To End Racial Violence, the Work Must Continue Beyond Guilty Verdicts

On November 24, 2021, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan were all found guilty of murder charges for the February 23, 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery. People across the country rejoiced as the verdict was read by Judge Timothy Walmsley, averting what may have been massive protests in response to an acquittal. Arbery’s family had described his killing as a “modern-day lynching,” and many considered the trial to be a test case for racial justice. After the verdict, his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones said, “It’s been a long fight, it’s been a hard fight, but God is good. I never thought this day would come, [Ahmaud can now] rest in peace.”

Tributes poured in from around the nation. Vice President Kamala Harris said, “the defense counsel chose to set a tone that cast the attendance of ministers at the trial as intimidation and dehumanized a young Black man with racist tropes. The jury arrived at its verdicts despite these tactics . . . we honor [Ahmaud Arbery] best by continuing the fight for justice.”

In honoring Ahmaud Arbery and building on the work to end racial violence, the Stanford Center for Racial Justice hosted a webinar on December 6, 2021 to discuss how racial violence impacts our communities and reflect on the trial of his killers. We were joined by our Faculty Director Professor Rick Banks, along with Stanford Law Professors Shirin Sinnar, David Sklansky, and Bob Weisberg.

The panelists discussed a broad range of issues in a conversation moderated by our Executive Director, George Brown. Professor Sinnar emphasized that change begins with reckoning with the past. She noted that international societies who have experienced egregious human rights violations have only moved forward when they’ve accounted for their past—and “the U.S. has never squarely addressed its past.”

Professor Sklansky added that addressing racial violence requires addressing the legacy of slavery in the U.S., which is “not just a job for the criminal justice system.” However, he argued that when a crime like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery does occur, “there needs to be some kind of reckoning and criminal law is the way we provide that reckoning.”

Professor Weisberg addressed the legitimate concern about over-incarceration relating to the use of felony murder counts, but noted that the prosecution of the McMichaels and Bryan was mundane because it was flat-out murder. He said, “In that sense, the conventionality, the clarity of the facts on just plain murder I think probably shifts perceptions [regarding mass incarceration] a little and in a good way.”

Although our panelists agreed the criminal legal system worked properly in this trial, they also believe the work must continue beyond the guilty verdict—a reality met with the fact that another Black life was still lost to racial violence. Professor Banks said:

What I hope we don’t do is to treat this as a successful case, justice worked and now we’re done, let’s just move on. I think that would be the wrong lesson to draw from the situation. The justice system did work, and that is something we should feel good about, but we should also be concerned about the broader stakes of this incident.

He is joined by a chorus of other Black leaders, including Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) who tweeted, “This verdict upholds a sense of accountability, but not true justice. True justice looks like a Black man not having to worry about being harmed—or killed—while on a jog, while sleeping in his bed, while living what should be a very long life. Ahmaud should be with us today.”

Below is the video recording of our webinar, Racial Violence and its Effects on Communities: Reflections on the Trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers.