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The trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and three men accused of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery had very different results. But within days of each other, they exposed a dangerous and long-standing stream in the fight for racial equality: the decision of some white Americans to seize guns and take their own stand against perceptions. anarchy, especially among blacks.

The two cases, which ended with an acquittal of Rittenhouse last week and guilty verdicts against Arbery’s killers on Wednesday, highlighted polarizing issues regarding gun laws and self-defense, and racial injustice.

They also forced the questions: who or what is protected? And from whom? Should the peace of mind of white Americans come at the expense of the protection and safety of black Americans?

“Much of this protection and security issue is about the safety and protection of whites or white property,” said Carol Anderson, historian and professor of African-American studies at Emory University. “There is a hubris of whiteness. The feeling that it’s up to me to put black lives back where they belong.

Arbery, a black man, was chased and shot by white men suspicious of a stranger in their predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. In Wisconsin, when Rittenhouse and the three men he shot were white, the encounter was sparked by the 17-year-old’s decision to travel from his Illinois home to Kenosha and arm himself with ‘an AR-15 rifle, determined to protect local businesses. Black Lives Matter protesters.

The unmistakable connection: The idea that white men who perceive a problem “should grab a gun and get in trouble, then claim self-defense,” said Michael Waldman, president of the NYU Brennan Center for Justice School of Law.

“It’s the product of a gun culture. It’s also a product of laws … which give white gunmen the ability to create chaos and sometimes get out of it, ”said Waldman, author of“ The Second Amendment: A Biography ”.

This combination of photos shows, from left to right, Travis McMichael, William “Roddie” Bryan and Gregory McMichael during their trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia.

The two coinciding trials have highlighted deep racial divisions within American society, especially in the wake of the sweeping race for racial justice last year that swept the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. .

Both also intervened at the end of a year that began with an insurgency on the United States Capitol, in which a predominantly white crowd of supporters of former President Donald Trump, enraged by the idea that the 2020 elections were “stolen” from them, the government stormed in an effort to take over the government.

The impetus for raiding the Capitol, said Anderson, was the unfounded claim that there were massive amounts of voter fraud in cities where there was a large black population, “the idea that black people vote is what who stole the election “.

“This is the problem with vigilantism, is that something precious to me, to me, to my community, is being stolen and it is being stolen by the unworthy, by those who do not deserve it,” Anderson said.

White vigilantism means “the need to keep the black population, especially the black male population, under surveillance and control,” said writer Darryl Pinckney. It has evolved over time, but there is a long history in the United States of people taking charge of the law – and white Americans using it as a pretext to violently enforce racial boundaries.

Pinckney pointed to vagrancy laws and black codes, passed after the Civil War, which were aimed at controlling freed slaves. “Laws that say, ‘If you can’t say where you live, you may be locked up and forced to work in the chain gang for a while.’ At the time of integration, it was a question of why black people were in a particular place – a demand for proof of their belonging in order to put whites “at ease.”

Arbery’s death is reminiscent of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by a Hispanic white man patrolling his Florida subdivision against suspected criminals. For many black Americans, the case served as a warning that just being black could make them targets, said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University Law School.

For Willig, there was a direct line between Martin’s murder and the notorious 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager visiting Mississippi from Chicago who was brutally killed by a pair of white vigilantes who were convinced the youngster 14-year-old had whistled at a white woman. And the Arbery case is another reminder of the lingering wickedness that can await black Americans who dare to cross areas considered white strongholds, she said.

Organized violence against blacks by ordinary white American citizens has a long history in the United States and has often been carried out with the explicit or tacit approval of authorities, said Ashley Howard, assistant professor of African American history at the ‘University of Iowa. She pointed to slave patrols that aimed to capture suspected runaway slaves and lynching cases, where jailers would often retreat or provide keys to allow crowds to access black suspects.

The Arbery killers “operated under this kind of slave patrol code, which basically delegated to all white people the power to question any black people about why are you here? What are you doing here? ”Said Anderson.

2 trials, 1 theme: white men take justice for themselves
Kyle Rittenhouse walks along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in this file photo from August 25, 2020.

During the civil rights movement, police often turned a blind eye to white vigilantes coming into black communities to quell protests, Howard said. The violence was fueled by a false perception that blacks assaulted whites.

“It’s that feeling that the world they know is under attack,” Howard said of white vigilantes. “He is under threat and they literally have to take up arms and defend them against stray crowds or however framed and understood.”

While Rittenhouse’s victims were three white males, race was at the heart of his case as well, given that he had decided to take up arms to defend his property during a Black Lives Matter protest, and his victims were white men who championed the equal treatment of black Americans. “Attacking white allies for black liberation has always been history,” said Pinckney.

Elijah Lovejoy, a white abolitionist and newspaper editor, was fatally shot by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois, in 1837. His killers were declared “not guilty.”

James Peck, a white activist in the civil rights movement, was considered a race traitor by the KKK, brutally beaten during the Freedom Rides, as described by civil rights activist John Lewis.

Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who participated in the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, was shot dead by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the current context, following persistent calls that “black lives matter” and many whites responding to the call to join the movement, the discomfort and fear associated with a loss of identity or power Whites are being stirred up again, and some feel more and more emboldened to face it. .

“White identity has never been challenged to this degree or abandoned to this extent by other whites,” Pinckney said. “There’s a real feeling of betrayal, and that’s part of the fear – this loss of status or the devaluation of personal whiteness.”

Nasir is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter:


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