar history of dealing with prejudice and racism against Blacks. So, it’s scary because the thinking is, ‘Can this jury pool do the right thing?’”

A complicated aftermath to a shocking shooting

How the case unfolded has not instilled confidence, either. Arbery was followed by the McMichaels and Bryan — because the father and son said they believed he had broken into homes in their neighborhood — cornered him on a street and Travis McMichael shot him with a shotgun. The McMichaels, who have been accused of being motivated by racial animus, have said they thought Arbery was a burglar. Bryan said he was just a witness.

No charges were brought until Bryan, who trailed the McMichaels in a separate car, released the cellphone video nearly three months later, and only after mounting public pressure and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had seized the case from the Glynn County Police. Now, the McMichaels and Bryan face state charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. Each has pleaded not guilty.

The district attorney at the time, Jackie Johnson, faces charges of obstructing prosecution of the McMichaels; the elder McMichael was a former police officer who had worked in the D.A.’s office as an investigator for more than 30 years before he retired in 2019. Several judges and prosecutors also recused themselves from the case. Superior Court Judge Timothy Wamsley from Savannah presides over the trial. 

The defendants also face federal charges for hate crimes in a trial set for February 2022. 

Arbery’s aunt, Diann Arbery Jackson, said she watched the video of her nephew’s death Monday morning before heading to court. “It does something to you,” she said, fighting back tears. “We just want justice.”

People pray Tuesday as they visit the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Ga., where Ahmaud Arbery was killed.Octavio Jones / Reuters

Some fear that a lack of what the Black people in town perceive as justice could result in civil disobedience.

“It’s not going to take much,” said Dwala Nobles, a Brunswick native who works with the local Episcopalian Archdiocese’s racial justice team. “When you have the visual evidence, then it’s very clear because your eyes are not lying to you. So, to have anything other than a guilty verdict means that those bodies sitting on that jury didn’t see what you saw. And the question would be: Why?

“That’s a level of denial that got us in this position in the first place in this country.”

Perry, the mayoral candidate, pointed to several changes that have followed Arbery’s death: The city hired its first Black police chief, Johnson was voted out as district attorney, and the Georgia Legislature repealed the state’s citizen arrest law and passed new hate crimes legislation

“We’re still working together in the spirit of unity to make sure that race relations are what they need for us to be a healthy and thriving community,” Perry said.  

Williams noted, however, that a harmonious community will be hard to achieve if there are no guilty verdicts.

“All hell’s going to break loose if they come out there with one of those typical, nonsensical verdicts,” he said. “There could be a lot of property damage and a lot of people that get hurt. And unfortunately, they’ll turn around and blame the people who are upset and rioting instead of blaming the people who actually are enforcing and ingraining racism throughout our judicial system.”

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CORRECTION (Nov. 5, 3:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the demographics of Glynn County. It is 27 percent Black, 7 percent Latino and 64 percent white; not 16 percent Black, 4 percent Latino and 78 percent white.