Only in recent years has white American culture become willing to stare the horror of lynching in the face, or at least glance at it sideways. It has done so only because time’s passage has made it feel safe to do so, allowing us to pretend that it was perpetrated by people utterly unlike ourselves.
It comes as a shock when we witness, with our own eyes, a modern-day, 21st century lynching in Georgia.
It’s not just the murder of Ahmaud Arbery on a Sunday afternoon in a Brunswick neighborhood that qualifies it as a lynching. To my mind, a lynching requires two elements, the first of which is an act of brutal vigilante violence. The events depicted in that 36-second video certainly meet that test.
The second essential element needed to qualify as a lynching is the willingness of the local community and institutions to give safe harbor to the perpetrators, and by doing so give that violence tacit approval. The fact that Greg and Travis McMichael were not arrested for 10 long weeks, with two separate district attorneys unwilling to charge them even with strong video evidence in hand, more than meets that second test. If that video had not become public, it is highly unlikely that they would ever have been held accountable.
That willingness of the justice system to give safe harbor to the McMichaels sends a message to everybody in that community, but particularly to those in the minority.
It says the “justice system” is not about justice, it’s about control.
It says the system will protect “us” from “you,” but don’t you ever dare think it will protect “you” from “us.”
The McMichaels acted on that ancient understanding, believing that when it came down to it, the system would protect them and never the black man. They were almost right.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only indication that the message of vigilantism still echoes, long after we prefer to think it had waned. You may recall that just two years ago, in his 2018 campaign for governor, Brian Kemp ran an ad in which he showed off both his guns and his pickup.
“I’ve got a big truck,” he bragged, “just in case I need to start rounding up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.”
A lot of people expressed outrage at the suggestion that Kemp was willing to take the law into his own hands, but he and his consultants knew what they were doing. It helped him win the Republican nomination, and then the governor’s office.
I’m not suggesting in any way that Kemp inspired what happened in Brunswick. I’m certainly saying that his ad and the atrocity in Brunswick drew upon the same cultural memories and attitudes toward vigilante justice.
So the arrest and prosecution of the McMichaels, while critically important, will not be sufficient.
Jackie Johnson, the Glynn County district attorney who recused herself rather than act on the overwhelming evidence presented to her, should be pressured to resign. The same is true of George Barnhill, the neighboring district attorney who tried to argue that Arbery, an unarmed black jogger, had been the aggressor against armed white men who were hunting him down. They have both proved themselves unfit for the responsibilities and power they hold.
But it’s also important to recognize and address more subtle forms of that sentiment. In his original, pre-virus budget, for example, Kemp proposed to cut $3 million from the state’s already overwhelmed public-defender system, matched by a $3.2 million increase for district attorneys and prosecutors.
What’s that about?
We know what that’s about. It’s about further tilting an already tilted justice system. It’s an attempt to give poor and largely minority defendants even less of a chance to a fair hearing. Again, it’s about protecting “us” against “you,” but not “you” against “us.”
The true unacknowledged horror of the Arbery case is that it is only the visible, blatant part of this iceberg. It is the glaringly obvious manifestation of less obvious things that have been going on for centuries but that we, the “us,” conveniently choose not to recognize unless it’s buried safely in our past, where we are free to decry it and by doing so make ourselves feel better, without being challenged to change a thing in the present.