On the steps of the Georgia courthouse where her son’s killers were convicted, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother thanked God for the verdict she never imagined she would see handed down.
It is a statement that may seem strange to anyone who has seen the video, filmed by the executioners themselves, which documents how the young African American jogger was hunted in a pickup truck by three white men who then shot him point-blank because they suspected him of wrongdoing.
But the relief with which the verdict was received was welcomed not only by the family, but by civilized America and by the African Americans who followed the trial with bated breath. It belies the measure of the trepidation as the country faces deeply rooted and agitated ghosts in recent years from the racist resurgence.
The Arbery verdict came in fact a couple of days after the one that acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage vigilante who killed two anti-racist protesters in Wisconsin after having appointed himself as Kenosha’s defender and went to “patrol” that Wisconsin city carrying an AR-15.
That sentence was hailed by the supremacist right which made the boy a simulacrum of an “armed self-defense” which today is apparently sanctioned by the courts (as it would in all probability be by the Supreme Court, fortified by lifetime justices installed by Trump).
It is a trend that, even without wanting to resort to stereotypes, inevitably refers to the country’s heritage of violence based on individualism, slavery and ethnic cleansing.
The Arbery verdict — as the conviction of George Floyd’s killer cop did a few months ago — constitutes a rare crack in the claim of white impunity that has been the norm to date.
Such events in America have an immediacy that refers to an ancient and recent racial history that national populism has dangerously stirred up.
Parallel to the political-racial verdicts (including the civil one against the neo-Nazi organizers of the deadly Charlottesville demonstration, sentenced Tuesday to compensate the victims), last week also recorded sensational cases of judicial “errors.”
First the exoneration of the two men falsely accused of the murder of Malcolm X, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, who both served decades in prison.
A few days later Kevin Strickland was released, exonerated 43 years after the false murder conviction St. Louis police sewed on him when he was 22.
In these cases, the plot is timeless as cinema — the permanent replica in which the victims who are rarely released after decades unfairly spent in prison, or more often continue to rot, always have the same skin color.
Frequently, as with Khalil Islam in the Malcolm X case, the sentence that clears him comes only posthumously.
Since 1989, the Innocence Project , a consortium of volunteer lawyers and law students, has been working to review cases by analyzing the DNA of convicts, many of whom, often under the age of 21, had been induced to sign forced confessions by police.
To date, 375 inmates have been exonerated in 37 US states — on average they had spent 14 years in prison, and 21 of these were on death row.
The latest and most disturbing figure confirms a tragic and accepted truth: in the United States an unspecified but certainly substantial number of innocent people have been, and still are, put to death.
It is therefore not a question of occasional “errors” but of a systemic problem with an undeniable racial background: 60% of the cases reviewed concerned African Americans (while in the general population Black people make up just over 10%).
Protagonists and martyrs of a history at the same time secular and always current. From the lynched “Jim Crow” to Emmett Till to the Black Panthers killed or locked up by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program (I remember the release from prison after 27 years of Geronimo Pratt, a young leader of the Panthers of Los Angeles when he was framed by police testimony in 1972).
And then from time to time the Groveland Four, the Central Park Five … the stories that mark the injustice settled as a system.
This is the story that today not only the right but also many “moderates” ask not to exhume or teach in order not to disturb the peace. (And this is echoed by the counterparts who in Europe stand as champions of Western culture against multicultural political correctness.)
The story, however, is unavoidable — but not unrepeatable, as confirmed in some way by the “report on the global state of democracy” published this week by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral assistance in Stockholm, which for the first time included the United States among the countries characterized by a “democratic regression,” specifically by virtue of Republican maneuvers aimed at consolidating minority power through the suppression and inhibition of the vote of Black people and other minorities.
It’s merely a modern remake of the operations implemented by the south’s segregationism, meant to maintain apartheid for a century after the Civil War ended.