“The modern-day lynching of Mr. Arbery is yet another reminder of the vile and wicked racism that persists in parts of our country,” said Rev. James Woodall in 2020. Now, just this Tuesday, the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery have been convicted of a federal hate crime.
Since the murder of Arbery exactly two years ago today, the state case convicting the three men of the murder has been one of the most closely watched cases related to civil rights since the murder conviction of Derek Chauvin. The state trial resulted in the three men being convicted of murder and receiving life in prison. However, there is more to the story than senseless killing.
From Facebook to iMessage to Whatsapp, the three men who murdered Arbery — Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William Bryan — infected the digital world with their hateful and racist messages. Not content to hide behind screens, these men even brought their bigotry out in conversation.
These are men who comment “I say shoot them all” under videos of Black teenagers and rejoice that their workplace doesn’t have “a n***er in sight.” To argue there was no racial motivation in their violent stalking and killing of a Black man would be like arguing redlining doesn’t actively discriminate against Black buyers. Oh wait, people are still dismissing systemic racism in that area as well.
Luckily, the federal court seems to have opened its eyes at least to this instance of racism, finally convicting the three men of a hate crime after a mountain of evidence was presented to the jury. In a world where racism has been entangled in everything from the police force to water fountains, legally establishing the connection between the murderers’ bigotry and the crime they committed seems like a no-brainer.
But though the evidence that Arbery’s murder was “a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability” seems undeniable, Tuesday’s hate crime conviction was unprecedented. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 82% of hate crime court cases are declined due to insufficient evidence.
In a country where over 10,000 hate crimes are reported annually, you would think the legal system could confront this issue. Yet, many prosecutors seem to approach hate crime charges like a letter from the tax evasion office — whether because of the difficulty of proving racist intent or implicit biases in legal institutions, the hate crime verdict remains unapproachable, better suited to gathering dust than actual legal effort.
Inconsistent state laws provide yet another reason why we seem to have more graffiti swastikas in public schools than hate crime charges that actually make it to court.
Georgia only implemented a state-level hate crime law in 2020, after Arbery’s murder. In Wyoming — the state where a gay teenager was beaten, tortured and left to die — no hate crime law exists at all. North Carolina, at least, does have one, but the law is two sentences and makes no mention of gender, sexuality or disability. Even those two sentences didn’t make much difference when the North Carolina man who killed three Muslims in 2015 evaded all hate crime charges.
Despite the shocking disparities in how this country legally approaches hate crimes, Tuesday’s verdict provides some hope for the future. In a high profile case such as the Arbery one, the hate crime conviction will receive high amounts of visibility. Forget the Super Bowl halftime show, Arbery’s murderers being convicted of a federal hate crime has shown up on nearly every major news outlet.
The effect? Hate crime charges are shown as serious, worthy-of-taking-up and possible to prove.
Pursuing a hate crime verdict on top of the murder conviction also shows that hate crimes are as offensive and dangerous as other charges.
Perhaps the transformation of the hate crime charge from a quietly ignored legal headache to a journalist’s lede-candy will mean more of those 10,000 hate crimes — and however many more go unreported — will actually translate to convictions. And for every prosecutor who takes a hate crime charge off its dusty ledge and pursues it in court, maybe one less synagogue will be defaced and one more Black man can go for a run without fear.
We are undeniably in new territory. Now that the Arbery case has shown us a hate crime conviction is possible, the country must reckon with a hesitant legal system and discrepancies in how states approach the law. As prosecutors are hopefully emboldened to take on the important hate crime charge, the legal definition of a hate crime may be redefined or perhaps even made uniform.
Regardless of what the future holds, the Arbery case is monumental. It has provided a light on the path towards a legal system that acknowledges the deeply pervading, yet often overlooked role of racism in our country.