As the sun sparkled on the blue water of the South Brunswick River, a convoy of vehicles made a sober journey Saturday afternoon from the county courthouse past emerald marsh grass and swaying palm trees to gather at a quiet intersection in Satilla Shores.
The 35 vehicles decorated with Black Lives Matters signs and memorials to 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery prayed for justice where on Feb. 23, 2020, the former high school football star was chased down and killed by three residents of the majority white neighborhood.
Community prepares for media spotlight
The events of that winter day will be under the spotlight Monday, as the murder trial begins for those three Satilla Shore neighbors: Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and Wiliam “Roddie” Bryan. As twelve county residents are selected for the jury which will decide whether the killing was racially motivated murder or self-defense, Brunswick and Glynn County residents are anxiously debating how deeply the trial will scar their home, or whether it can help heal it.
“We live in hurricane alley so we make preparations for natural disasters on an annual basis. But we are planning for something now that we’ve never experienced,” said Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey. “This court case is going to affect everyone in our community. We have become part of Georgia and America’s dialogue about justice.”
This weekend, busloads of demonstrators are arriving from across the county, faith-based groups from around Georgia, Black Lives Matters activists from Chicago and Ohio and police reform advocates from Washington. They will join Arbery’s family and Brunswick friends to stand vigil in Brunswick’s downtown courthouse square for the duration of the case.
At the same time, more than three dozen national and international media workers are planning to cover what is Georgia’s biggest trial in recent memory and the proceedings, which will be livestreamed on CourtTV, mean that Brunswick and Glynn County will be under a spotlight for weeks.
At a minimum, the activity means traffic and parking disruptions. But, depending on the jury’s decision, many fear the wrong verdict could further fray their social ties already made tenuous by a widespread perceptions of racial bias in local law enforcement. Glynn County police and the former district attorney have been criticized locally and statewide for failing to make quick arrests in the case.
To alleviate anxiety among residents, the Glynn County Police Department, Brunswick Police and county and city leaders held a town hall meeting Thursday intended to provide answers about what residents could expect during the trial and the efforts they would be taking to ensure public safety.
Glynn County Police Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist told the five dozen residents assembled that the two police departments that patrol the city and county have organized a unified command of officers who have undertaken special training in advance of the trial. The force, however, would have a small footprint during the trial. Their intent is to facilitate anyone who wants to gather peacefully and express their First Amendment rights, he said.
Bergquist said there are no indications that violent actors are seeking to make trouble in Brunswick, and he encouraged residents to be patient and welcoming to all who plan to come to the historic port town.
“We’re not going to have federal officers running around and the National Guard running around,” he said. “This is my home and this affects me, too. This is a local effort for a local issue. All of us feel like we are up to the task to handle the challenge.”
Events bring emotion, fears to forefront
Sandra Jackson, a Black mother and Brunswick native, knows that her 23-year-old son is going to take part in demonstrations once the court case begins, but she isn’t sure she will join in the justice rallies.
She says that emotions have been high in her community. The trial has become a symbol not just for justice for Arbery but also the wider Black community because so many have personal experience with perceived racism among law enforcement and the criminal justice system. That’s why many of her Brunswick neighbors are nervous about how local law enforcement will handle the crowds of Black demonstrators.
“I would never tell him not to go. He would never listen to me on this matter anyway,” she said of her son. “But I haven’t decided if I want to march. I don’t know if I trust how the police are going to deal with us.”
John McCallum, a Brunswick contractor whose family has lived in Glynn County for generations, agreed. He said that the checkered record of police, especially the Glynn County department, over the last several years made it difficult to trust in their procedures and abilities.
The former chief of Glynn police, John Powell, was indicted on criminal charges a week after Arbery was killed for allegedly interfering with witness testimony and committing perjury in a case unrelated to the Satilla Shores shooting. Despite widespread belief among Black community leaders of police misconduct at the Arbery murder scene, and the lack of arrests in the case for 73 days, no Glynn police officer has been disciplined in the handling of the case.
“They have done wrong by many families, Black and white,” McCallum said. “So many people are wary.”
Toni Bennett, a white resident of Glynn County with two children who attend Glynn Academy, also is anxious about the ability of local police to keep downtown secure. She’s unsure whether her 16-year-old should drive to school each morning during the trial because of the potential of demonstrations becoming violent.
Bergquist and the assembly of county commissioners and city officials tried to assuage local residents’ fears during multiple meetings during the last week. Their message was firm but lacked specifics: they have several contingencies in place. “We are ready for anything,” said Bergquist.”
One of the issues city and county leaders declined to comment on is how much the price tag for the beefed-up security needs for the trial will be.
Glynn County Commission Chairman Wayne Neal said that the county’s contingency fund would cover the bulk of the expenses, but that he wouldn’t discuss a ballpark figure for the costs.
Downtown local restaurant managers expressed optimism Saturday about the crowds expected for the trial. After 18 months of depressed business due to Covid-19, they are eager to have a captive crowd who need lunch and drinks during what is expected to be a two-month trial.
‘We are greater together.’
On Saturday, under the shade trees outside the county courthouse, approximately 100 people gathered to support the Arbery family and the calls for justice for Ahmaud. The majority of the demonstrators were middle-aged Black professionals who brought their children to hear the messages from speakers such as Gerald A. Griggs, an Atlanta civil rights lawyer, local Black power groups and Ahmaud’s aunt, Thea Brooks.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” Brooks said while standing on the granite steps of the courthouse. “When Ahmaud was killed a year ago everything was quiet. They tried to silence us and no one cared. We are greater together. We are so much greater together. We don’t all have to look alike or have the same beliefs but we are all greater together.”
When the three-hour rally wrapped up, Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump led a 35-vehicle convoy of demonstrators from downtown to the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
The colorful group of vehicles included dinged up sedans, sports cars and minivans, headed down Highway 17 along the route where Ahmaud ran from his mother’s home on his last day, past the tidal marsh grass and sparkling coastal riverways into the suburban subdivision where the McMichaels lived.
Gospel music streamed from a Black Harley Davidson to fill the hushed air. The driver of a white Ford SUV further down the convoy chose another theme song for the drive: N.W.A.’s “F@@k Tha Police”
As the cars turned the corner at the 200 block of Satilla Drive where Arbery was killed, convoy participants shouted out the name of the 25-year-old jogger, adding: “No Justice, No Peace”
Five residents came out with a white labradoodle on a leather leash and paid a silent tribute to the demonstrators. “We are all hoping for the right outcome” when the trial starts, said one homeowner, who didn’t want to give her name. “An innocent person was killed here.”
Further down the block, away from the comvoy’s route, a single Satilla Shores home had a homemade sign on the lawn reading “We Run With ‘Maud” the slogan that local activists have taken up as part of a monthly vigil for justice in which they run to remember the slain former football player. Four doors further down, two neighbors displayed Trump signs.
Sheriff Jump says that rallies for justice will have a healing quality for the community. He expressed confidence that the court case would end up with a verdict that would bring Glynn residents closer together. “Our neighbors have proven themselves to be peaceful and committed to justice. These values aren’t Black and white. They are about right.”