A framed photo on the wall of Travis Riddle’s soul food restaurant shows the local sheriff arresting a gray-bearded white man with his hands cuffed behind his back, a reminder to all who enter that justice in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery is still pending for Riddle.
It depicts Greg McMichael on the day he and his son, Travis McMichael, were imprisoned on murder charges in the death of a 25-year-old Black man last year.
After spotting Arbery running in their neighborhood, the McMichaels chased him down in a pickup truck and fatally shot him. After video of the shooting was leaked online and sparked a national outcry, it took more than two months for their arrests.
The murder trial of the McMichaels and William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase and took the video, is set to begin on Monday. For many, the issue isn’t just the three white defendants on trial, but a justice system that let them go free for weeks after they chased and killed a Black man.
Local activists are planning a weekend rally at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, a working-class port city 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah, as well as a car caravan through the neighborhood where Arbery was murdered.
After a string of fatal encounters between Black people and police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, Arbery’s death on Feb. 23, 2020, became part of a broader reckoning on racial injustice in the criminal legal system. To keep Arbery’s memory alive, Akeem Baker, a close friend of his, still runs on the 23rd of each month for a distance of exactly 2.23 miles.
The McMichaels and Bryan have each been charged with nine counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, and other offenses. Police said the men used pickup trucks to keep Arbery from fleeing the Satilla Shores neighborhood. Security cameras in an open-frame house under construction had previously captured him on the site, and they suspected him of stealing.
On recordings taken by police body cameras of officers dispatched to the scene after the shooting, Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the area district attorney, can be seen playing up his law enforcement ties.
Prosecutors claim Arbery was simply jogging on a street less than two miles (3.2 kilometers) from his house. He was unarmed, according to police, and there was no evidence that he had stolen anything. Investigators also discovered text messages from a year before the shooting on Travis McMichael’s cellphone, in which he used the N-word twice in one exchange. Prosecutors filed the texts as evidence in the public court record, but have not requested that they be used during the trial.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys have asked the judge to prevent prosecutors from showing jurors photos of the truck the McMichaels used to chase Arbery, which has a front bumper vanity plate of Georgia’s former state flag with the Confederate battle emblem.
Attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan have insisted that they did not commit any crimes, claiming that they had reason to suspect Arbery was a burglar and were attempting to stop him legally. Private citizen arrests were permitted under Georgia law at the time. Travis McMichael, they claim, shot Arbery in self-defense after Arbery attacked him with his fists and grappled for his gun.
Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks, claims he was the victim of a “modern-day lynching.” She pointed out that security cameras at the same construction site where the McMichaels suspected Arbery of looting had captured other people entering to look around, including white people and children.
Arbery’s death, according to local activist Elijah Bobby Henderson, exposed boundaries between white and Black Brunswick residents in order to maintain “a comfortable tension between races.” He recalled being told as a child that Black children should not go trick-or-treating in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, where Arbery was killed.
Henderson and other Black activists in Glynn County formed the group A Better Glynn in response to Arbery’s death, with the goal of promoting racial and socioeconomic justice. During its first year, the nonprofit registered voters in anticipation of the 2020 election, which saw longtime District Attorney Jackie Johnson defeated. After the group pushed for a national search, the county hired its first full-time Black police chief.