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“Blackness Itself Is the Crime”: Bishop William Barber on Racism in the Ahmaud Arbery Murder Trial

StoryNovember 15, 2021
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We speak with Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, who was one of the Black pastors who visited the trial of the three white men who hunted down and shot dead Ahmaud Arbery, where last week a defense attorney claimed Black pastors sitting with the Arbery family in the courtroom could be “intimidating” for the jury, which is almost all white. Barber says Arbery’s killing and the trial proceedings expose that for many, “Blackness itself is the crime.” This Thursday, more than 100 Black pastors plan to march in front of the Glynn County Superior Courthouse. Barber joins us from Washington, D.C., where he is planning a protest call for Congress to pass the $2 trillion social spending and climate package known as the Build Back Better plan.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Georgia, where the trial of the three white men who hunted down and shot dead Ahmaud Arbery took an unexpected twist last Thursday when a defense attorney claimed the courtroom presence of high-profile Black pastors sitting with the Arbery family could be “intimidating” for the jury, which is almost all white.

In a minute, we’ll be joined by the Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of those pastors who visited the courthouse last week. But first, this is defense attorney Kevin Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan, neighbor of Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, who chased and killed Arbery.

KEVIN GOUGH: And I’m reminded of one matter that I wanted to address. My understanding, while I was cross-examining investigator Lowrey yesterday is that the right Reverend Al Sharpton managed to find his way into the back of the courtroom. I’m guessing he was somehow there at the invitation of the victim’s family in this case. And I have nothing personally against Mr. Sharpton. My concern is that it’s one thing for the family to be present, it’s another thing to ask for the lawyers to be present, but if we’re going to start a precedent, starting yesterday, where we’re going to bring high-profile members of the African American community into the courtroom to sit with the family during the trial in the presence of the jury, I believe that’s intimidating, and it’s an attempt to pressure — could be, consciously or unconsciously, an attempt to pressure or influence the jury.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, the Reverend Al Sharpton said the attorney’s comments, quote, “underscore the disregard for the value of the human life lost and the grieving of a family in need of spiritual and community support,” unquote.

On Friday, attorney Gough made a brief apology in court, calling his comments overly broad, said he would follow up today with a, quote, “more specific motion.”

Meanwhile, more than a hundred Black pastors say they plan to come to the Glynn County Superior Courthouse this Thursday to help pray for the family of Ahmaud Arbery. Sharpton has said he was invited to Brunswick by Arbery’s parents and raised concerns about the makeup of the jury. Sharpton has called the killing a “lynching in the 21st century.”

This is Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, speaking last week.

MARCUS ARBERY: That’s why I know my boy didn’t take nothing! My boy got killed because his skin color! Lynched! All right!

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. He just returned from Brunswick, Georgia, where he visited with the community and family of Ahmaud Arbery, was in court last week.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you respond to the lawyer saying Black pastors in the courtroom intimidate the jury?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Amy, first of all, let me thank you, and let me just say — reach out and pray for the Ahmaud Arbery family. You know, I was invited to come down, as well, also, from the family as a part of Transformative Justice Network. And there are many ministers that are part of this.

First thing I want to say is, we, as ministers, have to resist taking this personally, because it’s not about us, it’s about this family. And we have to understand, in the white supremacist mind, what this lawyer is doing. Number one, he doesn’t have a case, because his own people filmed their killing this young man. Think about that. They filmed it. This wasn’t somebody else. They are the ones that did the filming of this murder, this killing. So, I guess they thought they would be celebrated as heroes.

Secondly, what he said is instructive. And I’m saying to clergy: Be careful that you don’t take the bait. It’s not about me or Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. He said — he connected Black with intimidation. He said Black pastors are intimidating. We need to unpack that, because he’s sitting in the room with men that tracked, hunted and destroyed a young man’s life, and yet he says Black pastors are intimidating. First of all, he also limited Black to pastoring Black people. Now, I’m not a Black pastor. I didn’t get consecrated as a Black bishop. I was consecrated as a bishop. I was ordained as a pastor, been pastoring 30-some years — white, Black, Brown, all kinds of people. So we have to resist that. You know, we’re not — that limits us. We are pastors who happen to be Black.

But also, we’ve got to unpack this trope that has been used down through history. Black is intimidating, i.e. just being Black is a problem. And then, when you unpack that, Amy, you understand the crux of the problem, the centerfold of the racial violence problem in this country, whether it be a racist white cop or like these three men. They saw brother Arbery, Ahmaud, as being Black first, therefore being intimidating, therefore being a problem, therefore being somebody in the wrong place, therefore being somebody that needed to be purged, destroyed, killed, murdered. In essence, they saw Black, they saw a nigger. They saw someone to be destroyed. And that’s why you see oftentimes a cop kill someone unarmed and not having any remorse. They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Or you can have someone shoot somebody who happens to be Black or Brown, and they don’t think they did anything wrong because that issue of Blackness being identified with intimidation. So, Black lawyers are intimidating. Black pastors are intimidating. It’s the issue and the framing.

