The Brutal Racism in the Trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers

From tossing around “colored people” like it was the 1960s to describing Arbery’s “long, dirty” toenails, the trial itself put racism on display.
Travis McMichael sits with his attorneys before the start of closing arguments to the jury during the trial of he, and his father Greg McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan, at the Glynn County Courthouse, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga.
Travis McMichael sits with his attorneys before the start of closing arguments to the jury during the trial of he, and his father Greg McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan, at the Glynn County Courthouse, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

Whether the defense likes it or not, the trial of Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan is all about race. Specifically, it’s about whether these three white men had the right to chase, detain, and ultimately kill a Black man merely because they suspected he might have done something wrong.


The trial has given America a front-row seat to the casual racism of everyday life in the South Georgia neighborhood of Satilla Shores, but such racism has also pervaded the very courtroom where Ahmaud Arbery’s killers are being tried.

Right up to the final day of the trial, witnesses, defendants, and even defense attorneys exposed their intolerance in ways that painted a clear picture of how prejudice pervades every facet of American existence, including the criminal justice system.

It began right at the start of the trial, when somehow all potential Black jurors were cut from the final 16 except for one, thanks to the defense’s strategy. But it didn’t end there: racist terms like “colored” were tossed around like it was 1960; racist assumptions about a Black man were passed off as normal; an attorney for the defense suggested admitting Black civil rights leaders to the trial would be somehow equivalent to admitting white people dressed up like Colonel Sanders; and Arbery’s character was assassinated down to his “long, dirty” toenails.

“The whole reason we’re here is because Ahmaud Arbery was in the neighborhood and the McMichaels stopped to demand that he explain himself for being in a place he had every right to be as a free citizen,” Melissa Redmon, the prosecutorial justice program director at the University of Georgia’s School of Law and a former Fulton County district attorney, told VICE News. “It just illustrates this overall issue that too many people of color have to deal with, even outside of the context of law enforcement.”


‘Trapped like a rat’

For example, Gregory McMichael, the father of the man who fatally shot Arbery, insisted to police several times after the shooting that the Black jogger must have done something wrong. He had no evidence Arbery had committed a crime, but he concluded that he must have been responsible for missing property in the neighborhood based on a video that showed Arbery wandering around a vacant property.

“That’s just it, I don’t know,” Gregory McMichael told police when asked if Arbery broke into someone’s home and stole something. “I said, listen, you might want to go knock on doors down there because this guy just done something because he was fleeing. I don’t know, he might have gone in somebody’s house.”

McMichael would once again show his bias in the way he spoke about Arbery, including telling police after the shooting he had Arbery “trapped like a rat.”

“I would have shot him myself,” McMichael told Glynn County Police on body camera footage, before elaborating that “he was that violently …” before being interrupted by other officials investigating the scene. It was an astonishing level of callousness toward a Black man who lay dead just a few feet away.

But it wasn’t just the defendants who were guilty of assuming the worst of Arbery. Larry English, the man who owned the home under construction that Arbery and several others were seen walking into months before the shooting, revealed his own antiquated views of race and inherent bias in his 911 call.

‘Here’s a colored guy’

“I’ve got a trespasser there,” English said in an emergency call from October 2019, referring to his unfinished home. “Here’s a colored guy.”

“He’s got really curly-looking, not dreadlocks but messed-up-looking hair,” English continued when the dispatcher asked him for more information. “Looks like he’s maybe drunk or on drugs.”

While English suspected others who’d been on his property of theft, the suspicion of drug or alcohol use in the “colored guy” who appeared on his property is particularly telling.

That kind of language was ever-present throughout the trial. Two more Satilla Shores residents who took the stand referred to Black people as “colored,” an outdated term that stems from pre-civil rights-era South. 

When resident Matthew Albenze testified he saw Arbery walking around in the vacant home down the street, his immediate response wasn’t to chase the Black man like the McMichaels and Bryan did. However, he did run inside and arm himself with a pistol before calling the county’s non-emergency line, as if a Black man standing inside a vacant home more than a football field away was enough of a threat to consider the possibility of using deadly force.  


“It gets into the issue of overpolicing of Black and brown citizens in this country, where there is the assumption of criminality that the majority doesn’t have to deal with,” Redmon said. The assumption of criminality was the crux of what the prosecution argued during both opening and closing statements in the trial.

“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors during opening statements. “And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life.”

‘We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here’

But very few moments felt as inappropriate as when the defense attorneys showed their own racial bias in court. Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough was the first to do it, sharing with the judge his discomfort with the mere presence of Black people.

“We don't want any more Black pastors coming in here, or other Jesse Jacksons, whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim's family trying to influence a jury in this case,” Gough told Judge Timothy Walmsley a day after finding out Al Sharpton had sat next to Arbery’s mother. “If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back...”

His attempts to compare the caricature of the white, fried-chicken icon to Black civil rights leaders with a vested interest in one of the biggest trials of the year were bad. And the next four times he’d make note of famous Black civil rights leaders sitting in the gallery to jurors were equally as confusing, with the judge noting the panel likely didn’t even notice them.

‘Long, dirty toenails’

But few moments in court felt as insensitive and racist as defense lawyer Laura Hogue painting Ahmaud as a wayward, dirty youth.

“All we can guess about the young man is that his teenager years were full of promise, but his early 20s just led him in the wrong direction,” Hogue said during closing arguments Monday. “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim, after the choices that he made, does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts, with no socks, to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Hogue’s statements were not only racist but also grossly dehumanizing. While the medical examiner noted that Arbery’s toenails were overgrown at the time of his death, to bring it up in the final argument as to why a group of white men was right to kill him was a shameful, deeply offensive, and disgustingly cheap way to try and earn an acquittal. The words were enough to get Ahmaud’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, to audibly react and to leave the courtroom.

The decision on the fate of these three men will ultimately fall on the jury, and it’s up to them to decide whether their decisions should land them in prison. But they only have to be paying the slightest attention to the trial itself to hear the bias both inside and outside the courtroom.