Today, Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced the three men convicted of murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, 2020, as he jogged through a primarily white neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan chased Arbery in their trucks, cornering him on a suburban street. Travis McMichael shot and killed the unarmed Arbery, while Bryan filmed the encounter from inside his truck.
While the men were convicted of several different crimes, all three were convicted of felony murder or of committing felonies that led to Arbery’s death. Under Georgia law, they each faced life in prison, but the judge could determine whether they could be paroled. Judge Walmsley denied the possibility of parole for the McMichael father and son, but allowed it for Bryan. Under Georgia law, that means he will be eligible for parole after 30 years.
The state of Georgia came perilously close to ignoring the crimes that now have the McMichaels and Bryan serving life sentences.
Gregory McMichael was connected to the first two district attorneys in charge of the case, both of whom ultimately recused themselves, but not until they told law enforcement that Georgia’s citizens arrest law, dating from an 1863 law designed to permit white men to hunt down Black people escaping enslavement, enabled the men to chase Arbery and that they had shot him in self-defense. In late April, the state’s attorney general appointed a third district attorney to the investigation. “We don’t know anything about the case,” the new district attorney told reporters. “We don’t have any preconceived idea about it.”
On April 26, pressure from Arbery’s family and the community had kicked up enough dust that the New York Times reported on the case, noting that there had been no arrests. Eager to clear his name, and apparently thinking that anyone who saw the video of the shooting would believe, as the local district attorneys had, that it justified the shooting, on May 6 Gregory McMichael arranged for his lawyer to take the video to a local radio station, which uploaded it for public viewing.
The station took the video down two hours later, but not before a public outcry brought outside oversight. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, and two days later, on May 7, GBI officers arrested the McMichaels. On May 11, the case was transferred to Atlanta, about 270 miles away from Brunswick. On May 21, 2020, officers arrested Bryan.
On Wednesday, November 24, a jury found the three men guilty of a range of crimes on the same day that the first district attorney turned herself in to officials after a grand jury indicted her for violating her oath of office and obstructing police, saying she used her position to discourage law enforcement officers from arresting the McMichaels.
The Arbery case echoes long historical themes. Arbery was a Black man, executed by white men who saw an unarmed jogger as a potential criminal and believed they had a right to arrest him. But it is also a story of local government and outsiders, and which are best suited to protect democracy.
From the nation’s early years, lawmakers who wanted to protect their own interests have insisted that true American democracy is local, where voters can make their wishes clearly known. They said that the federal government must not intervene in the choices state voters made about the way their government operated despite the fact that the federal government represents the will of the vast majority of Americans. Federal intervention in state laws, they said, was tyranny.
But those lawmakers shaped the state laws to their own interests by limiting the vote. They actually developed and deployed their argument primarily to protect the institution of human enslavement (although it was used later to promote big business). If state voters—almost all white men who owned at least some property—wanted to enslave their Black neighbors, the reasoning went, the federal government had no say in the matter despite representing the vast majority of the American people.
After the Civil War, the federal government stepped in to enable Black men to protect their equality before the law by guaranteeing their right to vote in the states. But it soon abandoned the effort and let the South revert to a one-party system in which who you knew and what you looked like mattered far more than the law.
After World War II, returning veterans, civil rights lawyers, and grassroots organizers set out to register Black and Brown people to vote in their home states and got beaten and murdered for their efforts. So in 1965, Congress stepped in, passing the Voting Rights Act.
It took only about 20 years for states once again to begin cutting back on voting rights. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and states promptly began to make it harder to vote. Since the 2020 election, 19 Republican-dominated states have made it even harder. Many of those states are now functionally one-party states, in which equality before the law matters less than belonging to the dominant group.
Now, once again, right-wing leaders are trying to center our government on the states. Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments about the Biden administration’s vaccine or testing requirement for businesses that have more than 100 employees. (Ironically, two of the lawyers arguing against the mandate had to appear virtually because they had tested positive for Covid and the Supreme Court protocols prohibited them from the court.)
A majority of the justices indicated they thought such a mandate was government overreach. Knowing that Republicans in the Senate would never permit similar legislation, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the pandemic “sounds like the sort of thing that states will be responding to or should be, and that Congress should be responding to or should be, rather than agency by agency the federal government and the executive branch acting alone.”
But states that are restricting the vote almost certainly will not respond to the pandemic in a way that represents the will of the majority, and Republicans are trying to guarantee that the federal government cannot protect voting. Just last Tuesday, January 4, 2022, Republican senators reiterated their opposition to the Democrats’ Freedom to Vote Act.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters that there was no need for federal election protections because states would never overturn the counting of votes after an election (although a number of state legislators tried to do just that in 2020). “The notion that some state legislature would be crazy enough to say to their own voters, ‘We’re not going to honor the results of the election’ is ridiculous on its face,” he said. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) said that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) “is using the false narrative that our states cannot protect voters’ access to voting.”
They can, of course. The problem is that historically, many of them do the opposite. And the minority rule that results not only results in poor governance, it leads to the sort of society in which three men can hunt down and shoot an unarmed jogger and, unless outsiders happen to step in, run a good chance of getting away with it.
I outlined the events of the Arbery killing on November 26, 2001.
