Don’t pop the champagne just yet

The night Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 was a very emotional one.  Yes, I had voted for him, and yes, I started an early version of this blog to do my part to support his candidacy; I had never been particularly political up to that point in my life beyond having an opinion on some current event in the news at the bar over the pretzels — opinions as ephemeral as the smoke rising up from the ashtrays and dissipating into the thick air of the smoking patio, argued with gusto until someone went inside to buy another round for the table.  Chances were better than good at a gay bar in the second half of the aughts that there wasn’t a whole lot of political disagreement, at least at the bar I hung out at every night after work — which, ironically, was owned by a gay Republican (something of an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp”).

But by November 2008, I had fallen ill, been forced into early retirement, and moved to Palm Springs.  Not only that, but the night Obama was elected, I was dating a black man.  When the race was called for Obama, and America’s first black first family walked out on that stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, my boyfriend wept.  I tried to comfort him, but every time he looked at that image on the tv he started sobbing.  I had learned, firsthand, over the months that we had been dating a little about his experience of being an American and how radically different from mine it was — like the night he left me in my wheelchair in the crowded lobby of a restaurant to ask the maître d’ for a table for two only to be told there was nothing available, until the maître d’ saw him return to my side and quickly rushed over to say that something had just opened up; he knew immediately what had happened there, I literally thought “what a stroke of luck.”  It wasn’t until we were at a dinner party with a wealthy bi-racial couple we knew that I began to understand the inherent humiliations of being a black man in America:  the black partner had just bought a new Lexus and was driving his white boyfriend to dinner in it when they were pulled-over by the police — while one cop told the black man to exit the car and assume the position on its hood, hands outstretched legs spread apart for a pat down, the other cop said to the white man in the passenger seat in a voice our friend described as “dripping with an almost maternal concern,” “are you okay sir?”

We didn’t call it that back then, but these were two rather stark examples of “white privilege,” and they were eye-opening and important lessons for me to learn.  I thought, foolishly, I understood discrimination being a gay man, but security doesn’t look at me differently just because I entered a store, women don’t clutch their purses a little tighter as they pass by (unless they know I’m gay and stupidly think I want their handbag for myself!); my mere presence is not deemed a threat.  And even in the case of homophobia, unless I tell you I’m gay you probably wouldn’t know, an advantage over being black among racists since skin color is rather obvious.  I can read a room and decide it’s probably best not to break into show tunes or talk about Ru Paul or throw pillows, but a black person can’t stop being black because he or she finds themselves in a hostile environment.  Dating a black man and listening to his friends’ stories taught me that everywhere is a hostile environment, even in the 21st century.

So as I held Alan’s shaking body in my arms and brushed the dreadlocks from his watering eyes that night in November 2008, I had some small understanding of what was going through his mind as he saw a black man take the stage as President-elect of the United States of America alongside his wife and two daughters.  I think he thought, I know I did — finally, we are the post-racial country of Martin Luther King’s dream:  the content of your character matters more than the color of your skin.  Boy were we naïve.

What if video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder had not gone public and sparked widespread outrage?  What if video of George Floyd’s murder had not gone public?  The videos contradicted statements made by local authorities.  Video showing Arbery’s death became public a few weeks before the release of the video showing George Floyd being murdered by a police officer.  Only then, three months after his murder, were Arbery’s killers arrested.

The district attorney, Jackie Johnson, had to recuse herself from the case because one of the now-convicted murderers had been an investigator in her office; she was later indicted for preventing police from arresting the three men for Arbery’s killing.  George Barnhill, who took over the case from Johnson, claimed the killers had simply acted in self-defense when they chased down an unarmed Arbery, saying that“at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”  So an armed Rittenhouse in Wisconsin, being chased, is allowed to kill in self-defense, but an unarmed Arbery in Georgia, being chased by armed men, gets killed, and then, according to his killers’ defense attorneys and the second prosecutor, blamed for his own death?  Wait, what?

Barnhill also recused himself after Arbery’s mother complained that he, like the first DA, had worked with one of the defendants.  But it should be plain to see that like the initial statements from law enforcement in George Floyd’s murder, video evidence contradicted the official narrative.  If it weren’t for the tale of the tape, Floyd’s murderer and Arbery’s murderers never would have seen the inside of a courtroom, let alone prison.

