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Why conservative media didn’t latch on to the Ahmaud Arbery Case
Elwood Watson
Elwood Watson

More than a week has transpired since three Georgia men were convicted in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

It didn’t take long after the verdict was announced for pundits and legal experts to weigh in on the outcome of the trial, especially the role the predominately white jury played to bring justice in the killing of a young Black man.

“An almost all-white jury found these white defendants guilty of murder,” Page Pate, a Georgia lawyer, told NBC News. “It’s a good sign for our community and our country, and I think it says we support self-defense and the Second Amendment in the rural South, but when it’s upheld correctly.”

“He hadn’t committed a felony,” said Ira Robinson, co-director of the Criminal Justice Practice & Policy Institute and distinguished professor of Law at American University. “There was no citizen’s arrest, therefore, no self-defense. Instead, all there was was a totally unjustified murder as a result of vigilante justice,” Robbins said.

I have to confess I was more optimistic about the jury delivering a guilty verdict in this case than I was in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Turns out my hopes were well-founded, and justice prevailed and was served in the Arbery case.

While many were understandably pleased with the verdict, a large chunk of those on the political, social and cultural right were notably silent. The only exception were some far right-wing bloggers, like Christina Lalia at the conspiracy theory website The Gateway Pundit, who referred to Arbery as a “fake jogger.”

Fox News briefly alerted their viewers about the verdicts once they were announced, and quickly moved on to other news. Same held true for more reputable, mainstream conservative publications such as The National Review, Wall Street Journal, and others. To be honest, conservative media pundits never really lined up behind the men at the center of the Arbery trial as they had with Rittenhouse. There were probably a number of reasons for this.

Admittedly, while the Rittnehouse trial left open the argument for self defense as it related to the fracas that occurred that summer night in Kenosha, the Arbery trial left no such degree of ambiguity. The video clearly depicted three crazed, unhinged vigilantes who took it upon themselves to chase, run down and aggressively shoot a young Black man who was simply out for a Sunday afternoon jog. Their racial profiling cost him his life. As a result, it would be difficult for all but the most hardcore bigot to justify such sadistic antics.

Moreover, the father-son duo of Gregory and Travis McMichael, along with their dastardly neighbor, William Bryan, were hardly telegenic. All three men looked unkempt, were overweight, had the charisma of a teaspoon and looked drably and dumpy. Remember when the defense attorney stated he wanted more “bubbas and Joe six packs” on the jury? The reason was obvious. These men epitomized such a less than stellar image.

On the contrary, Rittennhouse, with his preppy suits, well groomed, clean cut image (while he was on trial at least) was able to successfully play to the sensibilities of white conservatives, particularly those in higher tax brackets. When Rittenhouse broke down on the stand midway through the trial huffing, puffing, and gasping for air as tears poured down his clean shaven face, he came across to many of his supporters as someone who could easily be their son, nephew, or other relative.

Rittenhouse personified the boy next door who was being persecuted, making it easy for defenders to line up behind him, angered by their perception of an unjust situation. He became the poster boy for White empathy.

The defendants in the Arbery trial elicited no such level of empathy. They were viewed as menacing, overbearing, arrogant culprits who took it upon themselves to chase down a young Black man and act as judge, jury and executioner. They represented vigilantism at its worst.

Now that both trials have concluded, save for the sentencing phase of Arbery’s killers, the nation and media organizations have quickly shifted their focus on other matters. One thing is for certain - race remains an indisputable factor in America – past, present and almost certainly for the foreseeable future.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker