EDITORIAL: ARBERY CASE SOBERING REMINDER OF ‘HATE’
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Those words from Martin Luther King Jr., offered as part of his famous “I have a dream” speech in August of 1963, are among the most familiar ever delivered about race in America. They came during a time when the civil rights movement was in high gear and the fight for equality front of mind for many. And it produced both awareness and change about how men and women of color were treated in the land of the free.
Sadly, while many positive steps have been taken in the nearly 60 years since King’s memorable address in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., race relations remain strained at best and horrific at worst.
The worst was brought into light once again on Tuesday when a jury found three white men guilty in a federal hate crime trial. Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, who last November were convicted of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison, were found guilty of interference of rights — a federal hate crime — and attempted kidnapping in the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black 25-year-old who was jogging through a Georgia neighborhood.
It’s good that justice was served.
Make no mistake about it; Arbery was targeted and killed because he was black.
But it’s confounding that race remains a motivating factor for many high-profile trials surrounding violence, whether it’s multiple instances of police brutality, the Kyle Rittenhouse case last year or the Arbery murder and ensuing verdict that once again made headlines earlier this week.
According to reporting from National Public Radio:
To convict on this hate crimes charge, federal prosecutors were tasked with proving to the jury that the defendants targeted Arbery because he was Black. For four days last week, witnesses recounted racist interactions with Greg and Travis McMichael, and prosecutors spent a full morning of the trial going over racist and sometimes violent content from the defendants’ digital footprints, including texts and videos.
“If Ahmaud was another white person jogging, would this have happened in the way that it did? If Ahmaud hadn’t been using public streets, would this have happened the way it did?” prosecutor Christopher Perras asked in the government’s closing arguments on Monday.
Perras said they acted on racial assumptions, racial resentment and racial anger that had been building for years.
“They didn’t need to talk about it. They knew what they were going to do,” Perras told jurors. “They grabbed their guns and went after him.”
This, of course, is not an isolated instance. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that an average of 250,000 hate crimes were committed each year between 2004 and 2015 in the United States — the majority of which were not reported to law enforcement. And it should be noted that “hate crime” isn’t simply bias against somebody because of their race, but can also include religion, disability, sexual orientation or national origin.
And it’s happening in our own state.
According to a 2020 report from the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office, 17 hate crimes were reported that year: 15 involving race and the other LGBTQ/gender. And it’s impossible to know how many other instances of “hate” — which by definition of the law means bias against people or groups with specific characteristics — are happening on a regular basis.
In the state of Georgia, Feb. 23 is now officially known as Ahmaud Arbery Day, which will offer a stark reminder of the horrific murder of the 25-year-old and an ongoing awareness that the fight for equality still exists.
“As a mother I will never heal,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud’s mother, told NPR. “They gave us a small sense of victory, but we will never get victory because Ahmaud is dead.”
Dead, because he was targeted. Because he was black.
Nearly 60 years after Dr. King’s famous speech in Washington, D.C., this is still our nation’s reality. And King’s words are as true as they have ever been.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
Jeremy Waltner | Editor & Publisher