When is a murder not a murder? When it’s a lynching.
On November 24, 2021—the day before Thanksgiving—many Americans let out a collective breath of relief. In Brunswick, Georgia, a jury convicted Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan of murder for hunting down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man.
So why call it a lynching, and not simply murder? In fact, the crime seems more straightforward than the elaborate punishment rituals we associate with the “crime” of being Black and in the wrong place. Beatings, gruesome torture, hangings, burnings, and the display of dismembered body parts distinguished these twentieth-century killings that were intended to cow entire counties of African American people, male and female.
And yet, perhaps lynching has evolved to suit a new generation’s racism.
Let’s look at the facts of what led to Arbery’s death. It began with a classic feature of a lynching: vigilantes targeting a man, not because of evidence, but on the presumption that, as a Black man, he might have committed a crime. After falsely identifying Arbery as the perpetrator of neighborhood break-ins, the McMichaels, father and son, decided to act. They armed themselves and jumped in their pickup truck in pursuit of Arbery, and were joined by Bryan, driving his own pickup and, improbably, recording the chase on his cell phone. Bryan was still recording when Arbery tried to defend himself and Travis McMichael fired his shotgun at point-blank range, killing Arbery instantly.
Modern lynchings don’t require large crowds, only a willingness to confront perceived outsiders with force. Indeed, Travis McMichael had recommended to his neighbors at the subdivision months earlier that they should be prepared to use lethal force in response to suspected property crimes there. The jurors in the murder trial saw McMichael’s two-word response to a Facebook post about a suspected car burglary in the neighborhood: “Arm Up.”
But would Arbery have survived the encounter had he been white? Would he have been chased at all? Let’s look at the evidence the jury heard.
As he and his son approached Arbery on that February night in 2020 in Brunswick’s Satilla Shores neighborhood, Gregory McMichael made clear to a 911 operator why he believed Arbery’s presence in the neighborhood near Brunswick merited an emergency call. Prosecutors in the murder trial played a recording of the call for the jury.
911 operator: “What’s your emergency?”
McMichael: “I’m out here in Satilla Shores. There’s a Black man running down the street.”
There’s a Black man running down the street.
Yet an item posted in November 2019 referenced a Black man and a white couple recorded on back-to-back nights inside a home under construction a short distance from the McMichaels. All sides at the trial agreed that Arbery was the Black man, but no one ever reported witnessing him committing any crimes at the house or anywhere else in the neighborhood. Prosecutors said no evidence existed that would connect him to crimes there. In fact, thefts or any other actual crimes in Satilla Shores reported to police in the months prior to Arbery’s murder were virtually nonexistent, according to court testimony.
And no one seemed to be on the lookout for a white couple.
After Travis McMichael shot Arbery to death, the McMichaels told police all that they didn’t know and didn’t see. They decided to chase Arbery down despite having never seen him commit a crime, in person or on video. No one else in the neighborhood had either. “I don’t think the guy has actually stolen anything out of there, or if he did, it was early in the process. But he keeps going back over and over again to this damn house,” Gregory McMichael said, according to a transcript of the interview that Glynn County Police Sergeant Roderic Nohilly read in court.
Bryan knew even less. Initially witnessed the chase from his front porch, he told police he didn’t recognize any of the participants or know what prompted the McMichaels to chase Arbery. But he still joined in after calling out, “Y’all got him?”
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan later told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about why he joined in the pursuit of an innocent man. “I didn’t know for sure.”
These were the assumptions—that a Black man must have “done something wrong”—that cost Ahmaud Arbery his life, just as a falsely reported whistle identified Emmett Till as a potential rapist to the men who dumped his broken, 14-year-old body into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River.
The assumptions that have historically driven lynching have not gone away. Black people encounter them regularly, because they are built into American life. The assumption of criminality based on race shapes public policy and influences daily social and economic interactions. Racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies have been declared illegal because of their discriminatory impact, yet they continue, often under other pretexts, even in the nation’s capital. Viral videos regularly feature Black people being accused of wrongdoing while simply living their lives: moving into an apartment, barbequing, swimming, shopping, or walking a dog.
Can white people understand that their assumptions about Black criminality can be the first step towards a lynching? In his daring film Watermelon Man (1970), Melvin Van Peebles imagines that it is possible, but only through living the experience. Godfrey Cambridge portrays Jeff Gerber, a particularly obnoxious white bigot who awakens one night to discover he has turned Black. After initially reacting with hysteria, the character decides to return to the office and to his normal routine.
Part of that routine is to start his morning commute by racing the bus on foot, dressed in a business suit and sneakers, briefcase in hand. While he was white, Jeff Gerber would routinely beat the bus to the first stop outside his subdivision, to the disappointment of the other riders. When Gerber takes off on foot to race the commuter bus as a Black man, dozens of concerned white citizens end up chasing him, and a police officer joins the pursuit. When the Black bus driver challenges the mob to tell the police officer what crime Gerber has committed, one of the pursuers responds emphatically that because he was running, Gerber “must’ve done something.”
Lynching is also driven by fear: fear of as rumored or as-yet uncommitted crimes, and of course, fear of Black men, a sentiment that has been ingrained in white people by politicians, popular culture, and the stories that they tell each other. And lynching is the alleviation of that fear through the violent sacrifice of a living person.
One might trace the origin point of Arbery’s death to stories spread on social media. Residents of Satilla Shores said they found posts in the neighborhood Facebook forum about local crimes frightening. They exchanged rumors about items missing from their neighbors’ property and vehicles. Neighbors who testified at the murder trial said they began telling their children to come inside early.
