By Griff Witte, Hannah Knowles and Kim Bellware,
Stephen B. Morton AP
Kyle Rittenhouse, a White man, shot three other White men and was determined by a nearly all-White jury in Wisconsin on Friday to have committed no crime because he was acting in self-defense.
Halfway across the country, in Georgia, a White man has claimed self-defense as he stands trial before a nearly all-White jury for killing a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery.
Race has not been the focus of lawyers’ arguments in either trial. But in both, it looms large.
And now that Rittenhouse has been acquitted, the stakes may be even higher in the Arbery case, with Black Americans who protested police violence and racism during the summer of 2020 saying the integrity of the court system is now on the line.
“Is there any real justice in this system?” asked Barbara Arnwine, a civil rights activist who has been rallying demonstrators in Brunswick, Ga., and attending the trial with Arbery’s family.
She said the verdict in that case — expected as soon as this coming week following closing arguments on Monday — will go a long way toward providing an answer. If the defendants are acquitted, she said, it would be nothing less than “a disaster.”
Although the Rittenhouse and Arbery cases differ in critical respects, there also are key parallels. To many Black Americans, Rittenhouse’s acquittal hardened long-held views that the U.S. legal system is biased toward validating the fears of White men with guns. Acquittals in the Arbery case could cement them.
Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post
A car celebrating the verdict in Rittenhouse’s case is seen in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 20.
Rittenhouse had taken to the streets of Kenosha, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, amid a violent uproar that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. The Illinois teenager was among a contingent of armed civilians — most of them White — who took it upon themselves to protect businesses from the looting and burning that had followed when peaceful protests in the city by Black Lives Matter and other racial justice groups turned violent. The three men he shot — two fatally — were all pursuing him at the time, and one was armed with a handgun.
Arbery, meanwhile, was unarmed. He was jogging through a neighborhood and was gunned down after being chased by three men who say they suspected him of burglary, and were attempting a citizen’s arrest.
“In both cases, you have White individuals who feel they have to make it their duty to go out of their way to reprimand or correct Black people and do so in a lethal and aggressive way,” said Wisconsin state Rep. David Bowen (D), who is Black and represents predominantly Black areas of Milwaukee as well as majority-White suburbs.
Concerns about racial discrimination in the justice system have shadowed the Arbery case from the beginning. They began with local authorities’ response to the February 2020 shooting in coastal Georgia. A prosecutor quickly chalked it up to self-defense and found the three White men — one of whom had worked for the office — justified in chasing an unarmed Black man through their neighborhood in pickup trucks.
A grand jury in September indicted ex-Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson over her handling of the shooting, on allegations she helped shield the men now charged with murder.
District Attorney George Barnhill, who was brought in to take over the case after Johnson recused herself, cast Arbery as the aggressor and emphasized his criminal record. He also asserted that Arbery was filmed “burglarizing” an under-construction home just before the pursuit, though police found no stolen items on the dead man’s body.
Then cellphone video of the shooting leaked, bringing the case to national attention not long before the police killing of George Floyd sparked a broader reckoning with racism in America.
Now the accused face charges of murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. The prosecution has suggested that if anyone could claim self-defense it was Arbery — chased through suburban streets for five minutes before he finally ran toward the man who pointed a shotgun at him.
Barbara Arnwine, center, speaks with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, second from left, at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Nov. 18.
The defense argues that Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan had legitimate suspicions of theft and break-ins, bolstered by surveillance video. Then, they say, Travis McMichael feared for his life when Arbery struck him and grabbed his weapon.
Attorney Kevin Gough — who represents Bryan — has echoed Rittenhouse supporters with his complaints about media coverage and public discussion of the case. Gough on Friday accused a “woke left mob” of influencing the court proceedings.
“This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” Gough said, a day after hundreds gathered outside the courthouse in support of Arbery’s family — largely in response to Gough’s failed attempts to bar Black pastors and civil rights leaders from the gallery.
The trial in Arbery’s killing has not been as politically divisive as Rittenhouse’s, with video of the shooting drawing bipartisan outrage and demands for legal consequences. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) called Arbery’s death “absolutely horrific” last year, while Republican and Democratic state lawmakers united to overhaul Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and pass a hate crimes statute.
The trial itself has avoided explicit allegations of racial bias. But jury selection underscored long-standing concerns about Black people’s under-represenation, as the defense struck all but one Black person from the final panel. And some see the verdict as an inevitable comment on race — who gets the benefit of self-defense and who is deemed threatening.
