Ahmaud Arbery and the United States: Land of “Strange Fruit,” Home of the White Vigilante
Updated: Mar 11
Lynching: when an individual or a mob put someone to death extralegally, without court or legal sanction, for the purpose of tradition, or perpetuating their own sense of justice.
August 28th, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, a fourteen year old African American boy was lynched for allegedly flirting with and insulting a white woman working at a local grocery store. After being brutally beaten and shot, the mob tied a fan to his body and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. At trial, the Tallahatchie County Sheriff presided over the case: he was a wealthy cotton plantation owner, who forced his African American sharecroppers to paint his last name on top of their homes, and was locally famous for his frequent racist remarks. The all-white, male defense attorneys ended their closing statements by reinforcing and encouraging the racial biases of the all-white, male jury to garner an acquittal: “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men”. After only 67 minutes of deliberation, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict on all counts for the mob who remorselessly murdered a Black child.
February 26th, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, a seventeen year old African American teenager was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, who was ordered by 911 operators to not approach or engage the “suspicious individual” he was describing. The voice of the teenager can be heard screaming for help in the background of the 911 call, before the gunshot that ended his life. The neighborhood watch captain pleaded not guilty, and an almost all-white jury acquitted him. 6 years later, the watch capitan filed a $100 million lawsuit against the parents of the teenager he murdered, claiming that a witness gave false testimony. While not a hanging by a mob, his murder was eerily akin to a lynching.
February 23rd, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia, a twenty-five year old Black man was killed by a white father and son, who chased him down the streets of Satilla Shores, before shooting him at least twice: his only true “offense” was being a Black man jogging down the street in a predominantly white neighborhood. The defendants - three in total - pled not guilty in front of a white, male judge, and an almost all-white jury.
These are the stories of the untimely, tragic, and highly preventable deaths of three Black men: Emmett Till in 1955, Trayvon Martin in 2012, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Considering these murders in the context of each other unequivocally shows just how little progress has been made in valuing Black lives in America. Further, it proves that lynchings are not acts of the past, and similar acts continue to be carried out today as racist, abhorrent remnants of the Reconstruction Era which cultivated, accepted, and encouraged racism and lawless violence against African Americans. The egregious miscarriage of justice that resulted from the trials for the murders of Till and Martin fundamentally implicates the United States legal system as complicit in the murder of Black men.
Given this history, the jury’s decision to find Arbery’s murderers guilty on November 24th, 2021, was a watershed moment that marked a departure from the U.S. legal system’s acceptance of white male vigilantism. On January 7th, 2022, presiding Judge Timothy R. Walmsley laid down the harshest punishment that has ever been given to a lynching mob: he sentenced the father and son duo to life in prison with no opportunity for parole, while their neighbor - the third and final participant - was sentenced to life in prison with an opportunity for parole after 30 years.
Notably, the father and son duo who murdered Arbery were also charged federally for hate crimes and attempted kidnapping. The two men originally pled guilty to these charges and accepted a plea deal that would allow them to be transferred from the Georgia state system to federal prison, where they would serve out a government-brokered 30-year sentence for racially motivated hate crimes against Arbery. However, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea deal on January 31st, 2022, after Arbery’s family fervently asserted that federal prison was a preferential, and beneficial choice for the murderers of their son. Given Wood’s decision, the two defendants have revoked their guilty plea, and are instead pleading not guilty to the charges of hate crimes along with the third defendant. Jury selection for this trial is set to begin on February 7th, 2022.
Throughout the trial for the murder of Arbery, and the hate crimes against him, Judge Walmsley and Judge Wood have championed justice, fairness, and equality for the Arbery family in a way that has never been seen before. However, while the guilty verdict and sentencing of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are beginning to create belated legal precedents that value Black lives, they are the only two notable exceptions to a legal system that conventionally operates in an extremely biased manner, and has a long history of degrading Black men, and demonizing their bodies to validate white violence.
This demonization—a tactic that has been used since slavery as an excuse to brutalize and lynch Black men with impunity—was present in the trial for Arbery’s murder. In her closing statement, Defense Attorney Laura Hogue validated the idea that Arbery’s physical appearance was horrifying enough to the three white murderers that it constituted a violent reaction: “...Ahmaud Arbery… with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails… was a recurring nighttime intruder, and that is frightening…”
Hogue’s closing statement, filled with racial stereotypes, demonstrates the type of argumentation that has allowed for police brutality and lynchings to continue to this day through qualified immunity for police officers and citizen’s arrest laws, which insulate white perpetrators from blame by conflating their racist actions to civic duty and concern.
The legal system’s bias towards and complicity in white violence is principally seen through these laws and the fact that no national or state law recognizes lynching as a hate crime. For example, qualified immunity holds those police officers cannot be held liable for civil rights violations unless it is proven that their actions infringe upon a “clearly established” right that a court has already provided precedent for. Thereby, qualified immunity laws make it much harder for Black individuals who - since the police were created in the 1700’s with the mission of catching runaway slaves - have been the most affected by police violence, to attain justice, and further reveals the lengths to which the legal system will go to protect white acts of violence.
Citizen’s arrest laws similarly have racist origins in the Reconstruction Era, where they were intentionally created to round up sharecroppers, and justify lynchings. Today, every single state has some form of qualified immunity to protect its police officers - despite massive recent pushes to abolish the laws - and every state allows for some form of citizen arrests, except for Georgia, which repealed its law in 2021, following Arbery’s death.
Many view the guilty verdict in the trial for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd as victories. However, the language utilized by defense attorneys in the Arbery trial mirrors language used in the 1950’s, and the defense mechanisms and legal precedents invoked to try to acquit the citizen murderers of Arbery, as well as the officer who killed Floyd are direct remnants of slavery and the Reconstruction Era. Therefore, codifying that Black Lives Matter more than white violence in the United States necessitates the removal of implicit bias from the legal system: beginning with repealing citizen arrest laws and qualified immunity, and passing antilynching legislation.