Demonizing Black victims is an old racist trope that didn’t work for defense attorneys this time

Racial and racial tensions were visible in and out of the Georgia courtroom where the three men were tried, even as the defense and the prosecution moved away from those discussions. Instead, the defense jury heard a number of racist dog whistles.

From assertions that black priests might frighten jurors to a remark about Arbery’s “long, filthy nails,” the defense strategy was peppered with rhetoric that sought to dehumanize and devalue black Americans.
“What I’ve seen is the defense exploiting whites’ fears,” said Carol Anderson, a historian and chair of African American Studies at Emory University. “‘Dirty long toenails’ – that’s an old trope for ‘black beast.’ These are the things that come out of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.”

Here’s why the agonizing trial was a typical example of the criminalization and dehumanization of black male victims:

The defense attorney said Arbery had long, dirty fingernails

During closing arguments, defense attorney for Gregory McMichael, one of the men accused of Arbery’s murder, said Charles Coleman, a civil rights attorney and former attorney general, attempted to portray Arbery as a “runaway slave.”

“The victimization of Ahmaud Arbery after the choices he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satila Shores in his khaki shorts without socks to cover his long, filthy toenails,” attorney Laura Hogg told the jury.

The note, which appears to be based on Arbery’s autopsy, brought an audible gasp from the people in the courtroom and prompted Arbery’s mother out.

“No matter what kind of fingernails he had, and the size of his legs, this was my son, and my son was actually running for his life with that description. I thought that was very rude,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CNN reporter Jon Berman on “AC 360” earlier this week.

For Cooper-Jones, the defense was trying to dismiss the fact that he did not have “the proper evidence to obtain a conviction.”

Inge Maxwell, a University of Arkansas political scientist and co-author of the 2019 book “The Long Southern Strategy: How to Hunt White Voters in Changing South American Politics,” said she believes the defense was trying to put Arbery “into a (specific) category of black people.”

Hanging toenails tried to signal to the jurors that Arbery was “one of those ‘blacks’ who are not someone you respect or admire,” Maxwell said, someone you “can’t trust, and who doesn’t take care of himself.”

Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney who represented Arbery’s father, said Hogg used “dog whistle speech.”

“She was saying he’s a scary black guy, so if you say he’s a scary black guy and you get the jury to believe that, you want them to release themselves from what they see in this video of a human being being stalked,” Crump told CNN. .

Those tactics worried the family and many who were watching the trial not because it was new – but because the country had seen them all before. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, black Americans were portrayed as savages, a cartoon that echoed last year in former President Donald Trump’s description of protesters chanting “Black lives matter” as “very bad people” and “thugs.”

Arber Arbery has been associated with crime and fear

Fear was another racist dog whistle used by defense attorneys, who have highlighted concerns raised by a series of unreported crimes in the neighborhood.

Travis McMichael testified that on the night of February 11, 2020 – about two weeks before Arbery was shot – he saw someone “crawling through the shadows” in the neighborhood.

He testified that the person, who he later described to the police as a black man, had “taken his shirt off” and went into his “pocket and waist area.” Assuming the person was armed, McMichael said, he jumped back into his car, and the person ran into the house under construction. He called the authorities, but the police did not arrest the person who said he saw him that night and did not speak to him or even see him that night.

Defense attorney Jason Sheffield argued in court when he met Arbery weeks later, McMichael feared for his life and that of his father.

Left to Right: Travis McMichael, William "  Rudy "  Brian and Gregory McMichael

His family said Arbery was running and stopped at the unoccupied house. Prosecutors showed the jury surveillance videos of Arbery entering the site, each time walking around and leaving without incident.

But the defense insisted that even if he didn’t steal anything, Arbery committed a burglary because he illegally entered the home under construction.

Historian Anderson said that people of many races and ethnicities view homes under construction, and their behavior is seen as normal or normal.

