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'We have to fight too hard': For civil rights leaders, Arbery verdict is a victory. But is it a fleeting one?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1 day ago Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
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Three white men were convicted by a nearly all-white jury in Georgia of murdering a Black man who did nothing wrong. On the face of it, there is cause for celebration by civil rights leaders.  

But for many who have studied the racial divide of the U.S. justice system, the Ahmaud Arbery verdict Wednesday was not an end-all victory by any means. Although they're hoping for change, civil rights leaders predict longstanding inequities and systemic racism within the criminal-justice system will remain the norm. 

"It's scary how close this case actually was," said Rashad Robinson, president of the online-focused Color of Change civil rights group. "Imagine if there was no video. Imagine if there was no public outcry. A couple of years ago, we might not have gone to trial. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten to a conviction."

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Experts said convictions for Arbery's murder in Georgia were never going to be an open-and-shut case – despite video of the three men chasing him down in a pickup. Those men weren't arrested or charged for several months following Arbery's death, and the former district attorney is now facing charges she tried to shield them from prosecution.

Arbery’s father, Marcus, embraces Ben Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton outside the courtroom. © Provided by USA TODAY Arbery’s father, Marcus, embraces Ben Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton outside the courtroom.

The case shocked the country, with many analysts noting how three white men felt empowered to chase down and kill a Black man with no evidence of wrongdoing – evidence to them that the justice system is badly tilted.

Following the jury's verdicts, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan face life sentences for Arbery's murder on Feb. 23, 2020.

Already, the case has prompted change. Arbery's murder prompted Georgia state officials to abolish an 1863 law initially passed to let white people detain escaping enslaved people. The state also passed a hate-crimes law. The three men also face federal hate-crime charges, a relative rarity.

Legal experts such as Robinson and civil rights attorney Ben Crump and groups like the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center say the legal changes in Georgia are an important step, but they also caution the conviction is only a small step toward real justice.

They likened it to the conviction this spring of a former police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis: a welcome but all-too-rare victory for equal justice under the law, spurred on in part by widespread national protests.

"Without fundamental and systemic changes, these will be exceptions, not the rule, and escaping accountability will remain the rule," Robinson told USA TODAY. "We have to fight too hard for this unjust legal system to hold people accountable."

Longtime Colorado-based civil rights attorney Mari Newman said notching courtroom victories is an important step toward reform, as is using civil rights laws to force accountability and change.

"No one verdict is an indictment of the entire justice system that is and always has been slanted against people of color, but I do think that in aggregate, there is reason to be hopeful that we've turned a corner in some regards," she said.

Newman last week secured a $15 million civil rights settlement with the Denver suburb of Aurora on behalf of the parents of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 after being stopped by police while walking home from the store.

And this spring, the city of Minneapolis paid Floyd's family $27 million to settle their civil-rights lawsuit. Last year, Louisville, Kentucky, paid Breonna Taylor's family $12 million after she was killed in her home by police during a botched drug raid.

Arbery's mother never saw this day coming © Associated Press Arbery's mother never saw this day coming

Newman said the proliferation of cellphone videos and police bodycam footage has helped people understand just how violent the justice system is toward people of color.

"It was very easy for white America to be dismissive, to create a false sense that these things either don't happen, or only happen to people who deserved it," Newman said. "While I certainly don't believe that money is justice, money is the one thing that seems to truly change policy. The fact that these cases are settling for more money is an acknowledgment that the scourge of police brutality is so horrifying that it needs to change. People are finally acknowledging that racist police brutality both exists and needs to stop."

Civil rights leaders say Black Americans face systemic racism daily, from laws that were once used to empower white slave patrols to how police officers enforce those laws, how prosecutors apply them and the jury members who sit in judgment – because juries tend to be overwhelmingly older, white American property owners.

"All of those things play into a system that is not designed to deliver to everyone. And the fact that so many people are unwilling to be honest about that makes it even harder for us to find ways to solve it," said professor Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. "Every time you get a win in that system, it's huge. But you're not going to have overall reform unless the majority of people begin to understand the bias that's baked into the system. And we're a very, very long way from that."

Civil rights experts said the televised trial in Arbery's death allowed Americans to see the racist strategies defense attorneys used in an attempt to sway the jury, from commenting on Arbery's "long dirty toenails" to complaining about Black pastors in attendance for family support.

“The fact that justice was done in this case does not deny the reality that countless Black men are targeted and killed for no reason other than the color of their skin,"  Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

"Incidents like these will continue to occur until our criminal legal system is truly focused on combating anti-Black crime and white supremacy. The disgraceful racially charged antics of the defense throughout the trial are a stark reminder of these challenges that lay ahead."

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, echoed Robinson: "Generations of Black people have seen this time and time again, with the murder of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin and many others. The actions and events perpetrated by the McMichaels and William Bryan leading up to Ahmaud's death reflect a growing and deepening rift in America that will be its undoing if not addressed on a systemic level. We must fix what is genuinely harming our nation: white supremacy."

Still, Wednesday's convictions offered solace to longtime civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of Faith in Action, a faith-based civil rights group.

"White supremacy and racism in America is real and continues to have deadly consequences, as it has for generations," he said in a statement. "Our work, at least today, seems not in vain, and means that we must persist in our efforts to defeat hate and demand justice for our siblings who fall victim to racist violence.”

Added Tillery: "It's a win, plain and simple. But wins are rare."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We have to fight too hard': For civil rights leaders, Arbery verdict is a victory. But is it a fleeting one?

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