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Justice Served for the Racist Murderers of Ahmaud Arbery

Marcus Arbery, Sr., father of Ahmaud Arbery, carries a portrait of his son
Ahmaud Arbery's father carries a portrait of his son (Michael Scott Milner via Shutterstock)

George Floyd's civil rights trial is up next, and more cases need to go to trial to counter the rising voices of bigotry.

Perhaps, in the history of our country, there is no bigger blight on our criminal justice system than the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting Mississippi who was lynched in 1955 because he supposedly flirted with a white woman.

The trial, in November of that year, of his killers was an aberration, an abject and awful acquittal that set two murderers free. The prosecutors even declined to charge the men who murdered Till with kidnapping, even though they admitted doing so.

That trial was cited by many reporters and historians as the first true media event for the civil rights movement. Most Americans who followed the trial through television and newsprint stories were horrified by the fact that an all-white jury acquitted the two men of murdering an innocent teenage boy.

It's taken America a long time to reckon with that gross display of injustice. Many books, movies, and documentaries have chronicled about Till's murder and his killers' trial. Of course, all this attention didn't change the verdict; however, Till is still remembered, and hopefully this current and ridiculous assault on critical race theory won't snuff out Till's story.

Hearteningly, federal officials recently visited sites across the Mississippi Delta associated with Emmett Till's life and death to gather local input on the creation of a national park dedicated to Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. He should not be forgotten.

The initial federal hate-crimes legislation was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1968; yet there was little execution of the law since it had many loopholes, and many states and municipalities were unwilling to bring hate-crimes charges, some because the charges can be difficult to prove, and for others a glaring lack of interest in pursuing them.

In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that expanded the federal definition of hate crimes and among other things increased the ability of federal law enforcement to support state and local partners, particularly those states and municipalities that weren't bringing cases of hate crimes forward.

The violations of Ahmaud Arbery's civil rights truly deserved a full trial, and you might even say that there was some justice for Emmett Till all these years later. In what was arguably one of the first true media (social and traditional) hate-crimes trials of our time, three men who were already convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were convicted this week of hate crimes related to his death.

The men have already received life sentences for the murder convictions; they will be sentenced later on the hate-crimes convictions, which come with sentences up to life. Those three abhorrent men will never see freedom again.

The Arbery murder is considered by many to be a modern-day lynching. When three overt white racists spotted the Black Arbery running through their neighborhood and through a new home construction site, they took matters into their own bloody hands. They kidnapped Arbery, and they killed him.

Arbery committed no crime. He didn't steal anything. He didn't hurt anyone. He did nothing wrong, except he was Black, and for the three bigots, that was enough reason to kill him.

The evidence against the three murderers was overwhelming. They had rich racist histories, not only in comments to coworkers and acquaintances who testified against the three but also in their social media communications. The testimony and evidence was haunting. Their grotesque words alone should be enough to throw them in prison for life.

Next up is the George Floyd civil rights trial, for which jury selection began this week. The media and public's attention on this trial will be equally strong. Three Minneapolis police officers are charged with violating Floyd's civil rights. Former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted last June of Floyd's murder and is now in a Minnesota prison. In December, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Floyd's civil rights, so he did not have to be tried on those.

Federal prosecutors say the other three officers "wilfully deprived" Floyd of his civil liberties when they tried to arrest him. The prosecution could call as many as 48 witnesses.

These cases, like the Till case, were mortifying to most Americans, who were shocked -- even though shouldn't be -- by this heinous behavior by private citizens and police officers toward Black men. This overt bigotry and the crimes associated it have increased significantly given the latitude that Donald Trump and other Republicans have provided for white supremacists in recent years

When Trump said there were good people on both sides during a racist rally in Virginia, when Confederate flags flew throughout the Capitol on January 6 of last year, when an Iowa congressman asked Kamala Harris if she was descended from slave owners, and when an Arizona state representative said out loud that Black people "don't blend in," racists were emboldened.

They don't feel the need to hide. They don't feel the need to be silent. They don't feel the need to wear a sheet over their heads. They murder, they torture, they scream profanity through bullhorns, they instill fear, they promote excessive hate. They literally feel like they can get away with murder.

We know in our own community how far this hate has seeped. We at The Advocate are constantly covering gay men being brutally beaten in public, gay and lesbian bars being defaced with swastikas, and the horrifying, seemingly never-ending murders of trans people, particularly those of color. Again, these cases rarely involve civil rights violations charges -- when they should.

The names on the enhanced 2009 hate-crimes bill are Byrd, a Black man who was dragged to his death because of the color of his skin, and Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death because of his sexuality.

Those names are there for a reason. Whether you're Black, gay, queer, or trans, there are people out there who hate you and want to kill you. That is terrifying.

There needs to be a bigger emphasis on applying hate-crimes charges more frequently and making sure those that murder or mutilate out of bigotry go to trial for civil rights violations and are subsequently muted and imprisoned for life.

After the Arbery hate-crimes verdicts, we now have a clear example about how potent hate crimes are, the appropriateness of hatecrimes charges, and the effectiveness when they go to trial and are prosecuted successfully. Hopefully, the Floyd trial will yield the same results.

Urgently, the criminal justice system needs to keep its foot on the hate-crimes pedal and increase the number of cases that go to trial. Charging more criminals with hate crimes and revealing their despicable behavior through a trial is one way we can work to silence and punish the rise of racism, and at the same time honor the life of Emmett Till.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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