At the cultural center, where a mural of Arbery’s smiling face sits against a blue and yellow backdrop, Annie Polite took a break, sitting down in her walker.
“The system has got to change,” the 87-year-old Black woman said. “It’s not fair. There’s no justice in what goes on behind close doors. We all deserve equal justice.”
In Arbery’s hometown, the trial over his death has underscored the mistrust.
“Many people have been saying — and I’ve been saying it as well — that this is really trying our justice system in the eyesight of many people,” said John Perry II, a pastor and the former president of the Brunswick chapter of the NAACP who lost a bid this month for Brunswick mayor.
“They’re looking intently at this case to see, ‘Can we really trust this justice system?’ … to answer the question in their minds and their hearts, ‘Do we have a justice system that we can depend upon?'”
A quiet wait for answers
While the defendants’ actions and motives face scrutiny in court, some Black residents here have their own theories of why Arbery was slain, often based on their experiences in Brunswick, where about 55% of residents are Black compared with 27% countywide.
Aundra Fuller, a middle school special education teacher and the managing director of the Brunswick African American Cultural Center, believes Arbery’s deadly shooting stemmed from a gap in mutual understanding as the defendants encountered him along a suburban street, she said.
A lack of “cultural awareness” lent itself to a mindset in which the defendants felt comfortable enough to “devalue a human being because of his color,” she said.
Helen Ladson, a tour guide here who also ran unsuccessfully for mayor, put it this way: “My question is always: Why did they feel so comfortable, to shoot this man in broad daylight and think that they were going to get away with it? Why were they so comfortable?”
Long before Arbery’s death attracted national attention, there were whispers in this community about the storyline that Arbery had been shot while attempting a burglary, residents said.
James Yancey, a criminal defense attorney who is Black, was struck by how few details about the incident were included in a short article in the local newspaper, he recalled. Perry at the time had similar misgivings.
“It’s not new,” said Dwight E. Jordan, a former state parole officer who is Black. “To hear that the cops or somebody representing themselves as police would turn around and shoot somebody, specifically a person of color, specifically a Black person because he was running while Black — that’s not new to me.”
“There was immediately another level of passion,” he said. “Because you have them trying to paint the narrative of who Ahmaud was. But then when you started to discover who he was for yourself, it further fueled the outrage that you would try to paint such a negative, negative character upon someone who sowed so many seeds of good within our community.”
“There were people on Facebook that were saying, ‘Hey, y’all talking about Trayvon Martin, but we have a Trayvon Martin case right here, and nobody is saying anything about it,'” Ladson remembered.
The tension erupts — but unsurprisingly, somehow
But as upsetting as the video was, it didn’t surprise Black residents here.
“Having been Black my entire life, lived in America my entire life, it’s become almost expected to see bad things happen to Black people,” Yancey said. “Seeing that video, it just continued to confirm the value of the lives of particularly Black men in America.”
Nurse Sonia Richardson, mother to three Black sons and grandchildren, “just couldn’t believe that.”
“It was like (the case) was just toyed around with, like people didn’t take it serious. The law didn’t take it serious. Our criminal justice system didn’t take it serious,” she said.
The episode shook Perry’s faith in the justice system, he said.
“There was nothing that we could do about the McMichaels’ decision (to pursue Arbery). What’s in the heart of a man and how he chooses to act, you can’t control that,” he said. “But if something like that does happen, you’re definitely hoping that when law enforcement shows up, that they’re going to make an arrest, that they’re going to say this is injust, and that as a civil society, this is not how we operate. But that’s not what we got.”
“We’re trusting them to be enforcers of justice,” he said. “And this gross incident happens, and they turn a blind eye.”
Lady Justice faces a moment of truth
“The jury is charged with following the law,” the special ed teacher said. “And if they follow the law, it doesn’t matter what color they are. So, it may be surprising that this all-White jury convicts them.”
But she, like others, is braced for disappointment. Acquittals in the case would be “just another day at the beach” for Black people in America, she said. “We’ve had injustice for so long … we don’t expect justice.”
Perry believes in an “absolute truth,” which to him means the defendants will be found guilty. But it also means seeing the justice system live up to the promise that “justice is blind — it doesn’t take into consideration color.”
“To see the process of justice function like the promise of justice, that’s what justice looks like for me,” he said.
“At the end of the day, who’s on trial here is the United States, the judicial system,” said Jordan, the former parole officer. “Lady Justice has to show that she can peep every now and then to see the injustice, to see that her scales are unbalanced and try to balance it if she can do it — if she’s willing to do it.”
Back at the march, Polite got up out of her walker and stepped forward to kneel with protesters, clergy people and members of Arbery’s family to pray for that justice.
“This is a battle that’s been going on all of my life, and it still goes on,” she said. “As long as there’s a fight, I must stay in the battle.”
CNN’s Demetrius Pipkin contributed to this report.