Courting Tragedy: Reflecting on the Rittenhouse & Arbery Trials


I’ve spent a awful lot of time watching Court TV this month with the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Wisconsin and the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial in Georgia. I can’t immediately recall two trials of this magnitude coming back to back like this, nor situations touching simultaneously on so many social, legal and political issues — to name just a few…

  • the Second Amendment right to bear arms,
  • the right to self-defense,
  • the right of workers & labor to defend itself,
  • “stand your ground” laws,
  • racism,
  • the anti-racist movement,
  • the right to peaceful protest,
  • Black Lives Matter,
  • Antifa,
  • vigilanteism,
  • the right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty,
  • the right to trial by a fair and impartial jury,
  • rules of evidence,
  • judicial bias,
  • media bias and rush to judgement,
  • character assassination,
  • Miranda Rights,
  • the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

All these are critical issues but I’m actually not going to focus much here on the politics. I’ll leave that to others more capable. You’ll find two valuable articles linked at the end. Today I have more general and personal observations.

The Wings of Misfortune

I find myself thinking more about the human tragedy underlying these two cases, the suffering now, and the suffering that will continue long after our attention has moved on. I find myself thinking about forgiveness, even in situations where that seems almost utterly impossible and utterly undeserved.

In both cases we’ve seen lives ended and others laid to waste. The motives and circumstances were different, but in each case the people who faced trial had gone courting tragedy. And they found it.

The families of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, killed by Rittenhouse, are surely suffering that loss — possibly even deeper now with the acquittal. Ahmaud Arbery’s mother and family are suffering. They will live with that loss and pain their entire lives. The families of Arbery’s killers are suffering as well. The lives of their loved ones, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory and neighbor Roddie Bryan, are all laid to waste. I’m pretty sure they’re suffering in jail as well, which is welcome news to most as they are convicted vigilantes who committed a racist killing. Hate can destroy the hater as well as the hated.

I suspect Kyle Rittenhouse is suffering too. If not yet, soon. Right now he’s a star on Fox News and a guest of Trump’s at Mar-A-Lago. But the klieg lights will switch off and sitting alone he’ll find his life forever changed. He’s a household and historical name now, and for many not in a good way. Plus he killed two people. Even if he’s convinced in his mind that it was justified as the jury ruled, it can’t be easy.

Ironically, probably the one person not suffering is Ahmaud Arbery himself. Whatever you believe about death and what follows, he is not suffering. His loss is an unjust tragedy, but his pain is over now and he’s at peace. It’s the survivors that suffer.

All this leads me to thinking about forgiveness — something very hard to do but very healing. “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.'” (Luke 23:34)

If there’s a Maker, the McMichaels and Bryan will someday have to answer. In the meantime, they have a debt to pay here in this world for the rest of their lives. As they do so, I hope all the people hurt through these events can, over time, find it in themselves to accept and forgive. I hope they will be spared their own life sentences.

Forgiveness doesn’t excuse their behavior. Forgiveness prevents their behavior from destroying your heart.

– Buddha

Ahmaud Arbery Murder Trial

Forgiveness is not blind, however. Both Arbery’s murder and the trial that followed reveal a disturbing depth of racism.

The Murder. A video of the killing, taken by Roddie Bryan, was key to showing how Mr. Arbery was chased while jogging through the neighborhood, cornered and forced into defending himself. He grabbed onto McMichael’s rifle, yes, but he was clearly attempting to protect himself against McMichael’s aggression, not the other way around. This excerpt from Court TV shows the final moments of what had been a 5-minute pursuit and confrontation. (There is one error in the narration on this version that was aired in July 2021. The person speaking suggests that Mr. Bryan was possibly armed and cocking a weapon. In fact he was not armed, as established in court testimony. This is also reflected in the verdicts where Bryan was found not guilty of Malice Murder and two other counts.)

Jury Selection. Jury selection took nearly two weeks. When it was done, only one seated juror was Black. This was a bad omen which the judge openly acknowledged, but he also conceded that the defense was within its rights to strike a set number of potential jurors for any reason they wanted. The prosecution tried but was unable to reverse these defense choices. As reported by the Associated Press,

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley denied prosecutors’ request to reinstate those eight Black potential jurors, though he said: “This court has found there appears to be intentional discrimination in the panel.”

It’s to the credit of the jury and a hopeful sign for the future that this nearly all-white panel was able to impartially assess the facts and appropriately issue both guilty and non-guilty verdicts. As this trial revealed, racism occasionally rears its ugly head. But it’s fading across the land. Today’s working class is the most diverse and integrated it’s ever been. Racism can’t survive as people work shoulder to shoulder, coming to know each other as fellow humans.

