As the Trial in Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing Nears, a Community Is on Edge

In the months since Mr. Arbery was shot to death, Brunswick, Ga., has been focused on issues of racial inequality.,

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — As jury selection in the trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery began last week, a group of clergy gathered outside the Glynn County courthouse. They handed out rainbow stickers that read: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly … together.” They prayed for Mr. Arbery’s family, for the families of the defendants and for their community.

“People are determined to stay together while feeling pulled apart,” said Rachael Bregman, the rabbi of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. “We could completely fall apart during this trial and after, but we will not.”

Civic leaders in Brunswick, a city of 16,000 between Savannah and Jacksonville on Georgia’s southern coast, are projecting optimism, but residents are uneasy as the trial approaches. Mr. Arbery, the 25-year-old man who was chased through a Brunswick suburb and then shot at close range, was Black; his accused killers are white. The case, which drew nationwide protests after a graphic video of last year’s slaying was released, has drawn attention to racial division in a community that has long cherished its image as a “model Southern city.”

Community leaders are urging the out-of-town activists who are expected to convene in Brunswick to protest peacefully. Some parents in the area, concerned about unrest if the accused killers are acquitted, are already talking about keeping their children home from school when the verdict comes.

“I would want this city to stand together to help me find justice for mine if that happened to me, so there’s unity in that and there’s a lot of white people who are with us in that,” said Larry E. Rogers, a local musician who is Black. Even so, he worries that the defendants will try to tarnish Mr. Arbery’s character. “I get scared we’re going to lose.”

In the nearly two years since Mr. Arbery’s killing, much of the community has been focused on issues of racial inequality, wrestling with widespread frustrations among Black residents that had gone largely unaddressed in recent years.

There have been signs of change too: Glynn County appointed its first Black police chief. The former district attorney, Jackie Johnson, who was widely criticized for her handling of Mr. Arbery’s killing, was voted out of office and then indicted in relation to the case.

City leaders voted to remove a marble monument of a Confederate soldier that has stood in a public square since 1902. Community events focused on race now take place regularly.

“Race and racism is part of an active conversation here now, whereas before it was an uncomfortable tension,” said Bobby Henderson, the co-founder of A Better Glynn, a grass-roots group formed last year in response to Mr. Arbery’s killing.

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Carla Arbery, the aunt of Ahmaud Arbery, and Aaliyah Trimmings during a prayer service held by friends and family.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times
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A rally at the Glynn County courthouse this month.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

Brunswick is 55 percent Black and 40 percent white, though Glynn County, from which the jury in the murder trial will be pulled, is nearly 70 percent white. The city’s neighborhoods, lined with colonial style homes, are largely separated by race.

Neighboring Brunswick are four barrier islands known as the Golden Isles, a popular tourism destination that welcomed more than two million visitors in 2017. The islands are home to some of the wealthiest people in the country.

A half-century ago, Brunswick drew national attention for its steady and peaceful efforts at racial integration. Now Mr. Arbery’s death, which some Black residents have described as a lynching, has revived memories of a time they thought the city had moved past.

“That incident forced me to look at what happened to him, to say, ‘So this is still acceptable?'” said Abra Lattany-Reed, a Black Methodist minister who grew up in Brunswick. “‘This action is still acceptable in 2020?'”

Though many white residents and tourists view the area with fondness for its open saltwater marshes, beaches and estates framed by braided oaks, for Black residents that beauty is entangled with the pain of knowing that the luxurious homes are built on former plantations where their ancestors were enslaved.

“Descendants of slaves are still cooking and cleaning and sweeping and doing many manual labor, and they’ve not really been given opportunity,” Ms. Lattany-Reed said. “It just perpetuates that pain for them when they see that video of Ahmaud.”

Mr. Henderson, who is Black, was born and raised in Brunswick. He said there were places in Glynn County where Black people have long felt unwelcome — including the neighborhood where Mr. Arbery was killed.

“There were places where you could go and places you couldn’t go,” he said. “Ahmaud, when he went into Satilla Shores, he challenged a longstanding tradition where Black people didn’t go in that neighborhood.”

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“What happened on that fateful day in February caused a tear and our hearts to break,” the Rev. Abra Lattany-Reed said.Credit…Malcolm Jackson for The New York Times
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“We have systemic issues here that came to bear to even create a situation for him to lose his life in that capacity,” Bobby Henderson, co-founder of the grass-roots group A Better Glynn, said of Mr. Arbery.Credit…Malcolm Jackson for The New York Times

Taylor Ritz, who ran for county commissioner in 2020, said that although there had been progress since Mr. Arbery’s death, the feeling that some white residents did not want to talk about the trial was inescapable.

“There is a division where some white people are horrified and want to work toward dismantling the systematic problems that led to this, but others don’t,” she said.

Ms. Ritz, who is white, moved to Brunswick from New York at the age of 15. She said she was aware of the community’s racial divisions even as a teenager. “Moving to Brunswick was a real culture shock,” she said. “Our classes were basically segregated.”

For some white residents, Mr. Arbery’s death was the first time they were forced to grapple with those divisions.

“A lot of people feel comfortable accepting things as they are,” said Samantha Gilder, a Brunswick legal secretary, who is white. “But racism here came to the front last year for me and for a lot of people. This was a pulling-the-curtains moment for me.”

The trial of Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, all of whom have been charged with murder, is now viewed by many in Glynn County as a test of the region, its values and how it views its Black citizens.

“The humanity of this community is on trial, the justice system is on trial and the consciousness of this community is opened before the world,” Ms. Lattany-Reed said.

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In the nearly two years since Mr. Arbery’s killing, much of the community has been focused on issues of racial inequality.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times
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A memorial to Mr. Arbery at the entrance of the Satilla Shores neighborhood where he was killed.Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

Jury selection has been underway since Oct. 18, but even before the trial formally begins, skepticism about the local justice system is evident. It was exacerbated most recently after officials left information about Mr. Arbery’s mental health on the court system website, even after the judge had banned those details from the trial.

Court officials said it was an accident, but to some Black residents who have worried that the trial could be sabotaged by people who supported the previous district attorney, the episode appeared to be the latest example of white people in power attempting to tarnish Mr. Arbery’s character.

“I have a hard time believing that link was available by mistake,” said Cedric Z. King, a local businessman and community organizer who is Black. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of cases in Superior Court that came before us and that’s never happened. Why the hell is it happening now?”

Still, Mr. King and other community leaders remain hopeful that justice will be served.

“No matter what happens, we will be there, shoulder by shoulder, and we’ll keep going,” Rabbi Bregman said.

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