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BLM Co-Founder Alicia Garza: Ahmaud Arbery Should Still Be with Us; Biden Must Condemn Vigilantes

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After a Georgia jury reached a verdict of “guilty” in the closely watched trial of three white men who chased and fatally shot 25-year-old unarmed Black man Ahmaud Arbery, many activists and racial justice advocates following the case have expressed some relief in hearing the conviction. We speak with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who says, while it might feel important that the murderers were held accountable for their actions, “justice would be that Ahmaud Arbery would still be with us today.” Garza also discusses the broader context of other trials of white supremacists, like Kyle Rittenhouse, and the role the federal government can play. “Unfortunately, I think the Biden-Harris administration could have been a lot stronger in their condemnation of this kind of behavior and activity,” says Garza. “But what we saw was actually more of a milquetoast response, which is especially concerning in this political context of white nationalism and a rise in vigilantism.”

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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.

In Georgia, a jury has convicted three white men for murdering Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was chased down by the men and shot to death while jogging last year. The jury convicted the men on a number of counts, including felony murder. Only one of the men, Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shots, was convicted of malice murder. Travis McMichael, his father Gregory, who’s a former police officer, and their friend William “Roddie” Bryan could face life in prison. Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, spoke outside the courthouse after the verdict came down Wednesday.

WANDA COOPER-JONES: Early in, I never saw — to tell you the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good. And I just want to tell everybody, thank you. Thank you for those who marched, those who prayed — most of all, the ones who prayed. Thank you, guys. Thank you. Now, Quez — which you know him as Ahmaud, I know him as Quez — he will now rest in peace.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton also spoke outside the courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the Deep South stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter. … Brunswick, Georgia, will go down in history as the place that criminal justice took a different turn. Let us pray. Dear God, even when many of us doubted, even when many of us said it’s not going to happen, you came in the state of Georgia, a state known for segregation, a state known for Jim Crow, and you turned it around. You took a young unarmed boy that they thought was worthless, and you put his name in history today. Years from now, decades from now, they’ll be talking about a boy named Ahmaud Arbery that taught this country what justice looks like.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Alicia Garza, the principal of Black Futures Lab, co-founder of Supermajority, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, also senior adviser for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She’s the author of The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.

Alicia, it’s great to have you back. But can you talk about your response to the verdict in the Arbery case?

ALICIA GARZA: Sure, absolutely. And thank you so much, Amy, for having me back on the show.

You know, my response was like many other Black folks’ response in this country, which was, one, a feeling of relief. As you know, we had just come off of the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse of vigilantism. And so, a few days later to hear that the three people who participated in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery being held accountable was a very important verdict, and it was a feeling of relief that actually they hadn’t gotten away with murder.

At the same time, you know, like many other Black folks across the country, I have to say that while it feels important that a jury convicted these men for their crimes, that justice would actually be that Ahmaud Arbery would be here with us today. And, you know, the thing that really sits with me, Amy, is that our court system, our legal system, generally protects vigilantism. This case, this verdict, was an important one. Unfortunately, it is not the rule; it is the exception to the rule that when vigilantes act in our communities in such a way as the McMichaels and their neighbors did, that often they are walking away scot-free, just like Kyle Rittenhouse did earlier in that week.

So, relief, yes. Justice would be that Ahmaud Arbery would still be with us. And then, of course, just reflecting on the fact that our criminal legal system protects these kinds of actions, in general, and that their conviction was not the rule, unfortunately, but it was the exception.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about the comments of Reverend Sharpton, who said, “Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the Deep South stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter”?

ALICIA GARZA: Well, Reverend Sharpton is incredibly prolific, as per usual. And Rev is correct. This is an important verdict for this time and this place in this country. We have to understand — right? — that it is odd that a jury of 11 whites and one Black person would convict three vigilantes who murdered a man in his own community who was merely jogging in his neighborhood. You heard the 911 calls as much as I did. When the operator asked what the problem was, McMichael said, you know, that the problem was that there was a Black man jogging in the neighborhood. And so, yes, it is deeply important that this jury convicted this trio, a part of which was a father-son duo. And it’s important for Rev to say, and I agree with this, that times are changing.

At the same time, we need more action. As I said before, this is not the rule, it is the exception. And while we are grateful for the exception, while the exception is important, we have to keep pushing to figure out: How do we make this the rule? How do we make it so that people who take the law into their own hands and decide for themselves who deserves to live and who deserves to die understand that that is not acceptable in this country? And until that is the case, we are going to continue to see these kinds of tragedies happening across the nation. So, yes, it is historic that a jury in this community at this time could make this kind of decision. And at the same time, we want to see this happening across the nation. We want to make it the rule and not the exception.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, addressing the reporters after the verdict came down on Wednesday.

