Across social media feeds, cable news broadcasts, and political conversations, the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse has taken center stage. Many can draw conclusions about race and its relation to the American legal system from watching the court case, but all of that ignores a significant fact. The all-encompassing coverage of Kyle Rittenhouse has obscured the trial of Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan – the three individuals responsible for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
It is worth speaking again of the conditions of Arbery’s murder and the importance of the media ignoring this story. On February 23rd, 2020, the 25-year-old went for a jog in the predominantly white, suburban neighborhood of Satilla Springs in Georgia. The local, Travis McMichael, believed Arbery to be a man who had broken into several buildings in the area. The three individuals pursued Arbery in a truck and slaughtered him with a shotgun when he passed by through the neighborhood.
When reporting does happen – whether on the murder of Arbery or the conditions of the trial- the reporting contributes to the white supremacy so prevalent in American institutions. For example, the aspect of Arbery jogging receives so much attention in media coverage. Why? Because it places him outside of the stereotype of the black American man – as someone healthy, motivated, and dedicated. Someone who deserved to stay alive. But it should not matter that Arbery jogged and can be removed from the stereotypical category of the black man as criminal and lazy. Having posed no plausible threat to the McMichaels and their neighbor, he should be alive today.
The vile footage that emerged early last year of Arbery’s murder indicates that murder charges for the McMichaels and Bryan would be fitting. To anyone reasonable, it is clear that Arbery’s killers are guilty. Yet nothing is guaranteed; the trial is ongoing. And to say that race and the American legal system have a complex relationship would be quite an understatement.
Already, accusations of racial discrimination dominated the jury selection proceedings. According to the New York Times, the jury comes from Glynn County – where “more than a quarter of the population is black,” yet only one of the twelve jurors is black. The defense struck eight potential black jurors, although the presiding judge ruled the reasons for their striking to be non-discriminatory. Presiding Judge Timothy Walmsley explained that the defense has “been able to explain to the court why factors other than race prompted those individuals to be struck from the panel.”
The defense for the McMichaels and Bryan cited a citizen’s arrest law of the Civil War era that appears to be largely irrelevant to the case. Importantly, the citizen’s arrest law strongly resembles the fugitive slave clause, which gave slave owners the right to capture and return any slaves who had fled to free states. Furthermore, the lead defense attorney, Kevin Gough, recently stated, “we don’t want any more black pastors coming in here,” in reference to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s presence in the courtroom. Racism and race have dominated all aspects of the trial of Arbery’s murderers.
So much can be raised from the news coverage, or lack thereof, of the trial of Arbery’s killers: racial bias in the American criminal justice system, stereotyping of black Americans in the media, the ignorance of violence against black Americans. But take note: the mainstream media and practically every large news outlet have created a celebrity out of a white vigilante while ignoring the slaughter of an innocent black man. Following his release on bail prior to the trial, Rittenhouse flashed the white power sign at a bar. Given this action, it would not be unfair to describe Rittenhouse as a white supremacist. By incessantly covering and reporting on the actions of a white supremacist and ignoring the end results of white supremacy – the murder of an innocent black man – the media serves to perpetuate the white supremacy central to the American way of life.