Jury selection for the trial of the three men accused of murder and other crimes against Ahmaud Arbery is slated to begin Monday.
During a town hall meeting Thursday night, local leaders and the Unified Command sought to reassure the community that they are prepared for anything that might arise when the trial begins.
Arbery was jogging on a public street in Satilla Shores when Travis McMichael and his father, Greg, began to chase Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their residence. William “Roddie” Bryan later joined the chase and videoed it. The chase came to a violent end as Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times with a 12-gauge shotgun at close range.
The release of the video Bryan shot of the incident sparked national outrage, and all three men were arrested on murder and other charges in May 2020.
Defense attorneys are expected to argue that Travis McMichael acted in self-defense while the defendants attempted a citizen’s arrest as they suspected Arbery of burglarizing a house in the neighborhood.
Before taking questions from the audience at the town hall, Glynn County Police Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist started off by saying that the goal of the meeting was “to give you the confidence that our public safety partners are planning each and every day to support peaceful assemblies in Glynn County.
“While I may be a sworn law enforcement officer, keep in mind this is not a law enforcement event. It is a public safety event. Those of us in Unified Command who serve this community do so in the interest of protecting the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.”
The Unified Command consists of the representatives from the Glynn County Police Department, Brunswick Police Department, College of Coastal Georgia Police Department, Glynn County Schools Police, Glynn County Sheriff’s Office, Glynn County Fire Department, Brunswick Fire Department and the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office.
It is different from the Unified Command that is in charge of the removal of the Golden Ray from St. Simons Sound.
Glynn County Commission Chairman Wayne Neal spoke next, emphasizing that law enforcement has been working together with support from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security for the last six months to plan for the event.
“We know this is a challenging time in our county’s history, but we are a community that believes in the shared values that bind us together are much stronger than anything that would seek to divide us,” Neal said. “It is in this spirit of cooperation that our executive policy group was formed, and all of us worked together to make sure the right staff and the right place to further the mission of providing support for peaceful assemblies that are going to pop up during the court proceedings.”
Neal added that there is no reason to believe that there will be anything other than peaceful demonstrations but noted Unified Command is prepared for all contingencies.
“We have full faith and confidence in the plan that (Unified Command) has developed throughout the last several months,” Neal said. “If you are a local resident or business owner, the most important thing we want you to take away from this meeting is there are plans and resources in place to make sure the whole community is safe.”
Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey said that while the incident of Feb. 23, 2020, did not take place within the city limits, it has had reverberations throughout the community and the world.
“We anticipate the trial will draw nationwide attention and large gatherings,” Harvey said. “As mayor of Brunswick, it’s my duty to protect the safety and welfare of all residents and visitors alike. There will be a public safety presence. Rest assured we will protect your right to assemble without fear or violence.”
Harvey encouraged the gatherings to remain peaceful, like the demonstrations in Glynn County and Brunswick were in the immediate aftermath of the video’s release.
“We’re asking for that same continued peaceful assembly from our community members and of our visitors,” Harvey said.
Questions and comments
Audience questions and touched on various points.
• One person who was concerned about Advent Christian Church, located next to the courthouse, asked if there would be any road closures and if the church would be able to conduct business as usual.
Harvey said there will be some road closures without naming any specific roads, but did say that the church’s business should be able to go on without interruption.
• One of Arbery’s aunts spoke next, offering reassurance that the people coming to assemble would be peaceful and were coming to support the family.
“I don’t want to see nobody hurt in the community,” she said. “We don’t have to be scared. We’re going to be all right. Just keep us in prayer.”
Neal responded to her comment.
“I don’t think anything can be said any better than what you just brought before this assembly tonight,” Neal said.
• A parent asked about how the trial would affect schools in the downtown area, which includes Glynn Academy. Neal noted once again that they had no reason to believe those assembling would be anything but peaceful and added it would be best if traffic avoided the area around the courthouse.
“We don’t want to compromise anyone’s safety,” Neal said.
Schools Police Chief Rod Ellis, a member of the Unified Command, said the plan was to have minimal disruptions for the schools. Ellis noted there was a possibility of letting schools out early or going to virtual learning on the day the verdict is announced.
• Asked about what people should do if they have any issues, Bergquist said they should treat it like any other time they have a problem that warrants police intervention.
“Whether it is trial related or not, you can call 911 and officers will be dispatched to you just like any other day,” Bergquist said. “We do have different areas within Unified Command to make sure we are paying attention to specific areas where there could be trouble. This is not a situation where we’re going to put a police officer on every corner. We’re trying to create a small footprint so that people can express themselves.”
• An Old Town resident asked about a timeline for the trial, but Neal said there is nothing set in stone for how long jury selection or the trial itself will last.
• When asked about how many people they expected to be assembled, Bergquist said that while permits filed give them a good idea on the amount of people to expect, there is no way to predict how many people will be there. He added that two permits have been filed for — one by the Justice Coalition and the other from a local group of residents.
• When it comes to what will happen to those who peacefully assemble without a permit or if a curvew will be put in place, Bergquist emphasized again their goal is to keep as little a footprint as possible.
“Our job is to protect those First Amendment rights,” Bergquist said. “(A curfew) is a tool we can use, but there is no information to suggest that anyone is going to be unruly.”
• Asked about how much these security efforts would cost, Neal and Harvey said the county and city are splitting the bill but that estimates for how much it will cost are fluid.
• When it comes to any demonstrations that block roadways such as the F.J. Torras Causeway, Bergquist said it is illegal to block any roadways.
“We are going to do our best to not let anyone block our roadways,” Bergquist said. “We don’t want any disruption for our community.”
• When asked about disseminating information from Unified Command, Bergquist said the command has a website, www.glynnunifiedcommand.org, and has the means to broadcast information through the county via social media.
• Mayor Harvey offered assurances that security efforts would not affect the city municipal elections on Nov. 2.
• When asked about the possibility of federal involvement or bringing in the National Guard, Bergquist reiterated that while there are contingencies for all things, this is a local effort.
“We live in this community. It affects our lives as well,” Bergquist said. “Any one of these first responders will tell you they are honored to be here to serve. We’re not going to have federal officers and National Guard running around. This is local to our community, and we feel up to the task to handle the challenge.”
Neal added that he believes the community is united.
“We are a community that loves each other. There is absolutely no reason to believe we won’t stand together now,” Neal said. “The people that have signed up to exercise their First Amendment rights, there is no reason to believe that any of them at this point have any intentions other than peaceful demonstrations.
“These are our brothers and sisters that just want to be heard. We have an obligation and a right to welcome them into our community to do that. Could there be a bad actor in that group? Obviously, but we don’t believe that’s what we’re going to see here.
“If we don’t offer a hand of friendship to the people that are coming here, what does that say about us as a people? We know where we live, we know who we are and we know who we love. We love this community and if we stand together in that. The people coming here will see that and respect that.”