How Ahmaud Arbery’s killing spurred a national reckoning on race

Jury selection is underway in the high profile case of white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in Georgia — one of the cases that set in motion a wave of racial justice protests nationwide in the summer of 2020. For our ongoing "Race Matters" series, William Brangham discusses the case with Gerald Griggs , vice president of the NAACP Atlanta chapter.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jury selection is under way in the high-profile case of white men accused of murdering an unarmed Black man in Georgia, one of the cases that set in motion a wave of racial justice protests nationwide in the summer of 2020.

    William Brangham has the story, as part of our ongoing coverage of Race Matters.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, jury selection is under way for the three white men on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

    Arbery was jogging near his home in Southeastern Georgia in February of 2020, when two of the men stopped him, claiming that they thought he was involved in a string of burglaries. A fight took place. One of the men had a shotgun, and Arbery was shot and killed.

    The two men were not initially arrested, until 10 weeks later, when video of the incident was revealed. The third man on trial is the one who took that video.

    To talk about this highly anticipated trial, I'm joined by Gerald Griggs. He's vice president of the NAACP Atlanta chapter.

    Mr. Griggs, thank you very much for being here.

    Could you just give us a sense? I know this is a very fraught time as this trial starts. What is the mood like in the community there?

  • Gerald Griggs, Vice President, NAACP Atlanta,:

    Yes, the mood down in Glynn County is cautiously optimistic.

    As you said before, it took 74 days from the incident occurring until the videotape was released for them to make an arrest in this case. So they're cautiously optimistic, and they're hopeful that justice will be achieved in this case. And they have been watching this and participating, and many members are outside the courtroom right now waiting on jury selection.

    And some people are outside having a teach-in. But the community is galvanized around this case, and they will continue to push towards justice.

  • William Brangham:

    I can't help but notice that, again, this is one of those instances where videotape, I mean, albeit video shot by one of the men who is being prosecuted, was the turning point, was what got state prosecutors involved, and what helped turn the tide and really change the facts on the ground of what actually happened.

  • Gerald Griggs:

    Yes, that's correct.

    Because of the release of the tape, law enforcement got serious about this case. You know, for the longest time, Wanda Cooper-Jones and other members of Ahmaud's Arbery family had been pushing for justice ever since they learned what happened to their loved one on February 23, 2020.

    And they were always resolute in believing that he was murdered. And so once the videotape was released and it showed the world, that's when law enforcement started to actively truly investigate and bring individuals in for questioning, as well as arrested the three suspects that were involved.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, the defense argues that these men were within their rights to stop Mr. Arbery, they thought he was involved in some crimes, they were legally carrying their guns, and when they confronted him, he fought back.

    What do you make of that argument? Do you think that's going to have any sway over the jury?

  • Gerald Griggs:

    I think that that's a curious factual argument. It goes against the facts and the law.

    They're arguing that they had a right to arrest the individual because they believed that he was involved in some sort of criminal behavior. It turned out that the owner of the property believed there was no criminal behavior and had not empowered these individuals to make any arrest on his behalf.

    And, ultimately, even if they were empowered to use that type of power to arrest someone, they could not use deadly force.

  • William Brangham:

    Where do you see this tragedy fitting in this long line of cases that we have seen that have triggered this racial justice movement across the country, from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor? Where does this fit in that?

  • Gerald Griggs:

    Well, this is actually the case that began Freedom Summer 2020. It was a case that happened before George Floyd, and it brought the awareness, as we were all dealing with COVID-19 and we all saw the video.

    It launched the new social justice movement that has gripped America. So, I think that this is the very first case. And I believe that, hopefully, we can achieve justice like we achieved it in the George Floyd case. But, ultimately, it's a little different, because we're not dealing with directly law enforcement. We're dealing with vigilante justice.

    So it falls in line with the Emmett Till case. It falls in line with the Jordan Davis case and so many other cases throughout history. And, hopefully, we will see the appropriate response by the criminal justice system in this case.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have been in touch with many members of the Arbery family.

    What is your sense from talking with them about what justice would look like to them?

  • Gerald Griggs:

    They have been very clear since the very beginning. They want all individuals who were a part of this or who helped cover it up, held accountable.

    Specifically, for the three individuals on trial, they want a conviction, and they want the maximum punishment under law. Like I said before, like many members of the community, they're cautiously optimistic. But they are so far happy that we have gotten to this point because of the pressure of activists, the pressure of the family, the pressure of the community and, of course, the pressure of the nation seeing what happened in that Southeast Georgia town.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that all that pressure and all of that attention and all of the fraught history of what we're been dealing with in this country is going to make it hard for the jury to keep their eyes focused on the facts of this particular case?

    Gerald Griggs No, I don't think so.

    I think that, once you look at the facts and evidence in this case, and you look at all the bodycam footage, you look at the cell phone footage, you can come to a pretty easy decision about what happened, and what was legal and was illegal.

    So, I don't think it's going to weigh that heavily once you look at the case. And that case will be tried in a courtroom. The judge will give curative instructions about anything that people may have seen outside of the courtroom, and tell the jurors to determine the facts and the evidence based on what they see on the witness stand and what they hear from the witnesses and the documentary evidence.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Gerald Griggs the NAACP in Atlanta, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gerald Griggs:

    Thank you for having me.

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