From Emmett Till to Kyle Rittenhouse
American history echoes to this day
Guest Post by Amy Tiemann, PhD
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat says that authoritarianism is legalized criminality, and one of its features is impunity for privileged classes of people, sabotaging equal justice under the law. This has all been on display the last few weeks. The acquittal of shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, the trial of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, and probation for confessed sexual assailant Christopher Belter bring to mind past injustices, and suggest that we are in grave danger of eroding six decades of American civil rights progress.
All three cases expose flaws and corruption in our democracy at a time when our system is under attack from many directions. When America lives up to its professed core values, our country can be a powerful force for good. But now, experts I’ve followed for years are sounding more urgent and pessimistic about our ability to preserve our democracy. Last month, for the first time in our history, the U.S. was listed as a “backsliding” democracy in a report by a European think tank, ranking alongside Hungary, India, and Brazil. As we see new threats to our elections, courts, and individual freedoms, the fight to support civil rights and the rule of law is a critical piece of the battle to ward off authoritarianism and keep our country heading in a progressive direction.
Direct historical parallels to these current high-profile cases may seem self-evident to Black Americans. To white Americans, we need to admit that we have been conditioned to not see, hear, or talk about the system that we are brought up in. It is beyond time that we break through this blindness, denial, and silence.
When we look at these failures to apply and uphold justice fairly, we can see the lines of corruption and white supremacy running through our system that need to be fought and excised now.
From Emmett Till to Ahmaud Arbery
What were you taught about the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till? With my 1980s public school education, I don’t remember learning about the case in any detail at all. Until recently, I was only aware that Till’s lynching by two white men was a significant rallying point of the 1950s Civil Rights movement. Because I knew that Till’s killers had been identified, I assumed that they had been convicted. When I read Timothy Tyson’s book The Blood of Emmett Till several years ago, I was shocked and embarrassed to learn how wrong I was about this pivotal piece of civil rights history.
This is what actually took place: J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant kidnapped and murdered Emmett Till after he allegedly whistled at Roy’s wife Carolyn Bryant, creating an implication of “sexual menace.” Milam and Bryant were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury after an hour of deliberation. Having been found not guilty, the two men went on to confess their crimes in detail to Look magazine, in the article “The Shocking Story of Emmett Till.” The killers were reportedly paid $4,000 for their participation, and thanks to constitutional protection against double jeopardy, they could not be prosecuted again even after confessing.
Six decades later, Tyson’s book shared a new revelation: Carolyn Bryant completely recanted her accusation, saying that Till had actually not threatened her at all.
In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased by three armed white men as he jogged through their South Georgia neighborhood. Arbery was shot and killed by the men, who suspected him of committing neighborhood break-ins; in their defense, they claimed that they were making a “citizen’s arrest.” Unsurprisingly, Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law has racist roots, dating back to 1863 as "basically a catching-fleeing-slave law," according to Cornell University criminal law expert Joseph Margulies. The law was repealed this year, after Arbery’s killing, in response to the nation’s reckoning over racial justice.
Margaret Burnham, founder of the Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice, argues that Arbery’s extrajudicial killing is a lynching. “The term lynching is not a metaphor,” she says. “It doesn’t apply to every heinous racist assault against black people. But it’s also true that the term has long defied easy definition. By any account, however, the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery. . . constituted a lynching, in law, and in experience.”
The fact that Arbery’s killers were convicted of felony murder gives us a glimmer of hope, but that does not change the fact that for Ahmaud Arbery himself, as SisterSong tweeted after the verdict, “This is not justice. Justice would be Ahmaud Arbery alive and Black men & women living with safety & dignity. This is accountability.”
The men who killed Arbery almost escaped accountability altogether. The local district attorney initially used her position to delay the arrests. That prosecutor, Jackie Johnson, now faces misconduct charges.
The other key factor that made the arrests and prosecutions possible was graphic cellphone video of the deadly chase that was publicized two months after Arbery’s murder. This generated widespread public outrage, and the three assailants were arrested two days after the video was published. Like Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, the Arbery family’s outspoken pleas for prosecution, with support from the larger Civil Rights community, kept national attention focused on the case. But, as law professor Clark D. Cunningham reminds, “We shouldn’t count on those kinds of things for justice to be done.”
In the trial itself, the defendants’ argument that they could step into the role of the police and kill a “suspect” due to their own subjective judgment is obviously very dangerous.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Laura Hogue elicited gasps from the courtroom gallery when she told jurors, “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”
These dehumanizing comments are reminiscent of Emmet Till being accused of making a “wolf-whistle” at Carolyn Bryant, provocative language obviously designed to trigger racist responses in white jurors. Fortunately, in the case of Arbery’s killers, the jury—eleven of the twelve were white—saw through this tactic. A just legal decision was rendered this time, overcoming obstacles that no case should have to face.
