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Guilty verdict for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers is a welcome sign of progress

A decade after Trayvon Martin’s death, a different Southern jury said this Black life mattered

It is happening. The movement is working. These past 10 years of pain, protest, violence, suffering, blood, sweat and tears have pushed, pulled and sometimes dragged America to a better place.

At least for the moment — injustice is always just one fresh bullet away for Black folks. But the verdict in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is about measuring the distance we have come.

The three white men who killed Arbery were found guilty Wednesday. Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were convicted of murder, false imprisonment, aggravated assault and other charges that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. The verdict was delivered by an almost all-white jury in southeast Georgia after the defense used an argument that — until now — had been historically and infuriatingly successful: The white men feared they would be killed by an unarmed Black male, so they had to shoot him dead.

This is the twisted, racist rationalization that led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement almost 10 years ago. Back then, the unarmed Black male was 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. His killer, George Zimmerman, acted under the same false assumptions as Arbery’s murderers, claimed the same justifications, used the same argument of self-defense — and a jury declared Zimmerman not guilty.

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones cries after the jury convicted Travis McMichael in the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 24 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Stephen B. Morton, Pool/AP Photo

On Wednesday, the verdict is guilty. Arbery’s life is still lost, but the justice system said his life mattered. This should not be a remarkable thing — “While the guilty verdicts reflect our justice system doing its job, that alone is not enough,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. But given where we began the latest chapter of the African American journey, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the struggle.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Zimmerman saw Trayvon passing through his neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. There had been some burglaries in the area. Trayvon was returning from the store, a pack of Skittles in his pocket, but Zimmerman racially profiled him as a suspect. He followed Trayvon in his car, exited and confronted the teenager. There was a fight, and Zimmerman absorbed some blows before killing Trayvon with a bullet to the chest.

Travis McMichael looks back at his mother and sister in the courtroom after the jury convicted him for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 24 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Stephen B. Morton, Pool/AP Photo

Even though he provoked the entire confrontation, Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense. Police and prosecutors initially bought his story. Zimmerman was not charged with a crime until much later, and only after a national outcry. At his trial, Zimmerman’s attorney said he was “not guilty of anything but protecting his own life.” An almost all-white jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

When justice was not done for Trayvon, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born, along with a new era of activism. It gained momentum as police killed Black person after person — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, and on and on … and then came Arbery.

On Feb. 23, 2020, the 25-year-old former high school football player was jogging through a residential neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. There had been some burglaries in the neighborhood. Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old retired police officer, saw him run by. Gregory and his son Travis, 34, grabbed their guns and chased Arbery in Travis’ pickup truck, along with Bryan, who was in another pickup. Arbery, who was unarmed, tried to dodge their vehicles but was finally cornered. He struggled with Travis McMichael, who then killed him with two shotgun blasts to the chest.

As with Zimmerman, authorities initially refused to charge the McMichaels and Bryan. They decided that these white men could racially profile an innocent Black person, arm themselves, create an unnecessary confrontation, instigate the victim to respond and then kill him — and all of that should be legal.

This thinking relies on a staggering assumption of superiority — the assumption that a Black person, unarmed and minding his own business, is beholden to obey the orders of a white man. During closing arguments in the trial of Arbery’s killers, defense attorney Laura Hogue claimed that Arbery was responsible for his own death, “running away instead of facing the consequences” and “making terrible, unexpected, illogical choices.”

William “Roddie” Bryan (right) stands next to his attorney Kevin Gough (left) after the jury handed down its verdict in the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 24 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Stephen B. Morton, Pool/AP Photo

As if it’s not perfectly logical for a Black man to try to escape a posse of armed white civilians driving a pickup truck with a Confederate flag on the front, one of whom threatened to “blow your f—ing head off.” As if it were not logical for Trayvon to fight back when accosted by a strange adult with a gun.

Arbery’s murder came at a pivotal moment. During the 74 days that it took for the killers to be arrested, the coronavirus pandemic took hold. An innocent Black woman, Breonna Taylor, was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky. The combination of a locked-down population and a fresh set of outrageous injustices created pressure that burst into historic protests after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Defendant Gregory McMichael (left) appears at the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 22 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Octavio Jones, Pool/Getty Images

Leading into Chauvin’s trial earlier this year, there was a widespread sense of dread. Zimmerman and so many other killers of unarmed Black people had been acquitted. So many aspects of the justice system were stacked against the interests of Black people. When Chauvin was convicted of murder, there was an enormous sense of relief, and almost disbelief. Justice was not out of reach for Black people.

But justice was still not certain for Arbery. Even though 2020 saw the biggest protests for racial justice in history, even though Chauvin is in prison, and many institutions are finally acknowledging and slowly responding to systemic racism, we can’t ignore the backlash to recent racial progress. From demonization of the word “woke” to organized resistance to teaching about how racism affects America, the pendulum was in motion. Which way would it swing for Arbery?

A man holds a cardboard cutout of Trayvon Martin during a demonstration in New York on July 14, 2013.

STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Judging by the starting point of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, it has swung quite far. It’s tempting to exist in a perpetual state of bitter outrage at the cumulative injustices that plague Black people. It’s rational to measure this verdict against the systemic racism that still upholds inequality. The pendulum hasn’t swung far enough to end the suffering or stop the protesting. But on Wednesday, it swings toward justice.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.