MARCUS ARBERY: This is history today. You know that. Black kids’ life does matter! For real, all life matter, not just Blacks. And we don’t want to see nobody go through this. I don’t want to see no daddy watch their kid get lynched and shot down like that. So it’s all our problem. It’s all our problem! So, hey, let’s keep fighting! Let’s keep doing it and making this place a better place for all human beings. All human beings! Everybody! Love everybody! All human beings need to be treated equally. We finna conquer this lynching. Today is a good day.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmaud’s father. Now we’re going to turn to the lead prosecutor in the case, Linda Dunikoski, reacting to the verdict.

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: And the verdict today was a verdict based on the facts, based on the evidence. And that was our goal, was to bring that to that jury so that they could do the right thing, because the jury system works in this country, and when you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing. And that’s what this jury did today in getting justice for Ahmaud Arbery. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Linda Dunikoski, who argued this case, she was the third prosecutor. The first, Jackie Johnson, has been indicted, went to jail last week and then was released. Ahmaud’s family is calling for her to be imprisoned because of covering up — she was accused of covering up on behalf of Greg McMichael, the father, who was a former police officer, investigator, who she knew well. Then it was handed to a second one, and now to Linda Dunikoski. If you could talk about the significance of this, Alicia Garza, and that this — and the indictments against the three men didn’t come down for over 70 days, for over two months, and it took the video, astoundingly, of William Bryan, the third white man, before this case got the attention that the family was demanding from day one?

ALICIA GARZA: Well, listen, it’s incredibly important that this played out the way that it did. And so let’s talk about that for just a few minutes. First and foremost, you’re absolutely right that we’re on the third prosecutor in this case and that it was the third prosecutor who was able to get it done, after the first one actually attempted to not have this case brought before a court. In fact, you’re absolutely right, she conspired with this trio to keep this murder out of sight. And that’s unacceptable.

But what it should tell the rest of us who are watching this and asking ourselves, “Well, how can this happen?” well, it should say to the rest of us that actually the role of prosecutors is incredibly important. And I can’t emphasize this enough, especially as we are going into midterm elections next year. So many of these positions, like prosecutors, they are people who are elected by us. And so, when you see these fights across the country for people to elect so-called progressive prosecutors, people who will actually bring cases like this on behalf of all people in their community and not just some, it’s important to understand that we actually can have a role in that. And so, I want to give a big shoutout to organizations like Color of Change that fight to make sure that the people who are in those positions are not just covering things up and sweeping things under the rug, that they are in fact working to make sure that Black lives matter in an incredibly racist legal system.

The second thing I think is really important to understand here is that this landscape politically has changed. This is not the first vigilante killing that has happened. And, in fact, this case reminds me in many ways of the case of Trayvon Martin, who was just walking in his own neighborhood with a hoodie on in the rain, and George Zimmerman decided that he didn’t belong there and that he was a threat. Since then, since 2013, we have seen an incredible explosion globally of organizing and movement-building that has called for accountability, that has called for a reshaping and renaming of what justice actually looks like, and that has called for a reshaping and renaming of the rules that have been rigged against us for generations, that allow for these kinds of cases often to go scot-free. And so we have to give credit to the grassroots movement that has exploded across this nation for making the context such that somebody would have to think twice before allowing these three men to go free for such an obvious murder. And I think all of those things are deeply important for us to understand contextually as we think about the role of the prosecution in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia, if you could comment on this moment we’re in? The Ahmaud Arbery murder case, the verdict has just come in, all three men found guilty of multiple felony murders. They face life in prison. You have the Charlottesville verdict. This was a civil case, the white supremacists there ultimately fined something like $26 million. I think it was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show who tweeted, “Very fined people.” And then you have the case of Kyle Rittenhouse. In that case, he got off on self-defense. In a moment, we’re going to talk about a case of a woman in Kenosha who is arguing self-defense for murdering her sex trafficker, her sex abuser, who had gone after multiple teenage Black girls. We’re going to be looking at the case of Chrystul Kizer. But the Kyle Rittenhouse, Charlottesville and the Ahmaud Arbery murder case, what does this mean for Black Lives Matter organizing in the future?

ALICIA GARZA: Well, I think what it means is a few things. I mean, obviously, there is still a lot of energy and a lot of discussion around how it is that we change the rules that have been rigged against us for generations and how we replace those with rules that are more humane, that are more just and that are rooted in a different moral and value system.

In the meantime, I think it’s important for us to do a couple of things. Number one, I think we have to do some investigation of how did these laws come to be. You know, these so-called self-defense laws have origins. The idea that you can protect yourself and your property against a would-be attacker is not devoid of racial tension. It’s not devoid of racism or racist ideas. And it’s important for us to understand that. In 26 states across this nation, we have laws like this that protect vigilantes, that allow people to take the law into their own hands. I will be curious to see what happens in this case of Chrystul Kizer, a young Black woman who is claiming self-defense. So often these laws, these rules, are rigged to protect vigilantes who often claim self-defense against who they think would be an attacker, which is often a Black person. So I want us to understand the origins of these laws. And I think we need to actually go a little bit deeper to better understand how these laws are being applied in cities and states across the country.