Knowing nothing of the particulars of Arbery’s case, try this brief thought experiment for yourself, thoughtful reader.  A guy has been arrested for chasing someone down while he, the pursuer, was armed, but we should release him without charging him for murdering the guy he was chasing because the person he was chasing tried to defend himself, so he was only defending himself when he shot and killed a fleeing, unarmed man.  Reasonable?  This was precisely the conclusion local authorities initially reached.

What if there had been no video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder?  What if public outrage had not led to the exposure of inherent conflicts in the prosecutor’s office?  What if it had come down to the credibility of a grieving black family pitted against the word of three white men and county officials backing them up?

In the end, prosecutors prosecuted the case on the law and the jury found the defense’s arguments unpersuasive.  But had it been left up to the folks in charge of Glynn County, Georgia a jury never would have had a chance to weigh in and Ahmaud Arbery’s killers would be free men today.  Justice was done, but it nearly wasn’t.  And that should concern us all.

When the judge read the verdicts declaring Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan, Jr. guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery for nothing more than being a black man jogging through a white neighborhood in February 2020 it reminded me of how I felt the day the openly bigoted and unapologetically racist Donald Trump was finally declared the loser of the 2020 presidential election — I thought finally his comments about “very fine people” amongst the anti-semites and white supremacists in Charlottesville, his description of African nations as “shit hole countries,” and his wall to keep Mexican “criminals and rapists” out of the United States had caught up to him.  Good.  America had rejected this buffoon who held a Bible he’s never read outside a church he’s never attended while commanding a military he dodged serving in to wield force against Americans he doesn’t like by exploiting fear of our differences to gin up anger while downplaying a deadly pandemic killing his citizens and weaving a web of lies and corruption to bolster his massive ego and hide his utter lack of compassion for his fellow human beings.

But then I remembered that night back in 2008.  Hope was stillborn.

How are we still having to deal with things like the murder of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery after such a hope-filled, joyful night?  I’m scared as hell that months or years from now I'll look back on what is good news today coming out of Georgia or Minnesota courtrooms only to discover it was just a temporary respite from an ongoing backlash to racial progress in this country.

The now-convicted white murderers justified their actions by pulling a page straight from the Trump playbook — they said they pursued and one of them shot an unarmed black man because they were afraid for their lives, they were forced to do it while trying to protect their community from an imagined threat.  A nearly-all white jury in a case presided over by a white judge rejected racist tropes and found three white men guilty, as we all knew they were long before they sat in there in suits and ties in the courtroom.  So the tide has turned on racism, right?

I want to celebrate what feels like progress.  But I'm too afraid it's a one-off the way Derek Chauvin being found guilty of the murder of George Floyd feels like a one-off; we are no closer to the real policing reform that verdict supposedly heralded after a year of protests that have faded into background noise as Republican politicians and their media enablers weaponize “white fright” with talk of a “great replacement” as the ethnic makeup of the country changes.  You’ll forgive me thoughtful reader if I’m not breaking out the champagne after last Wednesday’s verdicts just yet when one of our political parties kowtows to a would-be fascist dictator’s delusions about an election he so clearly lost while going out of its way to excuse the violent attack on the US Capitol building and all that it stands for on January 6th carried out by a mob of angry, hate-filled, separatists, white supremacists, anti-semites, and conspiracy theorists worried about Nancy Pelosi and her secret gang of pedophiles, socialists, baby-killing abortionists, and pinko limp wrists wanting to take away their guns.

I'm quite happy to breath a sigh of relief along with the Arbery family and millions like them, like my ex-boyfriend, today, as should every American.  Let’s not forget that there was an empty chair at the Arbery family’s Thanksgiving table yesterday, that a mother and father lost their 25 year-old son to a senseless and indefensible act of racial hatred.  It was Rev. Al Sharpton, who showed up in the courtroom to support the family throughout the trial, who said:

Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one black in the Deep South stood up in the courtroom and said that black lives do matter.

But if we pretend all is well now, there's little doubt we'll be back here again.  More than a decade after we elected Barack Obama.  The struggle to overcome hatred and make America “a more perfect union” continues.

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