On January 7, Travis and Gregory McMichael and William Bryan, three whites, were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man.
In 2020, the McMichael chased Arbery while he was jogging. Travis McMichael shot him, and William Bryan filmed the meeting. Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer in Georgia and a former district attorney investigator.
Lawyers McMichaels and Bryan claimed that the men were arresting the citizen and that they thought Arbery matched the description of a burglary suspect in the neighborhood.
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Many question whether the conviction for Arbery’s murder – like the conviction for George Floyd’s murder and the killing of Daunte Wright (both killed by police) – is bringing the nation closer to the Black Lives main goal. Movement of matter: greater responsibility and justice for black bodies.
Although I have not yet gone so far (in 2021 the police killed more than 1,000 people), these cases have remarkable similarities and differences.
McMichael and Bryan acted as if they had permission to kill. They jumped to their own conclusions and felt the courage to take the law into their own hands. They dealt with stereotypes about the criminal guilt of a young black man involved in normal activities.
Research documents that some whites have the same psychological response to seeing black faces as snakes and spiders. The juries were predominantly white in all three cases.
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In some of these cases, there are meaningful facts that speak to what might be needed to increase transparency, accountability and fairness – especially in relation to the results of criminal convictions.
The jurors in the McMichaels and Bryan case, and in the Kim Potter (who killed Wright) and Derek Chauvin (who killed Floyd) cases, have witnessed the murders on video. Technology allowed what happened only in the dark to come to light.
Compare that to the killing of Florida teenager Trayton Martin, for whom there was no video. In Martin’s case, George Zimmerman’s vigilance was not perceived as a threat and he was not convicted.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has been investigating and prosecuting the McMichaels and Bryans. There have also been state oversight of the killings of Floyd and Wright.
The trial for Arbery’s murder was almost non-existent. But the video of the murder recorded by Bryan helped spark a wider investigation and involvement at the state level. Eventually, former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson was charged with obstruction.
Defendants for killing Arbery and Martin defended themselves. The incidents have occurred in the states where you stand. Theoretically, “stand on the ground” laws make sense. One should have the right to defend oneself. In practice, however, the perception of who has this right is too often distorted by race and driven by stereotypes about black bodies.
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More than 30 states have some form of stand-your-ground laws or castle doctrines. And they are all relatively recent.
Florida became one of the first states to pass such a law in 2005. Until then, individuals in most states had to “retreat from the use of deadly force” if it was safe to do so.
According to The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, 600 more murders a year (such as killing Arbery and Martin) are associated with stand-your-ground laws.
In a Florida study, nearly 70% of defendants were not charged or acquitted the person who was killed did not have a gun. And even if applicable laws are not used as a viable defense, perceptions of what self-defense is and should be have spread.
These statistics are one of the reasons why people are nervous about the outcome of black victim trials. And why are people surprised by the harsh sentences handed down in recent trials of white attackers.
Has this country answered the call of Black Lives Matter fully? No.
But if people are to be held accountable for racially killed killings – leading to a nation that eventually ends racist vigilantism – stereotypes of criminal guilt and sacrifice need to be changed.
Rashawn Ray is a senior staff member at The Brookings Institution and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter: @SociologRay.