From Tamir Rice to Kyle Rittenhouse
Seven years ago this November, 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was Black, was shot and killed by white police officers two seconds after their arrival at the park where Rice was holding an Airsoft replica gun—a toy. The two police officers were not prosecuted.
In stark contrast, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who is white, was allowed to walk freely through a Black Lives Matter protest carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic gun. Not only did the police fail to stop him, although he was breaking the emergency curfew order under which dozens of protestors were arrested, they actually shooed Rittenhouse away when he tried to turn himself in after he gunned three victims down, killing two of them. The Kenosha police officers admitted that they never considered the possibility that Rittenhouse would be surrendering to them because he was the actual shooter.
During his trial, Rittenhouse was treated preferentially by the white judge, and was called a “little boy” by powerful supporters, as he successfully argued that he acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse has been embraced and promoted as a right-wing hero, complete with high-dollar fundraising campaigns. After his acquittal, Republican members of Congress jockeyed to hire him as an intern.
White children are born into in a system that grants them privilege and innocence that is denied to children of color. In contrast, Black people are given little presumption of innocence. Black children are often denied their very childhood, being perceived as older, bigger, and more menacing than they actually are.
The other side of innocence is ignorance. Maintaining white children’s innocence necessitates keeping them away from learning about uncomfortable facts, as seen in the current debates about what is being taught in school about American history. Whoever controls the narrative for the next generation controls the future. These battles have come up in popular consciousness over the years, as seen in today’s battles over “CRT,” critical race theory, branded as the latest “threat.” White children’s cocoon of crafted innocence played a pivotal role in the November 2021 election, when parents in Virginia argued that it was too traumatic for white children to learn about racism, while refusing to take into account how traumatic it is for children of color to experience it.
From the rape of Recy Taylor to the probation of Christopher Belter
The price of admission to privilege is complicity, and that bill eventually comes due: in order to maintain and perpetuate a racist system that protects them, white youth need to be initiated into taking on the guilt of the system.
Think about the process of hazing, where to join a group and gain power within it, younger students are initiated by being hazed. In later years, the hazed become the hazers, and then the group’s leaders. If young white men commit sexual assault or other crimes while they are still teenagers, they become committed to protecting a system that protects their impunity.
In 1944, raping a Black woman was considered a rite of passage for certain young white men. Recy Taylor was walking home from church in Abbeville, Alabama with two friends when a car full of seven white teenagers pulled up and abducted her at gunpoint. Six of them brutally raped her. The youngest, 14 years old, said he did not rape her. But is being present at a gang rape a first step of desensitization, so that a boy like him would participate in the assault the next time? Taylor, who was 24, survived the brutal attack. She courageously came forward to report the crime and seek justice, even though her family’s life was threatened and her house burned. Despite a mountain of evidence that she was telling the truth, two all-white, all-male grand juries declined to even indict those young men for their horrific crimes. The white jurors undoubtedly saw their kin, their neighbors, and maybe themselves in the accused. They perpetuated white supremacy in the justice system to protect not only the young men appearing before them, but all men who looked like them. The system protected their own, and the cycle of violence and complicity was passed on to the next generation.
To this day, sexual misconduct by wealthy young white men is still often dismissed as “boys will be boys,” and can fail to elicit serious punishment. Even when convicted, rapists such as Brock Turner and 20-year old Christopher Belter, privileged white men, tend to receive light sentences or probation. The judge in Belter’s case decided that after struggling with his sentencing decision, “incarceration isn’t appropriate,” even though Belter pleaded guilty to attacking four girls. Belter received eight years of probation instead.
The societal cost of this system is racial injustice, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, and other violence. White women may feel invested in this system, standing under the umbrella of male protection, but a violent, sexist, corrupt system ultimately harms everyone, including men.
For those who have thought that we’ve made significant strides forward working for equality, civil rights, and “justice for all,” it is important to take a clear hard look at a system that can acquit Emmett Till’s killers and delay arresting Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers; let Recy Taylor’s rapists go free and award Christoper Belter probation; kill Tamir Rice before giving him a chance to show that he was a 12-year old with a toy gun and find Kyle Rittenhouse “not guilty.”
Rittenhouse may define the dangers of our current political culture most clearly. He is a twisted avatar of the moment that white innocence, privilege, and complicity all come together to create an exonerated “hero” of far-right extremism. As many Black journalists, activists, and even comedians have expressed, corrupt exonerations can be seen as the system actually working “as designed.” As we face the active threats to liberty and justice for all, I ask my fellow Americans: what are we willing to do to change that?
Amy Tiemann PhD (@AmyTiemannPhD) is a Child Safety Expert and Media Producer. She is an Executive Producer of acclaimed documentaries including “The Rape of Recy Taylor,” “A Crime on the Bayou,” and “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.”
Photo credit: Deisenbe via Wikipedia. Sign identifying site of house of J.W. Milam, near Glendora Gin. Milam was one of the two that murdered Emmett Till.