Defense attorneys “have played to the stereotype of a scary Black man. The physically fit scary Black man,” said Arnwine, the activist and lawyer who founded a group called the Transformative Justice Coalition. “Rittenhouse’s defense played into the stereotype of the angelic poor White boy being threatened.”
Cheryl Bader, a former assistant U.S. attorney and a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said that while people of any race can claim self-defense, implicit bias means that race will inevitably factor into who can successfully claim it.
Studies of implicit bias have consistently shown, she said, that “a White man with a gun conjures images of enforcing the law, keeping people in line. Whereas a Black man with a gun promotes ideas of loss of control or instability or gratuitous violence.”
“This is going to play out when a jury is making a determination about whether someone was in reasonable fear,” Bader said.
There’s a long history of self-defense issues proving decisive in racially charged cases. In 2013, for instance, George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was Black, based on a successful self-defense claim — even though Zimmerman had been following Martin.
It has also been prominent in cases of alleged police brutality: The Kenosha district attorney declined to press charges against the officer who shot Blake because, he argued, Blake was armed with a knife and the officer could successfully claim self-defense in court.
Now, Bader said that because of the ubiquity of guns in American life, she fears that the Rittenhouse verdict will effectively become a permission slip for those armed with weapons, especially White people, to play at vigilante justice.
“It empowers people like the McMichaels to police innocent people on the street,” she said. “We’re turning public spaces into the wild West.”
Those dynamics were on display within minutes of the Rittenhouse verdict on Friday.
Outside the courthouse, some of Rittenhouse’s supporters hailed the verdict as a repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement and other left-leaning protests. One man with a small public address system uttered debunked conspiracy theories about vans full of antifa protesters coming to small towns and called on Americans to “organize” and stop them the next time it happens.
“It sends a message that we have the right to protect ourselves and we don’t have to let the mob rule our country,” he said.
To those advocating for racial justice, the verdict felt like a bad omen.
“My concern is that a few of these vigilantes will be empowered,” said Bryan Hurd, a 41-year-old Black man from Milwaukee. “Next time I go to protest, it will be in the daytime, not at night.”
Not that he was surprised by the decision. Having followed the trial, he said he felt the judge “catered” to the defendant, in what, he said, was an extension of the deference that the police showed Rittenhouse last year.
“It was like he was deputized; sort of ‘cop privilege,’” Hurd said.
Across Kenosha, there was widespread resignation among Black residents that the Rittenhouse verdict was inevitable.
Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post
Kyle Johnson, left, and Devynn Johnson take a smoke break while disassembling tents where activists gathered during a protest in Kenosha on Nov. 20.
“We didn’t expect anything different than that verdict,” said Kyle Johnson, an organizer with Black Leaders Organizing Communities. “Don’t get me wrong, it still stings, it still hurts like hell. But we’re not new to this.”
The streets of Kenosha were quiet Friday night, and remained so through the day on Saturday. Still, Black leaders said the calm should not be mistaken for approval of the jurors’ decision.
“That took us backward probably 20 to 30 years,” said Veronica King, secretary of the Kenosha chapter of the NAACP. “That took us all the way back to Rodney King.”
Police officers beat the Los Angeles motorist in the street following a traffic stop.
“In Rittenhouse‘s case, he shot people in the street, and walked in front of law enforcement, and law enforcement did nothing,” she said.
Bowen, the state lawmaker, pointed to aspects of Rittenhouse’s profile that he said would have counted against a Black teen in the same situation.
“If a Black teen also dropped out of high school; if they also carried firearms unlawfully and they used them; if they came from a single-parent household, there would be a lot more blaming and pointing to the reason for there to be no grace, no forgiveness for that person,” he said.
Patrick Roberts, pastor at First Baptist Kenosha, said he was wary of drawing any direct comparisons between the Rittenhouse case and the trial of the men who killed Arbery.
Race was always in the background of the Rittenhouse case, said Roberts, who is Black and preaches to a mostly White congregation.
In the Arbery verdict, he predicted it would be front and center.
“Georgia,” he said, “will reveal if people see the pain and suffering of Black people.”
Witte and Knowles reported from Washington; Bellware reported from Kenosha. Mark Guarino contributed to this report from Kenosha.