Now, he’s trying to clean it up, but you really can’t clean it up. And I don’t know if I want him to clean it up, because in that moment was a deep, rare honesty. That was a deep honesty. And America needs to hear it and learn from it.

I hope, yes, pastors will go, but go as pastors, and go as ministers. And I know I’ve been asked by some others down there to come next week and lead a group of interfaith ministers — just ministers, regardless of race, creed or color — that believe in justice, that believe in right. And so I’m considering that, as well. We need to not take this personal. It’s not about us. It’s about the heart of these cases, where Blackness, for years in American history, was identified with intimidation, and therefore, the Blackness itself is the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that you’ve got this jury, one Black juror — even the judge in the case, after jury selection, which took week after week, called it intentional discrimination, but allowed the trial to go on.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Fine. But, see, they’re mostly white, so they’re not intimidated. In the mindset, they’re not intimidated, and certainly they can’t be discriminatory. Now, on the other hand, if it was an all-Black jury, or all Black but one white, then they would be jumping up and down, “It’s a problem, it’s a problem,” you see, again, because of how Blackness is used and how Blackness is seen.

If anybody ought to be intimidated in that courtroom, it’s that father that has to sit in that courtroom and look at three people who shot his son down like a dog and who filmed it and put it on camera. If anybody should be intimidated, it should be the family looking at that jury pool and not seeing a jury of their peers, of their son’s peers. That’s who should be intimidated.

But instead, we have a rare honesty at this point, the other day. You know, when I was there, after the court closed at 12:00, we went outside, and we had a rally. Fifty percent of the folk at the rally were white. Fifty percent of the folk who were at the rally were white. We then marched to Ahmaud Arbery’s mural, and Black and white people knelt together. But all he saw was Black pastors intimidating. And then he tried to make a reference to equate a Black pastor with somebody with a sheet, looking like — and I guess he meant the Ku Klux Klan. So, once again, he’s saying that Blackness is seen in itself as an extreme, as something extreme in the human reality. And that’s what we need to be unpacking in this moment, because if we deal with that issue, then you wouldn’t have killings like you have with them, you wouldn’t have destroying, because people would not automatically, when they see Black, see a problem, see somebody [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: We want to talk about why you’re in Washington, D.C. But I just want to ask about this moment. You have the trial in Georgia. Then you’ve got the Rittenhouse case. Five hundred state troopers have been called out to deal with the verdict. And you have the judge in that case, on Thursday, calling on the jurors, the entire courtroom, to applaud a man who was about to testify for the defense, because it was Veterans Day and he was a veteran. They had to applaud him. Again, that jury of just one Black person.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah. Imagine that judge being a Black judge doing that in another case. This judge is just way out of bounds. And remember what they’re trying to say about this young man. He was out there. He claims he was fearing for his life, even though what was going on wasn’t even really near him. And they’re trying to basically say he was a hero, he was defending himself. But he was the one with this gun, I think an AK-47.

But we’ve seen it all year. Anybody can ask you, imagine — you’re asking about. Imagine three Black men riding in a truck, killing a young white boy, what would happen. Imagine if all Black people had been rushing the Capitol on January the 6th. Imagine if this was a Black judge doing this in this other case. This is where we are seeing how race plays out.

And it’s important, even in why I’m in D.C. today. You know, we look at this Build Back Better plan. Think about it. The infrastructure plan, the most of that money is probably going to go to white and white contractors, so forth and so on. When that money gets sent to the states, those states get to divvy it out. Most of those states are Republican-led states that are also fighting against our opportunity to vote. On the other hand, the Build Back Better plan, if you look at the dynamics, who’s going to get impacted the most, it’s going to be poor white people and Black people and Brown people. You take the Build Back Better plan, just take one piece of it, say, expanding the child tax credit, that’s going to impact 35 million households. Now, we know 140 million poor and low-wealth people are in this country, 26 million Black, which is 60.9% of Black people, and 66 million white, which is 30-some percent of white people. So, we know that that deal is going to have an impact on Black people, the poor white people, the poor Brown people, the poor. Which bill is getting fought the most? Not the infrastructure. And if you go down in each part of that bill — we’ve done it. Take, for instance, the expanding of the money for home healthcare workers. Well, 28% of those persons are Black, 23% are Latino.

So, we’re in D.C. today with people from all over the country — Black, white, Brown, Asian, Native — who are saying, “We are not going to accept just an infrastructure plan that fixes our roads and our bridges, while you leave our bodies, our education, the infrastructure of our daily lives, living wages undone. We can’t do that.” And we’re saying, “If you oppose the Build Back Better plan, as small as it is, then you also oppose racial equity, and you also oppose class equity.” And we have to start unpacking these deals in that way [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Barber, we have to leave it there. We thank you so much for being with us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach.

And a fond farewell to Miriam Barnard. Such enormous gratitude for all your work over the past decade. Special thank you for helping to keep our team safe on and off site during the pandemic. Your humor and compassion and skill was so cherished at Democracy Now! You’ll be forever a part of our DNA, because, after all, you are a Democracy Now! alum. All the very best. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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