On November 24, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr were all found guilty for the February 2020 murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. The decision is understandably and rightfully being celebrated as a rare victory in the fight for justice, especially given that it closely follows the demoralizing not-guilty verdict in the trial of far-right vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse.
At the same time, it’s important to examine how we got here. Why was it that a guilty verdict in what seemed to be a clear-cut case was ever in doubt? How is it that the defendants and the racist law enforcement system that enabled them were able to delay and nearly derail accountability for so long? The answer is that victories are never certain in the capitalist court system, which is unfavorable terrain for the working class to achieve justice in cases of far-right or racist violence.
Corruption From the Start
Arbery was shot dead while jogging on February 23, 2020. The McMichaels, both white men, chased down Arbery – a Black man – in their pickup truck. Although both McMichaels were armed, Arbery was not. Once they cornered him, a struggle ensued over possession of Travis’s shotgun. Three shots rang out, and Arbery was dead. The murder was captured on video by Bryan, a neighbor who had joined the pursuit mid-chase.
Outrageously, it took 74 days for either man to be arrested. That’s because from the very start, corrupt local law enforcement set to work on protecting the McMichaels.
Gregory McMichael is a former officer for the Glynn County Police Department and had done investigative work on behalf of several local district attorneys. Immediately after the shooting, he tapped one of those connections, former DA Jackie Johnson, leaving her a voicemail asking for advice. Later that same day, Johnson’s office instructed the GCPD not to arrest Travis.
Johnson would later be indicted for this obvious obstruction of justice, as well as for showing “favor and affection” to McMichaels. But his connections ran deep, and a second prosecutor later recused himself of the case due to a separate personal connection to Gregory McMichaels.
The GCPD was advised not to make an arrest on at least three reported occasions from February to May. Why the change of direction?
On May 5, Gregory McMichael requested that Bryan’s video of the shooting be released to the public in an attempt to clear their names. The video went viral and sparked a national outcry. Working class people in Brunswick and cities nationwide erupted into protest, organizing events with the hashtag #IRunWithMaud and spurring a multiracial movement with a clear demand: arrest the murderers.
It was only due to this immense public pressure that a new prosecutor was forced to call a grand jury, and just two days later, the McMichaels were finally arrested. Their arrest came only weeks before the murder of George Floyd on May 25, a series of events that helped spark the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement – a movement that is still facing Democratic Party co-optation and a violent counterattack from the far right.
Trial Brings More Attempts to Avoid Accountability
The judge denied several pre-trial attempts by the defense to characterize Arbery as a threat to the neighborhood, a common strategy often deployed in cases involving poor or working class Black and brown people in an attempt to justify their deaths.
The defense did succeed in gaming the jury pool, using 11 of its 12 “strikes” to remove 11 Black jurors from consideration. Somehow, out of a pool of 600 potential jurors, only one of the final 16 jurors was Black – all others were white. Even the judge had to call out the clear “intentional discrimination” that had occurred in jury selection, but he did nothing to address it, allowing the case to go forward.
Defense attorneys would later complain about the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom during the trial, making the racist claim that they would “intimidate” their carefully curated white jury. That earned another reprimand from the judge.
The jury never heard evidence of racial motives behind the killing, including the fact that the McMichaels truck was adorned with the Confederate flag, or that Travis McMichael used a racial slur on video while he watched Arbery die.
Instead, the McMichaels claimed self defense, despite the obvious absurdity captured on tape: how could an unarmed Black man out for a jog be considered the aggressor against two armed vigilantes chasing him in a truck?
Capitalism’s Failures Fuel Far-Right Violence
But as we saw in the Rittenhouse case, the self-defense claim is a common one for far-right vigilantes in the courts. It was also successfully used by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black boy he hunted down and killed much like the McMichaels did Arbery.
Far-right violence has been on the rise in both the US and internationally. White supremacists, racial extremists, self-styled militia groups, and would-be fascists have been emboldened by the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and explicitly facist groups in countries like Germany and Hungary, which have managed to win elections and support by promoting xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-immigration, and “family values.”
But their presence was paved by decades of failed establishment politics that attacked the living standards of working people, leaving an angry population searching for answers and ripe to be exploited by right-wing hate mongers. While figures like Trump helped legitimize far-right ideas and often dismissed or encouraged extremist violence, it’s important to understand that this violence won’t go away simply by voting those enabling politicians out of office.
Historically, the ruling class has actually turned toward far-right and fascist groups as allies in their last-ditch attempts to break growing working class revolutions with violence. In other cases, capitalist politicians have used the threat of far-right violence as a rationale to impose stricter “public safety” measures that are often principally used to suppress nonviolent movements on the left.
Today in the U.S., we do not face the imminent threat of a far right takeover — in part because the ruling class does not see an imminent threat to its rule from the working class — but the crisis of capitalism is generating an extreme polarization in society. The Republican Party has been captured by the Trumpist wing who flirt with the far right and encourage all sorts of reactionary conspiracy theories. While Biden and the Democrats present themselves as the defenders of “democracy” against right wing coups and other threats, their complete inability to address the far right threat is captured by Biden’s pathetic response to the rigged Rittenhouse trial was: “The jury system works, and we have to abide by it.”
As the Rittenhouse verdict showed, we can’t trust the courts to do right by the victims of far-right violence. Under capitalism, the laws, police and courts exist to defend capitalist interests, subjugating the working class for the benefit of the ruling class. A system that is designed to constantly regenerate the status quo of racism, sexism, inequality, and working class exploitation cannot be expected to protect or defend its own victims.
We see that in cases like Arbery’s, where the perpetrators of violence are so closely connected to the individuals who would investigate and prosecute their crimes, that the investigation becomes a farce. We also see it when the establishment – including Democrat governors – preemptively calls upon the National Guard or SWAT teams in anticipation of peaceful protests in reaction to controversial court decisions, essentially treating protestors as a potential enemy.
While we embrace a successful conviction in the McMichaels and Bryan case, a single arrest or conviction is not enough to end far-right violence or bring justice for the poor and working class Black and brown people who suffer most under our unequal criminal court system. Instead we need a stronger resistance on the left to directly organize against the far right and to build a mass movement for economic and social justice.
As an example, Seattle City Councilor and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant has used her city council seat to call for mass mobilizations against police violence and racial injustice. As a result of this fighting approach, Kshama has been able to help win key victories for the working class in Seattle, including a first-in-the-nation ban on police use of chemical weapons and crowd control measures. Her victories and uncompromising support of BLM and working class movements is also why the right-wing and big businesses in Seattle have teamed up to try to remove Kshama from office in an undemocratic recall election.
In the struggle for justice, we can’t trust the system – capitalism – that created the conditions for institutional racism, police brutality, and far-right violence to fix those problems. Only a mass movement of working class people organized against these threats and toward a permanent end to the capitalist system can provide the solution.
Socialist Alternative calls for:
- A working class centered movement to put an end to the conditions that allowed the far right to grow in the first place, focused on demands for higher wages, free healthcare, affordable housing with rent control, defunding the police, and more.
- Community control over the police, including democratically elected boards of community members with power over hiring, firing and disciplinary policies as well as control of police budgets.
- A new independent working class party separate from the Democratic and Republican Parties that is able to effectively fight for social movements, economic demands, and criminal justice and police reforms