Brunswick braces for national spotlight, demonstrations during Ahmaud Arbery murder trial

Crowds are set to gather outside the Glynn County courthouse starting Monday when jury selection for the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial begins. The media spotlight is about to train intensely on the small coastal Georgia town. In this May 2020 photo, crowds gathered on the lawn as a grand jury considered murder indictments. (Georgia Recorder file photo)

BRUNSWICK (GA Recorder) — When jury selection begins Monday in the trial of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, the Transformative Justice Coalition is expecting up to 100 people to show up in support of the Arbery family as Glynn County comes under a withering national spotlight.

The justice coalition is busing people to coastal Georgia to join a crush of out-of-towners and media outlets from across the country descending on Brunswick for the trial of three white men charged with murdering the 25-year-old Arbery as the Black man was out on a Sunday jog in February 2020. In the week leading up to the trial, public safety agencies are getting ready for large crowds, potential protests and security threats.

The founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, Barbara Arnwine, says there have only been a few community activists attending the hearings leading up to the trial, but that number should swell once the trial begins.

Throughout next week, the coalition will hold prayer services, online discussions and other events, as well as have many of its members watch court proceedings on TV screens set up outside the Glynn County Courthouse and in some of its rooms every day.

Not only will the verdict determine whether Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan spend years in prison, but for many onlookers, it also becomes a watershed moment for racial injustice.

“(Arbery was) just a young man who had a life to live and we have no clue what the outcome of his life would be because it was cut short for no good reason,” Arnwine said. “I think it’s a story that the nation needs to reflect on and I think the other story here is the story of the community organizing.”

While the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office handles security inside the courthouse, a unified command composed of law enforcement and first responder agencies from around the area and state has been hashing out scenarios since June that might occur around the county.

Chad Posick, criminal justice and criminology professor at Georgia Southern University, said the potential tensions between law enforcement and Arbery’s supporters make it all the more important that this case is handled fairly leading up to a verdict.

“There’s so many important issues wrapped around incidences of hate crime, around issues of race, justice issues around policing and community relationships,” Posick said. “There’s a lot that’s going to be here and the trial will be lengthy and I’m sure it’s gonna be very emotional.”

About 100 firefighters, police officers, Georgia State Patrol troopers and administrators met Monday afternoon to discuss potential threats and other situations if tensions rise during the month set aside for jury selection and trial.

Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist of the Glynn County Police Department, serving as an incident commander, addresses public safety and first responders serving in the unified command put in place for the Ahmaud Arbery trial. (Photo courtesy of Jay Sellers/unified command) 

“We have the unusual advantage of lead time to prepare so we’re taking advantage of that,” command spokesman Jay Sellers said. “Overall, the mission is to support peaceful assembly. However, we are keenly aware that many will come here with the best of intentions while a few may seek to do harm.”

During the trial, the city will also be busy as tourists come in droves to attend the annual University of Georgia and University of Florida football game. There is potential for a historic amount of national and even international media coverage focused on the port city. Demonstrators are sure to crowd the courthouse lawn during the Arbery proceedings.

“The media turnout should be high, especially since the trial will be broadcast, but we have not gotten enough requests for assembly permits to have any confidence to say how many people may come in as guests,” Sellers said. “We will likely see the permit requests grow once jury selection begins on October 18, though groups smaller than 100 will likely not even request a permit.”

Court officials mailed jury duty notices to 1,000 people, a much larger summons than usual in an attempt to put together an impartial group in a case that raised a national outcry.

In a sign of how tight the community of Brunswick is, Brunswick City Commissioner Vincent Williams is a friend of Arbery’s father, who also cuts Williams’ yard. He has spoken with the grieving father about how important it is that Arbery gets justice.

Williams, a 1984 graduate of Brunswick High School, said he’s not aware of anything close to the magnitude of the trial in Arbery’s death ever taking place locally. That’s saying something in a coastal area that’s had more than its share of deadly law and order injustices.

Even with the anticipated large crowds, Williams said he’s confident that everything will remain orderly.

The combined show of force charged with keeping the peace during the trial received the stamp of approval from Brunswick and Glynn elected officials, the Glynn sheriff’s office, the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office and local schools.

“I think that we, along with the county, state officials, federal officials and everything have put together a real good game plan,” Williams said. “We are moving in the right direction to keep law and order in the city.

“Even before the arrests were made, how we handled things through that particular time, the protests and everything that happened was done peacefully,” Williams said. “Our goal is to continue peacefulness even through the verdict. We know it’s a very touchy subject, it’s a very touchy time and we just want to be prepared.”

Community plays important role

Without Bryan releasing the viral video of the chase that ended on a suburban Brunswick street after a shotgun-toting Travis McMichael felled Arbery with three blasts moments later, it is unlikely the case would be going to trial.

As the three accused killers tried to bond out of the Glynn County Jail in a May hearing, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified that as Arbery was bleeding on the street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, Travis McMichael stood over him and spat a racial slur and obscenity.

Initially, local prosecutors who now face prosecution themselves used a citizen’s arrest law to justify the killing. The GBI took over the investigation into Arbery’s killing in spring 2020, resulting in the arrest of the three suspects.

Widespread awareness of the circumstances of Arbery’s killing is also leading to a much larger jury pool than a typical murder trial, with potential jurists waiting inside a community center before getting cleared to go inside the courthouse.

Concrete barriers have been placed outside the Glynn County courthouse in anticipation of crowds coming out for the Ahmaud Arbery trial that begins Oct. 18 with jury selection. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Arnwine) 

The pandemic is leading to social distancing precautions inside a courtroom where jurors will be spread out and the gallery will be primarily limited to family members.

Streaming of the jury selection and trial will be available online, and the four-week trial is set aside to endure a spotlight on the highest-profile national case since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in April of the murder of George Floyd.

In the summer of 2020, protests spread from the Georgia Capitol in downtown Atlanta to cities across the state demanding justice in killings of Black people that included Floyd, Arbery, Louisville’s Breonna Taylor and others.

In Brunswick, Arbery’s death became a unifying rallying cry for demonstrators demanding justice during demonstrations outside the courthouse as a grand jury considered indictments for his murder.

Posick said that a case that will be headlined nationally like Arbery’s could present challenges, especially for a community as small as Brunswick with a population of just over 16,000.

Having a thorough jury selection process will be important in finding jurors who won’t succumb to outside pressure from either side, he said.

“I think as long as procedures are in place that reduces the chance that’s going to happen,” Posick said. “Unfortunately, we do see it a lot in smaller towns and more rural areas where the community is just more tight-knit and you have more opportunities to get at jurors.”

After the case ends, the McMichaels and Bryan face more legal troubles in U.S. District court where they face charges of attempted kidnapping and committing racially motivated hate crimes related to Arbery’s death.

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