As I watch the trial of three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man who was out for a jog in a coastal Georgia suburb when they descended on him with trucks and guns, I can’t help seeing parallels with the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012 in Sanford, Fla., under similar circumstances.
Trayvon was set upon by George Zimmerman, then 28, a neighborhood watch captain who decided that Trayvon was up to no good. In fact, Trayvon was returning from a convenience to his father’s home. He was carrying a bag of Skittles and a beverage, and was also on his cell phone.
Zimmerman called 911 to advise police of “a suspicious person” walking down the sidewalk. Why was Trayvon so suspicious?
The color of his skin. That his hoodie had been pulled up?
Zimmerman was told by the 911 operator to stay in his car to wait for police. Instead, he followed Trayvon and told his friend that he was being monitored. Zimmerman killed the teenager in a physical altercation.
The local police chief didn’t file charges against Zimmerman because there was no way for him to prove his self-defense claim.
This decision drew national outrage and led to demonstrations like the Million Hoodie March in New York City. An investigation was launched by the FBI and Justice Department. President Obama weighed in, famously saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
After weeks of political pressure, Florida’s governor appointed a special prosecutor, who charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
In July 2013, a six-woman jury, five of whom were white, acquitted him.
I will never understand how a jury was unable to see that Zimmerman engineered the entire tragedy and was responsible for creating the situation that left Trayvon dead.
How can a man follow and intimidate a Black teenager and then get beaten up and killed by the terrified child? How can a man allow himself to be killed in self-defense when he follows and intimidates a Black teenager?
In Oakland, a Black woman called Alicia Garza was shocked by the Zimmerman verdict. After logging on to Facebook, she wrote an emotional post , concluding with “Black people. I love you.” Our lives matter.” Patrisse, a friend from Los Angeles, turned the sentiment into a hashtag called #BlackLivesMatter. They were supported by OpalTometi who helped them spread the word via social media.
Thus was born, one of the most significant and consequential social justice movements of our country’s history.
“Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry as a succession of depressingly familiar killings of unarmed Black people, documented on cellphone cameras and spread by social media, unfolded week after week, culminating for many in the despicable murder of George Floyd, which set off protests around the country and the world.
The trial of Gregory McMichael’s son Travis McMichael as well as their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. in Glynn county, Ga .
The trio are accused of murdering Arbery who was running through Satilla Shores, near Brunswick. They claimed they were acting in self defense.
Arbery saw him poking around in a neighbor’s house that was being built. They believe he was responsible in a series of recent burglaries that occurred in the area. The defendants claim that they were making a citizen’s arrest. However, the first officer on the scene said Bryan had told him that he hadn’t ever spoken those words to Arbery.
According to news reports , police said that there was a single report of a break-in in the weeks before the killing: Travis McMichael claimed a gun was stolen from his unlocked truck.
Ten weeks after Arbery’s death, a disturbing cellphone video , showed the final moments of the young man. He was apparently boxed by a truck and then shot to death after trying to escape a shotgun Travis McMichael had placed on him.
The video was shot by Bryan, who claimed to have simply been a bystander, but who prosecutors say joined in the chase and tried to “confine and detain” Arbery with his vehicle.
If the video had been made public, who knows if charges would have been brought against Bryan?
Already the trial has been tainted by the whiff of racism.
The jury consists of 11 white people and only one Black person. The defense accused of striking Black potential jurors on the basis of their race, which is illegal. However, the judge dismissed the accusation. And yet, the judge stated, “This court has found that there appears to be intentional discrimination.”
On Thursday, during a break in the trial, one of the defense attorneys objected to the presence in the courtroom of the Rev. Al Sharpton was invited by the Arbery families.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” said Kevin Gough, who displayed even more breathtaking cluelessness when he added, “If folks came in here dressed as Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back, I mean…”
When I hear that sort of not-even-subtle racism, it makes me wonder just how much things in this country have changed since Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. Was George Floyd’s murder only a moment in the history civil rights struggles? We will find out when the mostly white Georgia jury weighs it in.