When the defense for the three white men accused of murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he was out on a jog last year rested its case on Friday, the jury had heard remarkably little about the way race may have informed or motivated Arbery’s killing. The defense team went to great lengths to depoliticize the trial and to minimize any suggestion that Gregory and Travis McMichael or William Bryan acted on racial animus against Arbery, who was Black. The prosecution, for its part, has shied away from suggesting that bigotry may have played a role in the shooting too, possibly because such an argument would not be favorable with the nearly all white jury pool.
There’s just one problem with this approach, besides the fact the defendants are also charged with a federal hate crime: It doesn’t work. Even without overt discussion of race over 10 days of testimony, the overwhelming whiteness (and maleness) of the defendants has been on full display. Consider the defense’s main argument: that the defendants acted in self-defense. It hinges on the jury’s understanding of a series of perceived threats, threats that surfaced only after the defendants attempted to arrest Arbery for trespassing. “I knew that he was on me, I knew that I was losing this. I knew that he was overpowering me,” Travis McMichael said. “If he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life-or-death situation. And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”
On the surface, his comments seem race-neutral. But his testimony highlights a commonly used defense of perpetrators of violence against unarmed Black people: fear. Never mind that McMichael and his father ran Arbery down with their truck. Never mind they were the only ones armed. Never mind that Arbery was outnumbered three to one. Never mind that he had been running for miles before the altercation. Never mind that the defendants went looking for a confrontation. Never mind all that. It was McMichael who found himself in a life-or-death situation that required him to make a swift, irrevocable action—despite his testifying that he had been trained in deescalation tactics.
McMichael’s words are reminiscent of past testimony from white men who also claimed to be incredibly scared of the unarmed Black person they stalked, shot, and killed. The testimony echoes that of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, when he, on the witness stand, described feeling like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. “That’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm,” he said. It echoes that of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, when Zimmerman said he feared for his life after pursuing Martin.
Fear of being overpowered by Arbery isn’t even the only racist dog whistle in this case. In coverage of the initial shooting, nearly every media outlet parroted the McMichaels’ claims that they pursued Arbery out of concerns over rising crime in the neighborhood—in particular, a series of break-ins. But in court last week, those claims fell apart. The prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, pointed out that out of all of the 911 calls made in 2019, only one was for burglary, and ultimately that call turned out to be a false alarm. Dunikoski then asked Travis McMichael how he learned about crime in the neighborhood, to which he replied that he learned from Facebook and his mother.
The testimony highlights a crucial privilege of whiteness (and maleness): always being given the benefit of the doubt. For months before they were even indicted, the defendants got to spread their version of the story. And the media published their claims over and over without questioning, fact-checking, or offering a counternarrative. Decades of research have shown that media outlets overemphasize crime coverage, causing many Americans to believe crime rates are higher than they actually are. Once again, Travis McMichael’s testimony appears race-neutral on the surface but is actually laden with racial implications. From the very beginning, the defendants claimed the narrative upper hand by tapping into an easily accepted fear for white Americans everywhere, and the national media helped them do it.
These initial “fears” have given way to new ones as the trial winds to a close. Lawyers for the defendants appeared threatened by Black pastors’ presence in the courtroom: They’ve asked the judge to bar “any more Black pastors from coming up in here” and to not allow additional “high-profile members of the African-American community” to sit in on the trial. When the Rev. Al Sharpton joined Arbery’s family in court, defense attorney Kevin Gough called Sharpton’s presence “intimidating.” (He also confused Sharpton for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had not yet come to Brunswick, Georgia.) Here, the defense positions the Black pastors’ presence as yet another perceived “threat” requiring a swift and forceful response.
Despite attempting to sanitize the case from any semblance of history, Gough shows he is acutely aware of the case’s racial overtones. He was worried that Sharpton’s presence was “an attempt to pressure—could be consciously or unconsciously—an attempt to pressure or influence the jury.” Is he concerned the jury will make meaning out of the fact that Sharpton is a civil rights icon? That the jury might see Sharpton and other Black pastors providing comfort and counsel to Arbery’s grieving parents? Maybe it’s the fact that Sharpton called Arbery’s killing “a lynching in the 21st century.” No matter the answer, it is clear that despite Gough cloaking his comments as a well-meaning attempt to ensure his clients receive a fair trial, he is aware of this case’s connection to the long history of Black pastors comforting victims of racial violence. (Ultimately, the judge was unpersuaded and kept the court doors open to the public.)
Even after Judge Timothy R. Walmsley rebuked the defense for these statements, calling them “reprehensible,” the defense team petitioned him to declare a mistrial after Arbery’s mother broke down and wept in the gallery. The defense claims the jurors might be unduly influenced by displays of emotion. (Once the crying began, jurors were ushered out of the room.) Gough and his team treated Wanda Cooper-Jones’ tears as so potentially devastating to their case that the whole trial needed to be thrown out. It is worth asking why the defense would be so alarmed by this display of emotion. Perhaps it has something to do with the motion they filed to prevent the prosecution from calling Arbery a victim, which they say unfairly suggests their clients’ guilt. The motion was denied, but a weeping mother, crying over the loss of her son, sends a visceral and powerful signal to the jury about who was harmed here.
The defense thinks there is only enough space for one set of emotions in this trial. The only emotion that matters here is their clients’ overwhelming fear for their lives, which was precipitated by a fear of crime in their neighborhood. Their defense positions the McMichaels and Bryan as both victims and defenders. They were threatened by “rising crime,” so they went out and defended the neighborhood. They were “threatened” by Arbery, so they had to kill him. They are “threatened” by Black pastors, so they try to bar them from the court. They are “threatened” by Arbery’s mom’s tears, so they ask for a mistrial.
But this focus on the defendants’ fears only highlights the defense’s callousness to Black pain. Imagine what it might have felt like for Arbery as the McMichaels closed in on him in their truck, clad in a Confederate license plate, with the elder McMichael clutching his handgun in the flatbed.* Imagine how tired and scared Arbery must have been after running for his life. Imagine what he must have felt the moment he realized he could no longer outrun his killers. Imagine what it might have felt like to lie, nearly dead and bleeding in the street, as the younger McMichael stands over and allegedly yells “f*****g n****r.”
Arbery must have been terrified. But his fear somehow no longer counts.
Correction, Nov. 24, 2021: This article originally misstated that the elder McMichael had a shotgun. He had a handgun.