Racist slurs, violent messages: How Arbery’s killers talked about Black people
"One of the three White men convicted in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder did not want his daughter dating a Black man and called him the n-word in a text message, according to the FBI.
Another shared a meme that claimed “White Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the U.S.” The third, Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery in February 2020, spoke about killing Black people and wrote in a message that he loved his job because “zero n----rs work with me.”
“We used to walk around committing hate crimes all day,” he wrote in another text conversation a few months before the shooting.
The second day of testimony in the federal hate-crimes trial over Arbery’s deathopened Wednesday with an FBI analyst detailing dozens of racist social media posts and messages allegedly sent by the three men who chased and killed Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, in their coastal Georgia neighborhood in early 2020.
Prosecutors are seeking to prove that McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan attacked Arbery out of racial bias. The men have said they suspected him of wrongdoing. All three were convicted of murder last fall and sentenced to life in prison, with Bryan eligible for parole after 30 years.
Their murder trial, in state court before a nearly all-White jury, avoided direct allegations of racism. The federal trial, in contrast, focuses squarely on whether the McMichaels and Bryan targeted Arbery because he was Black. Arbery’s death helped spark nationwide social justice protests, along with the police killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Of those three slayings, only Arbery’s has resulted in federal hate-crime charges, raising the stakes for federal prosecutors.
“This is the kind of case you really need to do to send the message that the Justice Department won’t tolerate this type of racist hatred that results in violence,” said Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor in D.C.
Legal experts have emphasized that prosecutors cannot win a conviction merely by proving the defendants are racist. They must show the jury something more specific: that bias toward Black people led the McMichaels and Bryan to act.
“The most compelling pieces of evidence will always be those that are most directly tied to the incident at hand,” Avlana Eisenberg, a Florida State University law professor who has researched hate-crime prosecutions, said in an interview. She noted that proving motive can be challenging, but also warned that acquittals in the hate-crimes case would deepen a disconnect between official findings and the “court of public opinion.”
Arbery’s family has said he was out for a jog in the Satilla Shores neighborhood when the defendants chased him down in pickup trucks and confronted him. Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery and claimed self-defense, an argument thata local district attorney quickly accepted before Bryan’s video of the shooting went viral and forced new scrutiny. Arbery did not have a weapon.
Travis and Greg McMichael have said they pursued Arbery not because of his race but because they suspected him of break-ins and potentially theft. Arbery had entered an under-construction home in their area a few times in the months leading up to the shooting, and did so again on the day he was shot, Feb. 23, 2020. But police had told Greg McMichael — a former police officer and investigator with the district attorney’s office — and his son that surveillance footage did not show Arbery taking anything from the property on those earlier visits.
Bryan said he saw the McMichaels pursuing Arbery on Feb. 23 and joined the chase in his pickup truck, figuring that the young man had “done something wrong.” Arbery had not taken anything from the house that day, either, authorities say.
On Wednesday, FBI intelligence analyst Amy Vaughan testified about investigators’ review of the defendants’ phone messages and social media. Shespent most of her time on Travis McMichael, 36, walking the jury through a litany of conversations in which he denigrated Black people, often while calling them the n-word. McMichael associated Black people with criminality, spoke explicitly about committing violence against them and blamed them when he struggled to get a commercial driver’s license, accusing them of “running the show,” Vaughan testified.
“I say shoot all of them,” he commented on a video that showed a group of mostly Black teenagers attacking a White teenager. He also appeared to advocate running over protesters in response to a video of a car hitting Black women. When someone sent McMichael a video in which a Black man plays a prank on a White man, he used a racial epithet in saying he would kill the prankster.
Turning to Bryan, 52, Vaughan testified that text messages showed Bryan’s running joke with a friend about serving as “grand marshal” of a parade on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “I think the joke is that he would never do that,” she told the jury. While texting about the federal holiday, Vaughan added, Bryan referred to Black people using multiple racial slurs and referenced a “monkey parade.”
Four days before Arbery was shot, the prosecutor said, Bryan used the n-word to refer to his daughter’s boyfriend, who was Black.
In another text conversation the same day, someone passed on a message from the daughter. “Yes, he’s Black … But honestly, it’s just a color,” she said, according to the messages read in court. “It doesn’t define him or make me love him any less.”
Greg McMichael was less active than his son on Facebook, Vaughan said, and law enforcement agents were unable to break through the encryption on his phone to see his messages. But they gleaned some information from online backups of the device and found the elder McMichael sometimes posted memes on Facebook, including the one that said White Irish slaves were treated worse than other enslaved groups. “When was the last time you heard an Irishman b----ing about how the world owes them a living?” the meme continued, according to Vaughan.
Members of the jury — eight White people, three Black people and one Hispanic person — leaned forward and watched intently as the evidence was presented. Leigh McMichael, Travis’s mother and Greg’s wife, sat in the courtroom without a visible reaction.
In their opening statements Monday, defense lawyers for the McMichaels acknowledged that their clients have said reprehensible things about Black people but noted for jurors that such words are not illegal. Bryan’s attorney said the jurors would see “different levels” of racism and argued that “Roddie is not a man who sees the entire world through the prism of race.”
On Wednesday, only one defense lawyer had questions for Vaughan. Amy Lee Copeland, who represents Travis McMichael, had the analyst affirm that “context is important” and asked to have the jury watch some of the videos her client referenced in his posts and messages. The videos were played in the courtroom, and Vaughan agreed that they contained “graphic violence.”
The footage shows Black people assaulting White people, and Black people helping the White people injured in those assaults. Asked by the prosecutor whether Travis McMichael commented about the Black people who were rendering aid to the victims shown in the video, Vaughan replied that he did not.
On Tuesday, the first day of government witness testimony, the jury heard from Satilla Shores residents who lived near the scene of the shooting and did not see Arbery as a threat.
Matthew Albenze, a longtime neighborhood resident, said he had called police on a previous day after seeing Arbery in the under-construction house. But Albenze testified that he had called a non-emergency police line and that he did not think Arbery, whom he did not know, was doing anything other than looking around.
Another resident, who is White, said he is a frequent runner who often jogged in the neighborhood without arousing suspicion from his neighbors.
Cross-examining Richard Dial, an investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, defense lawyers sought to establish that there had been reports of stolen items, including guns, in the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to the shooting and that neighbors had discussed those incidents on social media.
Prosecutors have noted that Travis McMichael sought to blame Arbery for the theft of his gun on Jan. 1, 2020, even though a White person was suspected in a similar recent theft from a neighbor. On Wednesday, jurors heard testimony from a friend who remembered Travis McMichael being “angry” about the incident.
The friend, Derek Thomas, recounted sending Travis McMichael a video on the day the gun was stolen, which showed a Black person lighting a firecracker. Travis McMichael texted back an angry response, Thomas said.
Asked to relay the message out loud in court for the jury, he hesitated, asking the prosecutor: “Am I required by law to read that?” Told to proceed, Thomas spelled out the n-word as he read Travis McMichael’s message: The defendant wished the Black man’s head had been blown off.
Coker reported from Brunswick, Ga."