Glynn County braces for protests, potential unrest ahead of Ahmaud Arbery trial

Days ahead of jury selection in the trial of three men charged with murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting, Glynn County officials are bracing for a wave of protests.

Demonstrations are expected in Brunswick beginning this weekend as one of the biggest trials in state history gets underway. Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed in February 2020 after being chased through a Coastal Georgia neighborhood by three white men in pickup trucks.

Greg McMichael, a retired district attorney’s office investigator, his son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are scheduled to stand trial beginning Monday. Up to 1,000 prospective jurors have been summoned for the high-profile case, which garnered international attention against the backdrop of last year’s racial justice movement.

In July, a coalition of local law enforcement agencies, firefighters and other government officials assembled Glynn Unified Command to prepare for potential unrest during the trial. The group held a town hall meeting Thursday evening at an area library, where officials fielded questions from residents about what to expect.

Glynn County officials held a town hall meeting Thursday evening to discuss their plans to keep residents and demonstrators safe ahead of next week's trial.

Credit: Glynn Unified Command (Facebook)

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Credit: Glynn Unified Command (Facebook)

With tensions high for the upcoming trial and the whole world watching, they told residents they’re hopeful any demonstrations will remain peaceful. But teams are standing by should things devolve, they said — especially after a verdict is reached.

The McMichaels contend they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest because they suspected Arbery had broken into a home under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick. Bryan, who joined in the chase, recorded the cellphone footage showing Travis McMichael firing his shotgun three times at close range as Arbery reached for the gun.

Glynn County police Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist, one of eight incident commanders heading the county’s response, said the public safety group meets daily and is “prepared to support peaceful assemblies” as the town is thrust into the spotlight.

“We would like to maintain as small a footprint as possible,” he said. “This is not a situation where we’re just going to put a police officer on every corner because we wouldn’t do that typically. We’re trying to create a small footprint to let people express themselves, and hopefully that works out.”

So far, the county has received permit requests from two groups planning to hold demonstrations. One organization, the Washington, D.C.-based Transformative Justice Coalition, is holding a rally Sunday afternoon set to include more than 100 people from across the country.

The “Justice for Ahmaud March” begins at 2 p.m. at Holy Band of Inspiration Church in Brunswick, said Daryl Jones, the group’s co-leader and board chair. He called Arbery’s death “an Emmett Till moment” and said relatives of the slain 14-year-old will be in Brunswick to support his family at the trial. Sunday’s demonstrators will march from the church to the Arbery mural on Albany Street.

During the trial, tents and televisions will be set up on the courthouse grounds so spectators bused in from their hotel can watch the proceedings inside, according to the organization’s itinerary.

Some attending last year's rally carried birthday signs for Ahmaud Arbery, who would have turned 26. Additional demonstrations are planned in Brunswick ahead of next week's trial.

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Last year, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Brunswick demanding justice after Bryan’s infamous recording of the deadly encounter became public. Mayor Cornell Harvey, who spoke at Thursday’s town hall, said he was grateful for those who marched in 2020 and hopes additional demonstrations associated with the case will remain peaceful.

“We anticipate the upcoming trial will draw nationwide attention and large gatherings,” Harvey said, adding that officers are standing by should things get out of hand. “Rest assured they are there to protect your right to assemble without fear or violence.”

As locals prepare for an influx of out-of-towners, Brunswick’s mayor said “everyone’s hope is that justice will prevail.”

Residents at Thursday’s meeting voiced concerns about the availability of parking near the courthouse, the impact on local schools and potential disruptions to the Nov. 2 election.

Authorities don’t anticipate a curfew will be put in place like the ones imposed across several major cities during last summer’s social justice protests. Bergquist said police are there to protect people’s First Amendment rights, and that “it would be a little presumptuous” to implement a curfew ahead of time.

“That’s more a tool that we can use if crowds get large or if crowds get unruly,” he said, “but we won’t enact (it) unless we have to.”

Several people in attendance Thursday mentioned the 2017 clashes during the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and asked about the possibility of the National Guard being called. Bergquist doesn’t think that will be necessary.

“We’re not going to have federal officers running around and National Guard running around,” he said. “This is local, in our community, and we feel up to the task.”

In Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp called in National Guard troops in the summer of 2020 after some demonstrations against police violence led to widespread destruction and looting in the state’s capital city.

Glynn County Commission Chairman Wayne Neal said there could be “bad actors” among the peaceful protestors in Brunswick, but that local agencies began planning months ago and have contingency plans in place “for every possible situation we could conceive.”

“We know that this is a challenging time in our county’s history, but we are a community that believes the shared values that bind us together are much stronger than anything that would seek to divide us,” Neal said. “We have no reason to believe that there will be anything other than people exercising their right to free speech.”