We have become accustomed to the sad spectacle of unarmed Black men being killed by police officers, who then go on to avoid trial, or to avoid conviction if tried. This pattern is one of the more excruciating features of the systemic racism that Blacks and other racial minorities face in the American justice system.
But we have seen several trials recently that at least raise the question of whether that pattern might be weakening.
There is of course the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for shooting three people (two fatally) during the violent protests that followed the unpunished police shooting of Jacob Blake (who survived, but was paralyzed). But this case doesn’t fit the stereotypes. While Blake is Black, the three men shot by Rittenhouse were White, and were participating in a largely White effort to damage property in Kenosha. The desire to protect property was the reason Rittenhouse gave for bringing his AR-47 across the state line and into Kenosha.
While Rittenhouse clearly posed a threat to the protesters he encountered, their combative responses also posed a threat to him. If one of them had killed him, as they may have intended, they could have used the same self-defense argument as Rittenhouse used, and could have also been acquitted under Wisconsin’s lax self-defense law. So while this case is troubling on many levels, it doesn’t clearly exemplify the pattern of systemic racism in law enforcement.
Three jury trials this year (two criminal, one civil) do suggest some chinks in the wall of systemic racism.
But three jury trials this year (two criminal, one civil) do suggest some chinks in the wall of systemic racism. The first was the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. That the event was recorded by a bystander was a key to the prosecution: it clearly showed that Floyd posed no threat to Chauvin or anyone else. It was exceedingly unusual that the jury convicted him of murder and he was sentenced to more than twenty years of prison. The pattern of police impunity was broken.
The second trial was the civil suit by citizens of Charlottesville against several Far Right groups and individuals for damages resulting from their protests in Charlottesville over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The protest led to one death, several injuries, and property damage. The jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them some $26 million.
The third case is the most significant: the trial of three White men for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. The South in general, and the Deep South in particular, has a tradition going back to slavery times of White civilians acting to keep Blacks in line, and suffering no legal penalties for doing so. Even killings of Blacks by Whites were rarely punished.
The three White men certainly knew that long tradition when they saw Arbery jogging in their neighborhood. While they suspected him of trespassing on a house under construction, and thought he might have taken some items from that house, they had no concrete evidence that he had committed any crime. But under the traditional code, they could have detained Arbery and been thanked by the police. Or they could have beaten him up and sent him on his way with a warning not to come back. But the confrontation went awry, and the unarmed Arbery died of a point-blank shotgun wound.
The first response of local prosecutors was not to prosecute any of the three men. Only after a video of the event, shot by one of the men, was leaked, did the state take over the case and prosecute. Even so, the defense did its best to stack the deck by challenging all Black jurors but one. (In the days of Jim Crow, of course, there would have been no Black jurors.) But those eleven White jurors refused to play their assigned role. After only two days the jury returned guilty verdicts on all charges, for all three defendants.
These three high profile cases do not, of course, mean that racism in the legal system is no more. But they do suggest that White Americans, even in the Deep South, are becoming more willing to mete out justice to Whites who kill Blacks.