This November, in Georgia USA three white men, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory, and William ‘Robbie’ Bryan were put on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man. The three men claimed self-defence while carrying out a citizen’s arrest. They suspected Arbery of theft as he left a house construction site. Defence lawyers, using standard racial profiling, portrayed Arbery as a ‘frightening’ black man, a ‘night-time intruder’, who was ‘not an innocent victim’.
Before the verdict, the mostly black neighbourhood where Arbery had lived was nervous. In the past, White people claiming self-defence had often been acquitted of killing black people, but this time a jury of 11 whites and one black found all three men guilty. Video evidence played a crucial role. The jury, after seeing it several times, agreed with the prosecution that Arbery, known locally as ‘Running Man’, was simply out jogging, and in the struggle in which Travis McMichael shot him three times, Arbery, who was unarmed, had been fighting for his life.
Without the video would probably have been no trial. The McMichaels were arrested 74 days after the killing, only after the video, filmed by Bryant as he and the McMichaels chased Arbery in their trucks, went viral after Gregory McMichael had forwarded it to a local radio station. The delay highlighted by the video led to the arrest of the former county district attorney for showing ‘favour and affection’ to Gregory McMichael (who had previously worked for her) during the investigation and for obstructing the arrest of Travis.
Arbery’s case is one of several in recent years where video evidence has led to convictions following fatal shootings of Black Americans by Whites, many by police officers. In April 2021, police officer Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murdering George Floyd. In 2018, officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago in October 2014.
In both cases video evidence forced police to change their statements about what had happened. In the Chauvin case, the Minneapolis Police initially said that Floyd had resisted arrest and after being handcuffed seemed to be in medical distress. It said nothing about Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, which the video recorded. Chicago Police reported that McDonald refused to put down a knife and said the shooting was justifiable. Some 13 months later, a court ordered the release of a police video of the shooting, which showed McDonald walking away from the police when he was shot 16 times.
Video evidence of killings of black Americans by police officers has led to payments of millions of dollars in compensation to victims’ families, but not to convictions of those responsible. In New York, in July 2014, Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold while arresting him, was not charged. In July 2016, Alton Sterling, was shot and killed in Baton Rouge by Howie Lake and Blane Salamoni, whose actions were found to be justified. Also in July 2016, in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Philando Castile was fatally shot five times during a traffic stop by Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez, who is Hispanic, was acquitted of all charges, but dismissed from the police.
The increasing amount and importance of video evidence has not reduced police shootings. Since 2015, the Washington Post database has recorded more than 5,000 fatal police shootings, at a steady rate of nearly 1,000 a year, with 926 in 11 months in 2021. Shootings have occurred in every US state. Some 95% of those killed were men. Half were White Americans, but Hispanics are almost twice, and Black Americans almost two and a half times more likely to be shot and killed by police.
Police in the US have considerable flexibility to use violence when carrying out their duties. Police officers claimed self-defence in the Castile and Sterling cases, as both men had guns, Sterling legally, and were allegedly reaching for them when shot. In August 2014, in Ferguson, white police officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots hitting Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man six times and killing him. Wilson said that Brown attacked him after a short pursuit and was not charged.
Stand your ground
Beyond policing, in the US, the right to self-defence is extensive. Some 38 US states have ‘stand-your-ground’ laws where people have no duty to retreat and may use deadly force if it is believed reasonable in self-defence. The other 12 states restrict this right to certain circumstances, such as threats of robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or sexual assault.
The worry is that such laws encourage vigilantes. In July 2012, George Zimmerman, a vigilante on watch in a crime-troubled neighbourhood pursued 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was black and visiting relatives. A fight broke out and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin who was unarmed. Zimmerman claimed self-defence under Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, passed in 2005, and was found not guilty. Martin’s death launched the Black Lives Matter movement.
The right to use lethal force to guard neighbourhoods was the McMichael’s and Bryan’s defence in the Arbery case. That they filmed and circulated a video of what they did showed their confidence that they were right, and a belief that others would agree .They lost because, using the video, the prosecution showed that they were not acting in self-defence but as unjustified aggressors.
Video evidence may have increased accountability for some, but has not, changed the perception that it is the exception not the rule for a white killer of a black victim to be convicted. Nor has it eased Black Americans’ worries that contact with law enforcement may lead to their death. That requires changes to America’s laws that make gun access easy and interpret self-defence forgivingly. Such change is not happening. US gun sales, even in a pandemic surged, while the US Supreme Court is hearing a case arguing that New York’s law requiring a special need to carry a concealed handgun in public violates the US Constitution’s Second Amendment – the right to bear arms.
Currently, the US Constitution’s Second Amendment is eclipsing not only its First Amendment, the right to protest, but also its Fifth Amendment, which states that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law. American’s love of guns and freedom to use them is, literally, killing them.