- Anoa Changaeditor at NewsOne and host of the podcast The Way with Anoa.
We go to Georgia, where a jury has found the three white men who hunted and fatally shot unarmed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery guilty of committing federal hate crimes, acknowledging the racial animus behind the killing. It marks the first time in Georgia’s history that there has been a conviction for a federal hate crime. Today is the anniversary of Arbery’s murder, now marked as Ahmaud Arbery Day in Georgia. We speak with Anoa Changa, editor at NewsOne and retired federal government attorney. The verdict feels like a victory for proponents of racial justice, but “it isn’t the end-all be-all that a lot of people think it is,” says Changa. “Prosecutorial misconduct and prosecutorial accountability continue to be something that organizers around the state are working on.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
It was two years ago today, before his name was known to the world, when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased down, shot and killed by three white men as he went for an afternoon jog in Georgia. Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, and his son Travis McMichael claimed they were attempting a citizen’s arrest of Arbery when they pursued him in their pickup truck. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined their pursuit in his own truck and recorded a cellphone video that would later be released as evidence and spark a nationwide outcry.
On Tuesday, after just a few hours of deliberation, a jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Latinx person found them guilty of committing federal hate crimes. This is the first federal hate crime conviction in Georgia’s history and comes after the men were already convicted on state murder charges. As each juror confirmed their vote to convict, the jury foreman, a Black man from Dublin, Georgia, reportedly choked up as he answered, through tears, through his mask, “Yes.” Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Ahmaud Arbery’s family, spoke alongside the family after the verdict was read.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: This is the first time in the state of Georgia’s history where there has been a conviction for a federal hate crime. And you all did that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, sir! Yes, sir!
BENJAMIN CRUMP: You all did that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, sir! That’s right! Wanda and Marcus! That’s right! That’s right! That’s right. The Arberys! The Arberys!
BENJAMIN CRUMP: This was because of Wanda and because of Marcus.
AMY GOODMAN: Outside the courthouse, Ahmaud Arbery’s parents, father Marcus Arbery Sr. and his mother Wanda Cooper-Jones, welcomed the historic verdict, calling it “Super Tuesday.” But they remained critical of the Department of Justice’s initial offer of a plea deal in the case that would have allowed Arbery’s killers to serve the first 30 years of their sentence in federal prison rather than state prison, which many consider to have harsher conditions.
WANDA COOPER-JONES: I want to first say “thank you” to everyone who stood by us for this fight for justice for Ahmaud. It’s been a very long, stressful fight for the members of the community, for the city of Brunswick, the state of Georgia, for the people who stood with us through the nation of the United States of America. … Healing — I, as a mom, will never heal. …
I now want to address the members of the DOJ. I’m very thankful that you guys brought these charges of hate crime, but back on January the 31st, you guys accepted a plea deal with these three murderers who took my son’s life. … That’s not justice for Ahmaud. What we got today, we wouldn’t have gotten today if it wasn’t for the fight that the family took up on January the 31st. What the DOJ did today, they was made to do today. It wasn’t because of what they wanted to do; they were made to do their job today.
MARCUS ARBERY SR. He loved his family. He called us every day. If he had but one word to tell you, guess what that was: “I love you, Pops. I love you, Mama.” He always told you that. Now these times you don’t hear that, I’m struggling with that every day.
AMY GOODMAN: At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland got emotional when he was asked about Arbery’s mother’s comments on the DOJ’s proposed plea deal.
ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: I cannot imagine the pain that a mother feels to have her son run down and then gunned down while taking a jog on a public street. My heart goes out to her and to the family. That’s really all I can say about this.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Georgia, where state lawmakers passed a resolution declaring today, February 23rd, to be Ahmaud Arbery Day. There’s a march and a run and a walk through Satilla Shores, the neighborhood where Ahmaud was killed.
We’re joined in Atlanta by Anoa Changa, editor at NewsOne and a retired federal government attorney. She also hosts the podcast The Way with Anoa.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. The significance of this first-time verdict, Anoa, the first time in Georgia — also very rarely in the entire country — that men were found guilty of federal hate crimes? Can you comment?
ANOA CHANGA: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
I mean, this has been a really remarkable case to watch unfold. Like we heard in the comments, the family of Ahmaud Arbery, along with the surrounding community, really pushed for this case to even get out the gate in terms of the state case and then, you know, pushing for the DOJ’s involvement, as well. So, absolutely kudos to the family.
And just really, I think this case highlights how far we still have to go in terms of the legal or so-called justice system in this country. It’s really interesting that we are in this moment with the first-ever federal hate crime charges or conviction in the state of Georgia at the same time where we have elected officials, who a year ago acknowledged the racist history in laws like the prior version of the citizen’s arrest law, now denying the presence of race or even the necessity to discuss and engage in discourse around race in decision-making, in lawmaking and in our judicial system. So, just really thinking about the purpose of hate crime charges and really sending the message that this was an act that was based in racism, that was based in white supremacy and bigotry, does have a really interesting effect in 2022 that this is the first time this is happening. But it isn’t the end-all be-all that I think a lot of people think it is.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anoa, I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the key evidence that you believe that the prosecution presented to the jury to indicate that this was not simply murder, as they were convicted in state court, but that it was racially motivated.
ANOA CHANGA: Yeah, I think that this case lined up — I won’t say “well.” It’s hard to say that a case lined up well when we’re talking about the murder of a young person in the prime of their life. But there were text messages, there were conversations that were had with the McMichaels, with people who — you know, being just what they thought was just “I’m just talking to my friend being racist,” but that really helped make the case to show that the assumption that this Black man, this young Black man, who was running in a neighborhood, was really just someone who was criminal or someone who didn’t belong there. And I think part of the problem is that even if — even if Ahmaud Arbery, quote-unquote, “didn’t belong in that neighborhood,” even if that narrative was true, that’s not justification for what the McMichaels — for what was ultimately done to him, you know?
And so, being able to build that case and show how irrational the assumptions were, and show that they were solely based on race — like, some of the different comments and text messages that were highlighted at the federal trial, which were overlooked or glossed over in the state trial because that was the strategy that the state prosecutors went for, but in terms of a federal hate crime, I mean, that is the ability — the charge is based on race or gender or sexual orientation, those things, so you have to be able to prove not just that they happened in this specific act, but also that there was a propensity. Another thing was the way the defendants lied about catching him in the course of committing crimes, because that’s a part of that citizen’s arrest justification, right? They were allowed to justify this initially under the guise that they had caught him in the act and were in the process of trying to detain him for law enforcement, and then things went awry. That was the original story, so to speak, right? And so, they were able to pull back the — federal prosecutors were able to pull back the layers and really show the through line of how these text messages or these conversations, or even reportedly derogatory terms used in the course of the event and immediately afterwards, played into the fact that this was solely because Ahmaud was a Black man and not because of anything else happening.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could talk about the importance of Arbery’s family speaking out against the original plea deal and the judge siding with them, in terms of the impact of that, and, clearly, that they were, to some — clearly right in insisting that this go to trial.
ANOA CHANGA: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think the family — I think the DOJ has a different ultimate goal. Like, generally, you know, when people say, “Oh, we’re on the same side. We want the same things,” I think that’s generally true. But the DOJ has its mandate and is working across multiple cases in multiple jurisdictions to address the rise in hate crimes that we’ve seen over the past couple years, and they have their clearance rates and their other bottom line that they follow. I think, from the family, just listening to his mom in the earlier clip, you know, what is justice? What does that actually look like? You know, we’ve heard the same thing from similar families who never even got to a trial. When you think about Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin or so many others over the past several years, they never even got this far, right? So, but it’s not that the family should be just satisfied that charges were brought and that there was a conviction. I mean, they were right to object, because there is a role of the victims in terms of, like, weighing in on sentencing.
And the federal judge — for the federal judge to come back and say, “No, because I don’t want to be locked into this deal. Like, it takes authority out of my hands in terms of sentencing,” that was also, I think, really powerful in all of this conversation, because a federal judge could gone along with the plea deal and been locked in, and then it would have shut the family out. And so, that gave the family, you know, an advocacy lane, and it made the trial move forward.
I think there’s also an issue, even though it’s the Department of Justice and it does have its certain mandates, there are limitations to the type of justice that can be administered through that department. Ultimately, what we saw here is a function of that. And just listening to Attorney General Garland and the emotionalness, like the empathy, that’s great, and it’s a change from past people in that position. But at the same time, there are so many cases that, unfortunately, get sent back to families, like, “We can’t do anything.” It was important that this case did move forward, but there are so more cases out there.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we just have 15 seconds, Anoa, but what is being planned for today on this second anniversary of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery?
ANOA CHANGA: Mm-hmm. Like you mentioned, there are community activities. There is a run/walk going through the neighborhood later today. There’s also a march by a coalition of folks later on, after that, as well. I mean, I think also people are moving forward and making sure the state actually continues on a positive trend in addressing racial disparities in criminal justice and in the prosecutorial system. Prosecutorial misconduct and prosecutorial accountability continue to be something that organizers around the state are working on, which this case really highlighted, at the state level, how important that is.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, at the federal level, the U.S. chose not to prosecute 82% of hate crime suspects from 2005 to 2019. Anoa Changa, we want to thank you for being with us, editor at NewsOne in Atlanta, Georgia.
Coming up, pressure is growing on the Biden administration to fulfill a campaign promise: cancel student debt. Stay with us.