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America and Ahmaud Arbery: Guilty verdicts in Georgia bring 'that small glimpse of hope'

Jenny Jarvie, Jaweed Kaleem, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Republican leaders in Georgia condemned Arbery’s killing and said vigilante-style violence had no place in their state. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp responded to Arbery’s shooting in February 2020 by signing into law the state’s first hate crimes bill in June of that year, which imposed additional penalties for crimes motivated by bias.

In May of this year, Georgia repealed the state’s citizen’s arrest law and significantly restricted the ability of anyone who is not a certified law enforcement officer to arrest someone. Kemp called the old law “antiquated” and “ripe for abuse.”

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” Kemp told a Savannah TV news outlet at the time. “What we saw in the Ahmaud Arbery case ... that’s not the state of Georgia I know. We’re better than that.”

It seemed in many quarters the vestiges of the past were expiring in a nation that for so long had failed to confront the sins and injustices on which its foundations rested. The Arbery verdict was the latest notation in a slowly changing ledger.

Some in Brunswick, though, believed their community had been tarnished by the case, in ways they felt did not square with the town they knew.

“Everyone has an opinion that the South is racist, but I find African Americans and whites really get along well here,” said Bill Hestor, who works as a dock master at a marina not far from the courthouse.

A 59-year-old white man who considers himself a conservative, he said he hoped the outcome would bring healing — although he questioned whether Bryan, the third defendant, should face as harsh a penalty as the father and son who initially gave chase.

But for many, merely avoiding what would have been regarded as a worst-case scenario — a sweeping acquittal — was little cause for celebration. The convicted trio were very nearly not held accountable at all; they were not arrested until 74 days later, after an outcry triggered by a video circulating online.

And the trial itself was punctuated by jarring moments: on a 911 call played as evidence, the nature of the emergency being described by one of the accused as “a Black man running down the street.” The lead defense attorney’s demeaning reference to Arbery’s “long, dirty toenails.” The defense’s unsuccessful demand that Black faith leaders not be allowed into the courtroom.

 

“As a Christian, Black man, and pastor to a majority African American congregation, this case hits close to home,” said Emory Berry, the pastor of Greenforest Community Baptist Church outside Atlanta.

He called the verdicts “monumental” but at the same time “momentary.”

“In the 21st century, it is disheartening, discouraging and disappointing to see the devaluing of Black life and the politicizing of our justice system,” he said.

Like all such cases, though, Wednesday’s verdict pointed to a bleak truth: that justice is sometimes a far cry from solace.

“The guilty verdict won’t bring Ahmaud Arbery back,” Berry said. “But it will seal that his life and death were not in vain.”

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(Jarvie reported from Brunswick, Kaleem from Los Angeles, Hennessy-Fiske from Houston and King from Washington.)

©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.