Our country is in the midst of a modern-day reckoning with its identity and its history of racialized oppression. Triggered in part by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, our communities are grappling with the long history of inequality and hatred that continues to rear its head — more recently, in what must be understood as the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery.
These individual acts of racialized violence, as well as violence taking place in the context of subsequent protests such as that in Kenosha, highlight pervasive issues of systemic racism and the need for sweeping, structural changes in all of our economic, political, and social systems. Black Lives Matter — from the cradle to the grave.
As Black people, we are not just standing up for the right to live free from fear of vigilantism by racist mobs and a system of policing that does not value all lives equally. We are also standing up for the right to vote without discriminatory election practices; to send our children to schools that practice inclusive education and are free of discriminatory discipline and criminalization; to find housing and employment unimpeded by discrimination and algorithmic bias; to serve on juries; and to exercise our rights of free speech and assembly to demand justice.
Here at the ACLU, we are affirmatively dedicated to continuing to fight the long and good fight for these deep structural changes, including in our national litigation and advocacy work for systemic equality. Amidst that ongoing work, in the aftermath of the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery and in response to the rising up and demands of brave Georgians, the ACLU of Georgia joined hands with other organizations and helped change the state’s citizen arrest law wielded by the defendants in this case.
We do this because it is our role, our duty, and our mandate to ensure that the individual rights and liberties of the Constitution apply to ALL of the country’s people.
While all of this work progresses and deepens, we have closely watched high-profile jury trials unfold as individual actors faced criminal prosecution and juries convened to render verdicts. Just last week, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after shooting three men in Kenosha, Wisc., killing two of them, during protests against the shooting of Jacob Blake by police. Today, a jury in Brunswick, Ga. found all three of the men charged in the killing of Mr. Arbery guilty of murder and other charges.
We mourn the terror and trauma that the families of all of these victims of violence are facing, including Mr. Arbery’s family. But measuring progress solely by the outcome of these trials risks both ignoring the importance of greater systemic change and compromising fairness in the criminal legal system, which itself is a core, founding principle for the ACLU.
Kyle Rittenhouse received protections that I wish my primarily Black and Brown clients had received when I served as a public defender. For example, the court granted Rittenhouse’s attorneys’ request that the government not be allowed to describe the men fatally shot and attacked by Rittenhouse as “victims.” This request did not surprise me. My former colleagues and I routinely made similar requests to preserve the presumption of innocence for our clients. But what did surprise me was the fact that the court granted this request. Not once in my 23 years as a public defender were my clients afforded this same protection — and they should have been.
Our system is designed to provide everyone accused of a crime with the presumption of innocence. That presumption remains with the accused unless the government is able to prove otherwise, beyond a reasonable doubt. When we look to particular outcomes in criminal cases to send a message or set an example, we run the risk of unintentionally calling for a diminishment of procedural protections and further harming those disproportionately pulled into the system of criminal punishment: people from marginalized communities where systemic racism runs rampant.
The trials of accused individuals are not a proxy for solving wider societal problems. We don’t need a conviction in Kenosha to know that it’s a threat to many when actual and would-be militias roam the streets in a self-assigned mission to “keep the peace.” We knew, long before the Rittenhouse trial concluded, that those armed, overwhelmingly white groups are threaded through with anti-Black and anti-democratic sentiments that pose profound threats to our safety, and to democratic government. And we didn’t need a conviction in Georgia to demand and achieve systemic changes such that no resident of that state could be under the impression that vigilante justice is protected by state law.
The true measure of justice is not whether there are convictions or acquittals in either of these cases. Instead, the true measure of justice is in the work we are steadfastly doing today and in the days after verdicts are rendered. It is in the work to delineate what “racial justice” truly means; the work to root out racist violence in all of its forms; the work to end mass incarceration; the work to stand up in the streets for Black lives, for justice and equality, and to protect that right as the First Amendment guarantees.