BRUNSWICK, Georgia (Reuters) – Henry Johnson, 60, can often be found weightlifting in the garage of his home near Brunswick, Georgia. When people walk by his house and ask, “Did you see today? Do you know what happened?” he knows immediately what they are talking about.
At church services, at neighborhood cookouts and on morning walks, conversation is dominated by one topic: the murder trial of three white men who saw a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, running through their neighborhood in February 2020, chased him in their trucks and shot him dead after a brief struggle.
In the mostly white community of Satilla Shores on the outskirts of Brunswick where the three men lived and Arbery was shot, many people support their neighbors going free, arguing that the shooting was tragic but not criminal.
Arbery was shot three times after grappling with one of the defendants for his shotgun. The defendants have pleaded not guilty and said the shooting was self defense.
In the mostly Black neighborhood of Boykin Ridge that Arbery called home, Johnson, a former neighbor, said most of the people he speaks to keep their opinions about the men to themselves. But in interviews other residents were more blunt: The three defendants should go to jail, they said.
The Boykin Ridge neighborhood is on edge ahead of the verdict, which could come this week. Residents know the world is closely watching the case and judging the outcome.
“People are nervous,” said Johnson, an aviation technician who was benchpressing close to 300 pounds (136 kg) on Monday. Arbery would often support him when he was lifting heavier weights, he said.
“He was a good kid,” Johnson said. “We jokingly called him the ‘running man’ because was always running by, doing sprints.”
Prosecutors say Arbery, 25, was on a Sunday afternoon jog when Gregory McMichael, 65 and his son Travis McMichael, 35, saw him pass their driveway and assumed the worst – that he was a criminal. Their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, joined them in chasing Arbery in an attempt to carry out a citizen’s arrest.
Deborah Ray, 72, a retired florist who lives in a cul-de-sac on Boykin Ridge Road, said Arbery would start his sprint training in the street next to her driveway.
“It’s a shame about what happened to that young man,” she told Reuters. “He’d call me Ms. Ray and wave as he went by. He loved everybody.
“Of course we all talk about it,” Ray, who is white, said of the trial. “When I’m on my walks I stop and chat and what-not with everyone. It’s friendly here. Everyone wants to know what you think will happen. I can’t judge anyone, but it was a terrible thing,” she said.
Camisha Bowers, 24, a close friend of Arbery’s who grew up down the street from him on Boykin Ridge Drive, said the whole neighborhood is anxious about the verdict, which will be rendered by a jury of 11 white people and one Black person.
“All the attention of the world is on this. I just hope they do the right thing, you know,” she said, adding that she wanted justice for her friend.
In the Satilla Shores neighborhood, there is a sense of a community under siege. “No trespassing” signs have proliferated on trees and doors in recent weeks. “Go home,” a number of residents said when approached for interviews. People said they were exhausted by the media attention.
“The jury should send them home,” one resident said of the three defendants before telling a Reuters reporter to leave.
Jay Wells, 61, who lives just around the corner from the shooting, said like most of his neighbors he feels bad about what happened but doesn’t believe “three men should have their lives ruined.”
“It’s a tragedy any which way you look at it,” Wells said. “I know a man is dead, but there are three men who might be locked up forever. And I can’t say that is right for the way this happened.”
Audra Favre, 53, a mortgage underwriter who moved to Satilla Shores just after the shooting, said that at neighborhood cookouts or when people are talking around their shared boat docks, the trial is “the topic.”
At the gatherings, she said almost everyone is in favor of not guilty verdicts for all of the men. “That’s not how I feel. I think they took the law into their own hands,” she said.
But she added, “You have to understand, so many people around here know them, are friends with them.”
(Reporting By Rich Mckay; writing by Ross Colvin; editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Osterman)