Update 11/5/21: Just before opening statements began in the trial, the judge presiding over the case allowed the prosecution to introduce Travis McMichael’s Confederate flag vanity plate as evidence.
There’s already plenty of reason to believe that Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, decided to chase after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black, including testimony from a state law enforcement agent who says he called the dying man the N-word moments after their encounter.
Now, Travis, who shot Arbery three times with a shotgun, is doing everything he can to limit any additional evidence that suggests race was a motivating factor, including photos of his vanity plate, which include a depiction of the Confederate flag. He and his father are facing murder and aggravated assault charges but claim they acted in self-defense when Travis shot the young Black on a South Georgia road on the evening of Feb. 23, 2020.
When Travis and Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. began to follow Arbery as he jogged through his neighborhood of Brunswick, the younger McMichael had vanity plates of the old Georgia flag on the front of his truck, according to court documents filed last Friday.
The flag in question is the second iteration of Georgia’s state flag, introduced in 1956 with the purpose of showing defiance to the federal government. Just two years prior, the Supreme Court had struck down school segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
Georgia was not alone in adopting the Confederate flag as their own around that time: South Carolina and Alabama leaders would show similar acts of defiance in the years that followed the landmark Supreme Court decision. Former South Carolina Gov. George Wallace, for example, went as far as raising the Confederate flag above his state Capitol in 1961, in celebration of the failed Confederacy’s hundredth anniversary.
Georgia would use the flag featuring the Confederate symbolism until it adopted a new one without the stars and bars in 2003.
Travis’ legal defense team argues that prosecutors shouldn’t be able to present photos of his old vanity plates in court, saying it would be irrelevant to the case and prejudicial.
The prosecution, on the other hand, argues the exact opposite, since the vanity plates were applied to the newly purchased vehicle sometime after January of 2020 and were on the car the moment of the fatal shooting.
“Defendant Travis Michael's choice, and the fact that this vanity plate was on the front of his pickup truck on Feb. 23, 2020, are intrinsic evidence in this case and can be fully used by the State to illustrate the intent and motive of Travis McMichael,” the state said in its response to McMichael’s request.
“The jury may interpret that evidence in any way they deem appropriate and the State may make reasonable inferences, in closing arguments, drawn from the evidence,” the state added.
A judge has yet to decide on the matter of whether the evidence will be used during the upcoming trial.
When Arbery was jogging through Brunswick, he stopped to look at a construction site along his path. The McMichaels spotted Arbery and attempted to carry out a so-called “citizen’s arrest” after suspecting the Black man had been involved in a string of burglaries in the area. The two men armed themselves with a pistol and a shotgun and tailed Arbery in their truck, and Bryan joined the pursuit in his vehicle.
The three confronted Arbery by blocking his path with their vehicles. After an exchange of words, Arbery and the younger McMichael got into a scuffle over the shotgun. Travis then fired three shots, killing Arbery.
The young man’s death pushed the state of Georgia to finally do away with its antiquated citizen’s arrest law, and it was one of several deadly encounters that Black people had with law enforcement-related people that inspired a new call for serious police reform.
The McMichaels and Bryan have all been charged with murder and aggravated assault.
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.