• Susannah Colt

UNBALANCED JUSTICE - Rittenhouse and Arbery cases reveal inequities

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

The only winners in the Rittenhouse case are white vigilantes and the Second Amendment. It sets a dangerous precedence during a volatile time in our country’s history and feels like we have turned back the clock to the days of the Wild West.

If Kyle Rittenhouse was a Black man, he would have been shot dead the moment he brandished his gun. Because he wasn’t Black, he was praised by the Kenosha police for “helping out,” given water, and allowed to escape accountability altogether. The writing was on the wall when he got to walk away with his gun, even though he was violating curfew.

Where is the justice for Rittenhouse’s three victims? During the trial the prosecutor was prohibited from calling them “victims.” The judge said they could be called “looters” instead, essentially branding them as criminals that were expendable.

The white police officer who shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times was never charged with a crime. That is what set off the protests that inspired Rittenhouse to pack his gun and bullet-proof vest and attempt to fulfill his desire to “shoot all the rioters” (this was a statement he made just days before he actually did that, but the jury was prohibited from hearing that testimony). If the jury, made up of 11 white people and one person of color, had heard that statement, would the outcome have been different? I doubt it. The cards were stacked heavily against the prosecution from the beginning.

In Brunswick, Georgia another trial is taking place involving another white man, Travis McMichael, brandishing a long gun as he chased down a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who was out for a jog in the white man’s neighborhood. The jury will hear closing arguments on Mon., Nov. 22 and likely start deliberating the next day. I fear the same outcome as the Rittenhouse case and there will be no justice for Ahmaud Arbery, especially in light of the fact that the jury consists of 11 white people and one person of color, which the judge considered discriminatory but since the prosecution could not prove that it was intentional discrimination, his hands were tied.

Why does the white man get to do all the shooting, falling back on the shield of self-defense, when the unarmed Black man trying to avoid death is unable to claim self-defense? Is it because they have not survived to tell their tale? The Black victim does not get to take the stand in their own defense and tell lies about what happened with impunity and then get to shed fake tears to elicit the sympathy of their white peers on the jury. Instead the dead are put on trial and it is their behavior that the jury focuses on instead of on the criminal brandishing their deadly weapons and getting away with it time after time.

The saddest part of the aftermath of the Rittenhouse verdict was President Biden’s response when asked if he still considered Kyle Rittenhouse to be a white supremacist. During his presidential campaign he called Rittenhouse a white supremacist, but he dodged the question and said that he stood by what the jury concluded and that “the jury system works and we have to abide by it.” That was a spineless response and a total cop-out on the part of our president.

While in a written statement issued later, Biden said he was “concerned” about the verdict and he was doing everything in his power “to ensure that every American is treated equally, with fairness and dignity, under the law,” he still stood by the jury verdict.

These platitudes are not enough and Biden is wrong about the jury system working. He has clearly and conveniently forgotten the history of Black people’s access to the jury system. Slaves, who were not “citizens,” certainly had no access to justice. For nearly 200 years after Independence, free Blacks were either prohibited from serving on juries or insurmountable barriers were put into place, like home ownership, literacy, or being able to vote, that disqualified them from juries. Still to this day there are systemic barriers that limit a Black person’s ability to serve on juries, which means Black defendants are denied the right to a jury of their peers.

In addition to the barriers to get on juries, there is a history of Black defendant’s not having access to competent counsel, which is a constitutional right. Unless you are O.J. Simpson and have a boatload of money, the chance of a Black defendant getting a dream-team to represent them is slim to none. Most Black defendants have to rely on an overworked Public Defender system. If all criminal defendants regardless of race, color or creed were required to use Public Defenders than maybe there would be a leveling of the playing field, but that will never happen. White people would be up in arms about that.

What is needed is systemic policy reform to make the criminal justice system more equitable and laws to address the terrible death rate cause by the overwhelming number of guns in America. When the NRA or politicians encourage the carrying of guns to keep the world safe, they are propagating a Wild West mentality that is going to run out of control if something isn’t done.

We need to get rid of “stand your ground” laws, like the one that cost Trayvon Martin his life, and “citizen’s arrest” laws such as the Georgia law which dates back to 1863 (in April of 2021 part of that law was repealed so that private citizens cannot take advantage of it anymore). The citizen’s arrest laws were largely written for white citizens to maintain control over Black people and gave rise to the KKK and other white supremacists organizations which lynched Black citizens without consequences. Between 1882 and 1968, 531 instances of lynching occurred in the state which, according to the N.A.A.C.P., ranks Georgia second in the country behind Mississippi. I would add Ahmaud Arbery to the long list of lynching.

Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor, Roddy Bryan were white men given unfettered dominion over other people’s lives and partook in policing where others would never dare to venture. They became judge, jury and executioners based on their uninformed and biased assumptions. As the prosecutor in the Ahmaud Arbery case stated in her opening statement, the case is about driveway decisions and assumptions that led to the untimely death of a defenseless Black man. Like Kyle Rittenhouse, I fear they will also get away with murder. I truly hope I’m wrong.

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