“But for a black person to do that, it’s criminal one way or another. So you have the criminalization of blackness through this thing,” Anderson said.

The property’s owner, Larry English Jr., testified in September that several people besides Arbery had entered the property and that he never authorized the McMichaels to confront anyone.

Anderson said that McMicheals’ decision to go after Arbery was rooted in the idea that blacks are criminals.

“This was like a slave patrol that felt it had the right to interrogate blacks, monitor blacks’ movements, and challenge blacks wherever they were,” Anderson said.

The defense argued that the black priests were intimidating

Defense attorney Kevin Gough’s attempt to prevent black priests from entering the courtroom during the trial was an affront to the role of black priests in comforting grieving families.

Goff said the presence of high-profile figures is frightening and an attempt to pressure or influence the jury. While he apologized for his comments, days later, more than 100 black pastors formed a “prayer wall” to show their solidarity with the Arbery family and their opposition to Gough’s comments.

A lawyer in Arbery's execution trial tried to keep black priests out of court.  So more than 100 attended today
For Anderson, author of 2021 book II: Race and guns in fatally unequal America,” counsel notes to those made by defense attorneys for the men who murdered Emmett Till in 1955.

When he looked at the jury and said something like, ‘All of you Anglo-Saxons know that’s what we’re fighting here. You will find these men not guilty. “That’s what it looked like to me,” Anderson said.

“It’s as if every one of you Anglo-Saxons knows black people are threatening. They’re terrifying. They’re trying to destroy our community. What MacMichaels and Brian have done is protect our community,” he added.

The jury is almost all white

The jury that found McMichaels and Brian guilty consisted of 11 white jurors and one black juror, a breakdown that fueled the black community’s mistrust of the criminal justice system early in the trial.

Scholars and legal experts have said the racial breakdown is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and quickly drew comparisons with the fallout from Emmett Till’s death.

Daryl D. Jones, an attorney with the Transformational Justice Coalition, said referring to the 1955 trial in which two men arrested in the Till murder were acquitted by a white jury.

For black residents of Ahmed Arbery's hometown, trust in the justice system is on trial along with accused murderers

During jury selection, defense attorneys drew criticism when they expressed concerns about the absence of the “Booba” men.

“Southern-born white males over 40, without four-year college degrees, sometimes known euphemistically as ‘Bubba’ or ‘Joe Six Pack’, appear to be largely underrepresented,” Gough, the attorney who represented Brian to court at the time.

Other ‘frighteningly similar’ cases

Over the past decade, many defenseless black men and boys have been dehumanized during court proceedings.

“Remember, they assassinated Travon Martin’s character after his assassination, and now they’re doing the exact same thing almost 10 years later with Ahmaud Arbery. I mean, the parallels are eerily similar,” Crump, the attorney representing Arbery’s father, hours before the verdict was read out on Wednesday,

Crump also dubbed the case “Trayvon Martin 2.0” in a new day on CNN.

Martin was 17 years old when he shot and killed George Zimmerman in 2012. The shooting and subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman in 2013 launched the Black Lives Matter movement and reminded Americans that they do not live in a post-race society.

After Martin’s death, protesters across the country wore headscarves in reference to the shooter’s description of the teenager. Zimmerman told a 911 operator that he saw a “suspicious” person wearing a “dark hoodie” moments before the teen was shot in what he described as self-defense, according to police. Martin’s family and supporters said they believe race played a role in the shooting.

But nearly 10 years after Martin’s death, civil rights activists and protesters have secured some solace from Wednesday’s ruling in the Arbery trial case.

The family’s attorney Crump, speaking outside the courtroom after the convictions of all three defendants, said, “Think of how long it (Marcus Arbery Sr.) Wanda put up with all the insinuations, all the allegations, all the character assassinations, long legs with dirty fingernails. Just imagine all they’ve been through. with it “.

CNN’s Alta Spells, Angela Barajas, Teresa Waldrop and Amir Vera contributed to this report.

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