The true measure of our justice system is not how we treat the rich and privileged, but how we treat the poor and marginalised.
The legal system in the United States has prejudices so deeply rooted that year in year out black people are subject to unjust brutality and sentencing at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. A particularly striking figure is that within the US black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police, despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. In the United Kingdom, America and across the globe, racial stereotypes in police culture and practice means those who aren’t white run a much higher risk of being labelled as criminal. Even during the current global pandemic, black Americans in New York are being disproportionately policed in the name of social distancing. Alarmingly, 99% of killings by members of law enforcement in the US don’t result in any charges. This is the disgraceful reality of modern day America.
This brings me to the devastating, modern day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia on the 23rd of February earlier this year. Whilst the killers of Arbery (Gregory and Travis McMichael, with William Roddie Bryan filming) were not on duty, Gregory McMichael had worked for the local police and district attorney department for over 30 years. The three white supremacists are known for their outright bigotry, so it is not too wild of an assumption that whilst working for the police, McMichael exercised power in a racially biased manner. They lied when claiming that they had shot Arbery due to believing he had been involved in a line of burglaries in the local area (how this is any excuse for taking the law into their own hands and killing an innocent man remains baffling). It is paramount to note that just today, it has been found that these alleged break ins were a total fiction.
Ahmaud Arbery was on a run in a neighbouring town on a Sunday afternoon when he was shot by the McMichael’s with the same weapons they regularly used to hunt down animals. Arbery was dearly beloved by his family and friends, he was an extremely talented athlete who dreamt of playing for the NFL one day. His mother, Wanda, recalled how he often went on runs for up to ten miles as a way of training. Not only was this act sickening but, the events that unfolded for months afterwards highlight the extent to which the legal system is wholly corrupt.
It took until the 7th of May for the killers to be arrested, causing extra turmoil for Arbery’s family, who had to watch these men roam freely in Brunswick, seeing them at the grocery store with the knowledge that they killed their beloved in cold blood. Getting justice for Arbery and his loved ones has been gruelling. Three district attorneys passed around the case before anything was done, a situation which would never have occurred if it had been a white man who was killed. Jackie Johnson, (the first district attorney) was familiar with Gregory McMichael as she had worked in the same department as him; a blatant conflict of interest. Johnson refused to arrest despite video evidence of the murder. The second district Attorney, George Barnhill insisted that this was a legal citizens arrest even though, Arbery posed no threat.
This case sat in the third district attorney’s office for almost a month, whilst the family of the victim not only had to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, but with the lack of justice being served for him. The distress they must have been feeling is unconscionable; Arbery’s best friend had been desperately emailing the civil rights activist Shaun King for two months before he got a reply and the campaign for justice really took off.
Video evidence of the tragic events surfaced and many believe that without this the case would have been totally neglected. The shooting of an innocent black man clearly isn’t a priority for law enforcement in the deep south. Not only this, but the man who filmed the modern day lynching, William Roddie Bryan, is yet to be arrested and has been described in the media as a “family man”.
Through mass incarceration, police brutality, stop and searches and more, deep rooted societal inequalities are continually reproduced. This begs the question can the current legal systems really be called systems of justice? It is clear in the case of Ahmaud Arbery and so many others that these Institutions clearly aren’t built to give justice to marginalised people, but to police them.
Image: David Geitgey Sierralupe via Creative Commons
Petition to recall those who failed to prosecute in the case: http://go.theactionpac.com/sign/jackiejohnson-ahmaud/?akid=209.3052936.uRlgPU&rd=1&source=ema20200509-209&t=1