Editor’s Note: Jemar Tisby, PhD is a historian, author, and speaker. His latest book is How to Fight Racism Young Readers Edition and he regularly writes at his newsletter Footnotes. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last Friday, the three men who chased and killed 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery in what can accurately be described as a modern-day lynching were sentenced to life in prison.
The sentencing came nearly two years after father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael armed themselves and stalked Arbery through a neighborhood in southern Georgia along with a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan. In February 2020, the three men, all of whom are White, pursued Arbery in two vehicles, believing him to be a criminal. After cornering Arbery with their trucks, the younger McMichael killed him in a confrontation.
Arbery, who was unarmed, had simply been out for a jog.
The McMichaels were rightfully found guilty on multiple murder charges, and are now sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The third man, Bryan, received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after a minimum of 30 years served.
And yet, as with so many of these infuriating murders of Black people for the “crime” of merely being Black, urgent questions remain. Chief among them: Has justice truly been done?
The concept of justice is too often reduced to merely meting out punishment for breaking a law. But a more expansive view of justice, one that includes restoration and repair, means a prison sentence – even a lifelong one – falls short of the true meaning.
At its most complete level, justice would mean that Ahmaud Arbery was still alive, still breathing, still running. Justice would mean that a Black person could walk in any neighborhood and not be considered a threat by their mere presence. Justice would be dismantling the racist narratives that led three White men to track and kill a Black person.
When full justice proves elusive, however, accountability must be pursued.
Barring the death penalty, the life sentences handed down in the Arbery case are the maximum allowed; the legal system’s highest form of accountability. The penalties represent the judgment of the court that these three men committed a crime and should face the consequences of their actions.
It’s chilling to realize these men were nearly never arrested. It took 74 days for charges to even be filed. Only a shaky cell phone video, recorded by Bryan, became the difference between the killers living the rest of their lives in freedom or in prison. It was the footage, leaked after weeks of inaction by local authorities, that brought a national outcry and, eventually, charges.
In the present racial climate, it is fair to ask the question, “Do Black lives matter … without video evidence?”
Perhaps one result of the rise of cell phone videos and the Black Lives Matter movement – especially following the historic racial justice uprisings in 2020 – are guilty verdicts and sentencing in cases like the Arbery killing.
In June 2021, Derek Chauvin, a former police officer who killed George Floyd, was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. The video of Chauvin with his knee planted on the neck of Floyd for over nine minutes was, as with Arbery’s killing, a key impetus for the racial justice movement of 2020. The conviction brought a modicum of relief to those concerned about racial justice.
But the fight is clearly still ongoing. In the killing of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black emergency room technician who was fatally shot during a nighttime raid by police, none of the officers involved have been indicted for her death. Only one officer faces a trial for wanton endangerment for allegedly firing blindly into her home and subsequently an adjacent apartment.
Simple accountability, let alone true justice, is by no means guaranteed in a criminal legal system that protects police and vigilantes even when people die at their hands. No one should have to work so hard, flooding the streets in protest, nor be so anxious about whether racists will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law. An effective legal system would ensure the guilty face the consequences for their crimes on a more consistent basis.
Although the struggle against racism continues to be a pitched one, sentences like the ones handed to the McMichaels and Bryan offer a sign that change is possible. The convictions indicate persistent pressure can make a difference.
While the effectiveness of lifelong prison sentences in bringing about repentance and repair remains dubious, the temptation to leap to policy debates should not preclude pausing to consider the impact of this decision on those most affected by Arbery’s murder — his family.
In her victim impact statement, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, expressed her sentiments about the verdict.
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“This verdict doesn’t bring you back, but it does help bring closure to this very difficult chapter of my life,” said Cooper-Jones, speaking directly to her late son. She went on to say, “They were fully committed to their crimes — let them be fully committed for the consequences.”
In this case, those concerned about racial justice can join in the relief of Ahmaud Arbery’s family, friends, and community in knowing his killers will not go unpunished for having stolen a life.
The McMichaels and Bryan will think about the day they killed this young man every day they are behind bars. It is small consolation, but far better than the alternative. Even as the work of honoring the human dignity of all people remains unfinished, we can still acknowledge accountability is a form of the justice we seek.