Jury selection has started in the trial of three men who hunted down and shot an unarmed jogger in a Georgia suburb in February 2020. Yet the names of the actual defendants—Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan—are noticeably absent from the headlines and popular references to the case. The three men stand accused of nine charges, including five counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of malice murder, and yet—according to many headlines—it is their deceased victim, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who appears to be on trial.
This familiar pattern of legal role reversal, where perpetrators shape-shift into victims and victims into perpetrators, has prompted contemporary efforts to elevate the names of Black victims of white supremacist violence. Movements to #SayTheirNames and #SayHerName resist long-standing traditions of cultural gaslighting that obscure the humanity of the victims of racial terror, including police violence, behind criminalizing rhetoric and appeals to public safety. Saying the names of the deceased centers their humanity and reclaims their victimhood.
But against the backdrop of pervasive injustice and structural inequity, well-intentioned efforts at restorative justice can produce paradoxical effects if victims’ names are “said” in the wrong contexts. By repeatedly centering Arbery and other victims of white violence in their trial coverage, mainstream news outlets inadvertently suggest that Arbery is the one on trial, reinforcing this destructive role reversal. Media outlets must prioritize the accurate portrayal of these cases over search engine optimized headlines and character limits. Given the emphasis on searchability and the speed in contemporary media transmission, poet Dede Akolo cautions, “Black death becomes just another online spectacle when it’s boiled down into something easy to share and easy to manipulate.” Similarly, context is key when saying the names of the deceased. Associating their names with the criminal cases of their killers creates a decontextualizing shorthand for the case itself, ultimately erasing their killers’ culpability.
This media erasure can have major consequences in the courtroom. Claims of justifiable homicide in self-defense depend on the “reasonable” perception of threat that a defendant experienced when they used lethal violence. Courtroom efforts to prove such reasonableness often reverse the roles of victim and perpetrator. A claim of self-defense demands that the deceased become a fearsome perpetrator, someone easy to imagine as a dire threat, and whose execution may be framed as a public service. These cases draw from a familiar, recurring script in which the defendant masquerades as a victim who was “reasonably” defending his neighborhood, and himself, from a dangerous criminal.
The emphasis on the person killed—their foibles and priors—obscures the killer’s responsibility (we may recall stories like this one, where the New York Times claimed that slain teen Michael Brown “was no angel”). The trial of 31-year-old George Zimmerman for the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin hinged on the question of Zimmerman’s right to defend himself from danger.* Something similar happened in the so-called George Floyd case, where Floyd’s criminal history took center stage while Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed him, appeared in uniform as a protector of the public.* In case after case, the burden of proof in the court of public opinion shifts from the killer to the deceased, as the mantle of victimhood swings in the opposite direction. Under these circumstances, the language of victimhood itself is contested terrain, as illustrated in the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s defense team’s filing of a motion in limine to prevent Arbery from being referred to as a victim in court.
From its inception, the homicide trial of McMichael, McMichael, and Bryan has turned on whether Arbery deserves to be perceived as a victim, and whether his killers were reasonable in perceiving him as a threat to their safety. The defendants insist that they were protecting their neighborhood from a suspected criminal, and their defense team has amassed a trove of evidence to prove that their actions were not only reasonable but noble. The case centers less on what the three men did than on who Arbery was. The defense team has worked to uncover and expose the darkest recesses of the dead man’s past—combing through mental health records, tracking legal infractions, revealing personal history—to craft a coherent narrative that erases white culpability and Black victimhood. The defense’s goal is to exclude the deceased from victimhood while effacing the aggression and bias that motivated Bryan and the McMichaels.
There is torturous logic at play here: To memorialize the victims of racist violence, we must amplify their names. But, in the wrong context, such amplification can undermine the critical justice-seeking mission at the heart of movements to #SayTheirNames. So whose names should be associated with criminal cases? The stubbornly uneven legal terrain—and the wider representational landscape—on which these and other homicide cases play out does not lend itself to easy answers. If we were confident that the defendants would be held accountable for killing, perhaps there would be less urgency to broadcast anyone’s name, because we could trust our legal system to deliver the justice it promises. Yet centuries of injustice prove the lie of legal neutrality.
Even as we amplify Arbery’s name to remember him and grieve his loss, the association of his name with the trial of his killers serves existing sensationalist practices that undermine white culpability while reinforcing legal injustices. The mainstream media—with its powerful influence in shaping the cultural framework through which we understand victimhood itself—must resist the urge to spectacularize Black death. It’s time we placed the names of white killers front and center in our depictions of their court cases, refusing to allow their victims to stand trial.
Correction, Oct. 25, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Trayvon Martin’s first name and Derek Chauvin’s first name.