But then there’s also, of course, a role for the federal government to play. As you know, the federal government can set the tone for what it is that states and municipalities do. Unfortunately, I think the Biden-Harris administration could have been a lot stronger in their condemnation of this kind of behavior and activity. But what we saw was actually more of a milquetoast response, which is incredibly concerning in this political context of white nationalism and a rise of vigilantism, a rise in racial terrorism and a rise in racial violence. I think it’s important that the federal government, led by the Biden-Harris administration, take a stronger stance and set precedent for what states and municipalities need to do.

We have long called on the Biden-Harris administration to strengthen the mechanisms that they have to ensure — right? — that there is justice that is applied equally across the board. And part of what that looks like, we think, is investigating the use of these so-called — sometimes they’re called “king of the castle” laws or castle doctrine laws or self-defense laws, that allow vigilantes to operate with impunity. The Biden-Harris administration could strengthen the Department of Justice to make sure that there is more oversight over legal systems across the country, to give guidance about what we do in these kinds of cases.

We can’t afford to have more Kyle Rittenhouses. And what we know from this era of Trumpism is that Kyle Rittenhouse and people like him are proliferating every single day, sometimes by the recklessness of companies like Facebook on social media, but also because of the recklessness of the leadership in this country, which fails to denounce this kind of behavior time and time again, whether it be the Trump administration or now whether it be the Biden-Harris administration. So we need to see stronger action on that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that at this point, when there is so much outcry around these cases, that still the Senate cannot manage to pass either of the two acts, including the John Lewis Act and the For the People Act — or, rather the Police Accountability Acts? Yes, you’ve got the voting rights acts on one side, and you’ve got the Police Accountability Act, because they could not resolve the issue of police immunity.

ALICIA GARZA: Well, we should understand that these things are deeply intertwined. You know, if you are not able to make decisions about who represents you in the prosecutor’s office, if you’re not able to make decisions about who represents you in the judge’s seat, then you certainly aren’t going to be able to ensure — right? — that laws are being applied equitably and fairly. And so the fact that the Senate can’t get this done should tell us something about the political landscape in this country.

Right now there are moderate Democrats who have joined forces with obstructionist Republicans to keep this country from progressing in a forward direction at the mandate of Black voters who put a lot of these people into office in the first place. And so, what I think needs to happen is that what we have to see is that people have to feel like there will be consequences for the actions that they are taking or not taking. And in this case, as we saw with Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who they feel accountable to are the corporations that fund their political coffers, but they don’t yet feel accountable to a movement that says, “If you do not move our agenda, you will be removed from office.” So that is what we’ve got to keep in mind, particularly as we are pivoting into the midterm season.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s how the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act links up with the voting rights acts, because, as we see in state after state, in scores of states, you have African Americans, Latinos, people of color being disempowered by gerrymandering and the suppression of voter laws that are passing.

ALICIA GARZA: That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And so, again, as we pivot into this next political season, it’s important for people to keep our eyes on the prize. You know, midterms are often a time when people drop off in participation. There are a lot of down-ballot races that people tend to not participate in. But those are the ones that are the most important to participate in. Again, like I said, when you look across the nation, these kinds of positions, like prosecutors, like judges, like governors, who get to decide people’s fates, these are elected positions, and these are positions that you have the ability to weigh in on and have decision-making power over.

And so it’s important for us to be thinking about how do we put the chess pieces in place so that we can create more favorable outcomes for the things that we want to see, so that we can make sure that this case, you know, where three white men were actually held accountable for the senseless murder of a Black man who was just jogging in his neighborhood — so we can make sure that those kinds of convictions are the rule and not the exception, so that we can make sure that what justice looks like in our communities is our people not being disappeared, whether it be in the bottomless pit of our jail and prison systems or whether it be through the hands of vigilantes who have decided that some lives matter more than others. We actually have the ability to influence that, and so I want us to keep that in mind as we pivot towards this next election season.

AMY GOODMAN: Alicia Garza, we want to thank you for being with us, principal of Black Futures Lab, co-founder of Supermajority, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, also senior adviser for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and author of The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.

Next up, we look at that case of Chrystul Kizer, the Black teen who faces murder charges in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after she killed her alleged sex trafficker, a white man who had a history of sexually abusing underage Black girls. She says she killed him in self-defense. Her case is now under new scrutiny after the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal in Kenosha, after he shot dead two racial justice protesters, claiming self-defense. Back in 30 seconds.

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Self-Defense? After Rittenhouse, Calls to Drop Murder Charges Against Black Teen Chrystul Kizer

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