Kyle Rittenhouse, a White man, shot three other White men and was determined by a nearly all-White jury in Wisconsin on Friday to have committed no crime because he was acting in self-defense.
Halfway across the country, in Georgia, a White man has claimed self-defense as he stands trial before a nearly all-White jury for killing a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery.
Race has not been the focus of lawyers’ arguments in either trial. But in both, it looms large.
And now that Rittenhouse has been acquitted, the stakes may be even higher in the Arbery case, with Black Americans who protested police violence and racism during the summer of 2020 saying the integrity of the court system is now on the line.
“Is there any real justice in this system?” asked Barbara Arnwine, a civil rights activist who has been rallying demonstrators in Brunswick, Ga., and attending the trial with Arbery’s family.
She said the verdict in that case — expected as soon as this coming week following closing arguments on Monday — will go a long way toward providing an answer. If the defendants are acquitted, she said, it would be nothing less than “a disaster.”
Although the Rittenhouse and Arbery cases differ in critical respects, there also are key parallels. To many Black Americans, Rittenhouse’s acquittal hardened long-held views that the U.S. legal system is biased toward validating the fears of White men with guns. Acquittals in the Arbery case could cement them.
Rittenhouse had taken to the streets of Kenosha, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, amid a violent uproar that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. The Illinois teenager was among a contingent of armed civilians — most of them White — who took it upon themselves to protect businesses from the looting and burning that had followed when peaceful protests in the city by Black Lives Matter and other racial justice groups turned violent. The three men he shot — two fatally — were all pursuing him at the time, and one was armed with a handgun.
Arbery, meanwhile, was unarmed. He was jogging through a neighborhood and was gunned down after being chased by three men who say they suspected him of burglary, and were attempting a citizen’s arrest.
“In both cases, you have White individuals who feel they have to make it their duty to go out of their way to reprimand or correct Black people and do so in a lethal and aggressive way,” said Wisconsin state Rep. David Bowen (D), who is Black and represents predominantly Black areas of Milwaukee as well as majority-White suburbs.
Concerns about racial discrimination in the justice system have shadowed the Arbery case from the beginning. They began with local authorities’ response to the February 2020 shooting in coastal Georgia. A prosecutor quickly chalked it up to self-defense and found the three White men — one of whom had worked for the office — justified in chasing an unarmed Black man through their neighborhood in pickup trucks.
A grand jury in September indicted ex-Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson over her handling of the shooting, on allegations she helped shield the men now charged with murder.
District Attorney George Barnhill, who was brought in to take over the case after Johnson recused herself, cast Arbery as the aggressor and emphasized his criminal record. He also asserted that Arbery was filmed “burglarizing” an under-construction home just before the pursuit, though police found no stolen items on the dead man’s body.
Then cellphone video of the shooting leaked, bringing the case to national attention not long before the police killing of George Floyd sparked a broader reckoning with racism in America.
Now the accused face charges of murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. The prosecution has suggested that if anyone could claim self-defense it was Arbery — chased through suburban streets for five minutes before he finally ran toward the man who pointed a shotgun at him.
The defense argues that Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan had legitimate suspicions of theft and break-ins, bolstered by surveillance video. Then, they say, Travis McMichael feared for his life when Arbery struck him and grabbed his weapon.
Attorney Kevin Gough — who represents Bryan — has echoed Rittenhouse supporters with his complaints about media coverage and public discussion of the case. Gough on Friday accused a “woke left mob” of influencing the court proceedings.
“This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” Gough said, a day after hundreds gathered outside the courthouse in support of Arbery’s family — largely in response to Gough’s failed attempts to bar Black pastors and civil rights leaders from the gallery.
The trial in Arbery’s killing has not been as politically divisive as Rittenhouse’s, with video of the shooting drawing bipartisan outrage and demands for legal consequences. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) called Arbery’s death “absolutely horrific” last year, while Republican and Democratic state lawmakers united to overhaul Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and pass a hate crimes statute.
The trial itself has avoided explicit allegations of racial bias. But jury selection underscored long-standing concerns about Black people’s under-representation, as the defense struck all but one Black person from the final panel. And some see the verdict as an inevitable comment on race — who gets the benefit of self-defense and who is deemed threatening.
Defense attorneys “have played to the stereotype of a scary Black man. The physically fit scary Black man,” said Arnwine, the activist and lawyer who founded a group called the Transformative Justice Coalition. “Rittenhouse’s defense played into the stereotype of the angelic poor White boy being threatened.”
Cheryl Bader, a former assistant U.S. attorney and a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said that while people of any race can claim self-defense, implicit bias means that race will inevitably factor into who can successfully claim it.
READ MORE about “Outcome in Rittenhouse trial raises the stakes as verdict in killing of Ahmaud Arbery nears”
Annie Polite, 87, of Brunswick, Ga., walks as part of a Wall of Prayer event on Nov. 18 outside the Glynn County Courthouse during the trial of three White men accused of killing an unarmed Black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)
A car celebrating the verdict in Rittenhouse’s case is seen in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 20. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)
Barbara Arnwine, center, speaks with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, second from left, at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Nov. 18. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)