I can’t believe Roberts said this “the pandemic sounds like the sort of thing that states will be responding to or should be, and that Congress should be responding to”, and then attacked the Federal government for responding. The rest of his statement should have been, “Given the complete failure of said states and Congress to act to protect the health and safety of their citizens in this pandemic, it is not only important but utterly necessary for the Federal government to intervene. Let me be clear - the states and Congress have failed. That they are suing the Federal government instead of thanking it is a travesty. Case dismissed!”
More Important News from the state of Georgia:
'DON'T COME TO ATLANTA WITHOUT A PLAN TO PASS VOTING LAWS,, GROUPS TELL BIDEN AND HARRIS'
'A coalition of Georgia voting rights groups says President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should skip traveling to Atlanta next week unless they come with a concrete plan to pass federal voting laws immediately.'
'The statement was signed by the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Asian American Advocacy Fund, the New Georgia Project Action Fund and the GALEO Impact Action Fund, an organization representing Latinos. The groups reference Biden’s win in Georgia, plus Democrats’ victories in the January runoffs that gave the party control of the U.S. Senate.'
“Georgia voters made history and made their voices heard, overcoming obstacles, threats, and suppressive laws to deliver the White House and the US Senate,” the statement said. “In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises. Such an empty gesture, without concrete action, without signs of real, tangible work, is unacceptable.”
'The White House announced Wednesday that both the president and vice president would visit Atlanta on Tuesday to talk about the importance of passing new voting and election standards. But such legislation has stalled in the Senate, with Republicans using the filibuster to block debate and a 50-member Democratic majority unable to reach agreement on how to change Senate rules so that the legislation can pass by a simple majority vote.'
'The White House did not have an immediate response to the criticism from the voting groups. Press Secretary Jen Psaki during her daily press briefing reiterated statements Biden said in the past about supporting a Senate rule change to get voting bills passed, which is a priority for him. But the administration has not shared its game plan for overcoming the hurdles that remain.'
'There are two bills these activists would like to see become law, especially ahead of the legislative session in states such as Georgia where Republicans could attempt to pass new laws that reduce access to the ballot or make it more difficult to vote.'
'One proposal, named for the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, would reinstate federal oversight before states and local governments that reach certain criteria are allowed to change voting or election laws. The other would make Election Day a holiday, limit voter purges, allow people to register to vote and cast a ballot the same day, and create national standards for redistricting, early voting, drop boxes and voting by mail.'
'The statement from the voting rights groups says that they will “reject any visit by President Biden that does not include an announcement of a finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law; anything less is insufficient and unwelcome.”
'James Woodall, the former president of the Georgia NAACP, is among the signers of the statement. He said Biden and Harris are welcome to visit Atlanta, but what is really needed is that they work harder on Capitol Hill.'
“The White House must respond to this current attack on democracy, and coming to Georgia for discussions is nice, but what we need is urgent action in D.C.,” he said. “We need to see the passage and signing of both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
'Georgia voters made history and made their voices heard, overcoming obstacles, threats, and suppressive laws to deliver the White House and the US Senate. In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises. Such an empty gesture, without concrete action, without signs of real, tangible work, is unacceptable. As civil rights leaders and advocates, we reject any visit by President Biden that does not include an announcement of a finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law; anything less is insufficient and unwelcome.
'Georgia will not be used as a two-dimensional backdrop, a chess piece in someone else’s ineffectual political dealings. Georgia voters are more than just convenient props in a political image game. Georgians are fighting every day to protect our freedom to vote from unrelenting attacks. We are tired, but we persist in doing the work. In the past year alone, voters and advocates have fought an onslaught of devastating anti-voter proposals, and have organized in the aftermath of the passage of SB 202. Right now, advocates and local leaders are fighting to stop the closure of 7 out of 8 polling places in Lincoln County — where over one-third of voters are Black. Just next week, the state legislature will convene, with Republican leaders already proudly touting their plans to attack voting access, push to ban drop boxes, and erect new hurdles in the path of voters. And the voters and advocates in Georgia remain, ready to do the work to try and slow them down and stop them from taking away their freedom to vote.'
'So as President Biden and Vice President Harris plan their visit to Georgia, our message is simple: We have voted, we have advocated, and we have organized. We have done the work. Now, it is time for you to deliver, and for you to do the work. We need President Biden and Vice President Harris to demand we restore the Senate and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act NOW.'
'We reject any political visit that does not also come with policy progress — with signs of clear work done, of something accomplished. We reject any visit that fails to begin with the question “How does this serve the people of Georgia?” It is time for final action on voting rights, and Georgians are waiting.'
'Voters Matter Fund'
'Asian American Advocacy Fund'
'Woodall, former Georgia NAACP President'
'GALEO Impact Action Fund'
'New Georgia Project Action Fund'
The mission for all of us, our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, colleagues and everyone we can reach is to express to President Biden, Vice President Harris and all of our elected representatives the urgency for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It is the first priority in the NEW YEAR for all citizens in support of FAIR AND FREE ELECTIONS in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The preceding article By Tia Mitchell, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was copied almost entirely in full. The links below to articles about this story are paywall, (on a website) an arrangement which limits access to users who have paid to subscribe to the site.