They said they were aware that the McMichaels and others voiced a need to take matters into their own hands.
But this phenomenon is not to the American South, historically an epicenter of lynching. Increasingly, online neighborhood forums have focused on the suspicious presence of Black visitors—and even on Black neighbors.
“It causes people both to be more anxious, more on-alert or hypersensitive,” media psychologist Pamela Rutledge told the Associated Press. But it also makes them more suspicious of someone not like them.” “It’s really sort of stacking the kindling, so to speak, because people are then watching for something to go wrong.”
Steven Renderos, executive director of the media research organization MediaJustice, agreed. “These platforms serve as vehicles to amplify and echo a feeling that your community is under assault.” Considering these online exchanges, Renderos said he senses there is “a way in which white vigilante-ism is praised and in a way in which Black existence is criminalized.”
Because of that widespread fear, and because of their whiteness, the McMichaels and Bryan felt empowered, not just to pursue Arbery, but to demand compliance from him as a Black man. When he did not comply, he was treated first as a fleeing suspect and then as prey. Gregory McMichael, who stood in the bed of the pickup truck when his son killed Arbery, told police Arbery “was trapped like a rat” and that he told him, “Stop, or I’ll blow your f—ing head off.”
Arbery knew a potential lynching when he saw one: he ran.
Lynchers assume police authority because they are doing the work of criminalization and punishment that they know, in another circumstance, would be done by the state. They are right. In their actions and their statements to police, the McMichaels displayed the hubris characteristic of those who, throughout United States history, have killed Black people without the expectation of any penalty or legal consequences. We see that confidence in the faces of white men, women, and even children, gathered at the torture and lynching of Black men, images later sold to other white people on photographs and post cards. The two men charged with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 spoke and behaved with the same confidence: an all-white jury would never convict them. We see it in the smiles on the faces of the white men on trial for the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. And we see it in Derek Chauvin look of defiance, his knee lodged in the back of George Floyd’s neck, as bystanders yelled and begged for him to stop.
To paraphrase Chief Justice Roger Taney’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, it is as if Black men still have no rights that the white man is bound to respect.
A hallmark of lynching has always been that everyone knows who is responsible, but no one is, in fact, held responsible, because the Black man in question must have“done something.” Indeed, for weeks following the murder, the McMichaels and Bryan were given no indication that they would be held accountable for killing Ahmaud Arbery.
They almost weren’t. Jackie Johnson was the district attorney initially assigned to the case: Gregory McMichael had previously worked as an investigator for her office. Phone records showed that Gregory McMichael called his former boss just after the shooting. Johnson instructed the police to file no charges against the McMichaels. She then handed off the case to an out-of-town prosecutor, who also recommended no charges, citing a Georgia citizen’s arrest law. A third prosecutor was reviewing the case when the video of the shooting surfaced: that prosecutor then handed the case to the state.
Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were not arrested and charged in the case until May 2020, more than two months after the murder and only after the video of Arbery’s murder was given to a Brunswick radio station and went viral. The three also await trial on federal hate crimes. Johnson has since been indicted on a felony charge of violating her oath of office and a misdemeanor count of obstructing police.
But why did the McMichaels and Bryan save the video in the first place? Because they believed it would prove their actions were justified.
And with the right jury, they might have been right. While defense attorneys did little to defend their clients’ actions or previous statements to police, and made no use of the citizen’s arrest law (repealed by lawmakers after Arbery’s death, but in force at the time), they put the dead man himself on trial.
The defense strategy quickly came into focus: it was Arbery who was a criminal, even if the McMichaels, Bryan, and no one else in Satilla Shores could say they ever saw him commit any crime. They showed videos of Arbery inside and around the house under construction, empty-handed, in a T-shirt and shorts, in an attempt to persuade the jurors that he was up to no good and deserved to be questioned or apprehended.
But they didn’t stop there. In her closing arguments, Laura Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael’s lawyers, used bizarre, dehumanizing language in her final bid to characterize Arbery as a menace. “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” Hogue told jurors.
Were all Black men a potential threat? Perhaps they were, Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough inferred, as he unsuccessfully sought to have Black pastors and civil rights activists kept out of the courtroom. Their presence, he said, could represent “an attempt to pressure or influence the jury.”
Even in a courtroom surrounded by officers of the law, white people, Gough insinuated, are right to be afraid of all Black men.
A half century ago, the few trials for lynchings still routinely found the victims guilty of crimes and the perpetrators innocent. We no longer live in that world. The jury’s verdict demonstrated that these overt tactics and coded messages that criminalized Ahmaud Arbery failed to convince in the face of evidence of the truth: that he was an innocent man gunned down in the street.
But we still have a foot in that world. The release of the video was vital in bringing charges against the killers—but the inaction of law enforcement and prosecutors shows that the case still would have never gone forward without weeks of protests.
The Black Lives Matter movement and heightened calls for racial justice have, all at once, made it more difficult for legal authorities to disregard the calls for more equitable law enforcement and more fairness in the judicial system. The demands of protesters, Arbery’s family, and civil rights activists made the difference.
But what of those who have no video evidence, and one to stand up for them? Those lynchings will still go unpunished.
Mark Allan Williams was a senior editor at Bloomberg Industry and at BNA in the decades before it was acquired by Bloomberg. Prior to that, Mark was a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, in the years before it became the Tampa Bay Times. Mark began his career as a staff writer at the Associated Press. Mark’s M.A. is in journalism and public affairs from American University and his B.A. is in sociology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.