Protests Against Blacks Pastors & Motions for Mistrial. After having helped seat this all-white panel, Kevin Gough, attorney for Roddie Bryan, then objected virtually each day to the presence of Black pastors in the pubic gallery and moved that the judge declare a mistrial because they were there. Methinks thou dost protest too much! The judge rightfully denied each motion for mistrial. One could overlook the first attempt as simply a maneuver to spare his client. I suspect Gough was trying to lay groundwork for an appeal. But to persist each day spoke volumes about him and his defendant.

Long Dirty Toenails. Finally the pièce de résistance came when defense attorney Linda Hogue blew a deafening dog whistle during her closing summation to the jury on behalf of Gregory McMichael. This moment in her summation drew audible gasps.

In the end I think the jury did an outstanding job in carefully reviewing everything and returning with these precision verdicts.

Source: AP via Politico

Until the working-class emerges with the necessary force and leadership to take control of the anti-racist movement in general and the streets in particular, lives will be destroyed and lost when events such as these break out. Changes are percolating in the work-places here and around the world but we’re not there yet. We need to build our unions and advance the call for a labor party. It’s not enough to be angry and mourn the losses, it is necessary to understand and then act upon that understanding.

– David Rowlands, Union of Workers

Kyle Rittenhouse Trial

I think there can be little debate about the Ahmaud Arbery trial. I’m not aware of any disagreement outside rightwing circles with the verdicts against the McMichaels and Bryan. The Kyle Rittenhouse case is not so simple.

My immediate reaction to Rittenhouse last year was strong and negative. I’ve had no sympathy for this kid going to Kenosha armed with an AR-15 looking like he was playing out some video game in real life. I saw his behavior as a provocation that instigated the attacks he then claimed self-defense against. I never supported the attacks against him, but saw him as starting it all. I saw him as throwing a match on gasoline and reaping the consequences.

I’m still not comfortable with Rittenhouse’s conduct. I can’t bring myself to fully accept the manner of his involvement that night. But I have eased off my opposition substantially as I’m swayed by the opinions and analysis of people whose political perspectives and experience I respect (see below). Where I don’t agree I’m challenged to think.

Rush to Judgment. Comparisons are frequently made between Rittenhouse and Nick Sandmann, the young 16-year-old who found himself in a face-off with Native American activist Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial in 2019. Sandmann himself makes the comparison in an op-ed in the Daily Mail and a TV interview with Sean Hannity. Within hours of Sandmann’s unexpected encounter the media lambasted him on Twitter and on-air as a MAGA-cap-wearing racist who disrespected Phillips with a condescending smirk. I dissected the entire encounter at the time and showed how Sandmann was victim in a rush to judgement, profiled and slandered without evidence.

To this extent the two share similar experiences. Rittenhouse also found himself swiftly slandered in social media and the mainstream media. It’s been widely reported and believed that Rittenhouse is a white supremacist who crossed state lines with the AR-15, presumably looking for acton against the BLM and Antifa rioters. These “facts” and others were shown to be false in court testimony but the damage is done. They’ve shaped a public opinion Rittenhouse will probably never shake.

But to me, this is where the similarity ends. Sandmann was minding his own business when Nathan Phillips walked up to him pounding a drum. And then Sandmann just stood there. He had no AR-15, he didn’t shoot anyone and he didn’t kill anyone. He smiled (or smirked if you wish) and that was it.

Correct Verdict, But Insufficient. I am very much persuaded that Rittenhouse was correctly acquitted of the criminal counts as charged, but still think some form of accountability is warranted — some lesser charge or something.

Political Perspectives

Forgiveness, as I conceive it, isn’t blind — nor is it passive. The issues raised by these trials are not going away. New suffering will arise. As the authors below explain, it is necessary to understand the issues involved in these cases and then act upon that understanding.

The following are two articles that I highly recommend. These are assessments and perspectives you will not find in mainstream media, and I think they warrant attention and discussion. The first is by long-time friend and fellow blogger, David Rowlands. The second appeared in the online edition of The Militant newspaper posted this weekend.

The Militant
Rittenhouse Verdict Upholds Political Rights Workers Need
By Naomi Craine
December 6, 2021

Title image by Lucas Hoang on Unsplash.
I’ve source credited less than normal because most of the information on these cases and trials is extensively reported by most media outlets and the press.
Correction: This post was corrected after discovering I used the wrong reference and link to Nick Sandmann’s interview with Fox.

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