OPINION: Why justice for Black men will be on the ballot in 2022

A group of six individuals representing Black Lives Matter marches along Washington Avenue in front of the state Capitol on Sunday, January 17, 2021, in Atlanta. (Photo: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
A group of six individuals representing Black Lives Matter marches along Washington Avenue in front of the state Capitol on Sunday, January 17, 2021, in Atlanta. (Photo: Daniel Varnado for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

In the hours after a jury convicted officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Minnesota’s Gov. Tim Walz thanked Keith Ellison, the state’s Democratic Attorney General, for prosecuting the case.

The governor asked Ellison to take the case over in May, when Walz said the local prosecutor lost the confidence of the public, especially the Black community.

On Tuesday, Ellison got the conviction the state sought against Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.

The conviction itself came as a relief to many city leaders, who were bracing for protests and possibly violence. But it also put into stark relief how raw and unresolved the issues of policing, race, and criminal justice remain, not just in Minnesota, but across the country.

In Georgia, cases in the deaths of Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery have yet to come to trial. But as the state looks ahead to the 2022 elections, some local Democratic prosecutors are pointing to both the Arbery case and the George Floyd conviction as evidence that criminal justice reform is still needed and Georgia needs a new Attorney General to get it done.

Sherry Boston, the Dekalb County DA, is chairing state Sen. Jen Jordan’s campaign for AG.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Douglas County DA Dalia Racine, both new in their jobs since January, have endorsed former prosecutor Charlie Bailey

Jordan, Bailey, and possibly others will face off in the Democratic primary to run against Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a mild-mannered lawyer appointed to the post in 2016 after a career spent mostly in politics and public policy, including as a top staffer to former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

When Carr defeated Bailey in 2018, 51% to 49%, the list of DA’s supporting Carr then numbered two dozen mostly rural prosecutors from places like Tallapoosa and Tifton.

Many of the DAs from the largest metro areas who supported Carr, including Gwinnett’s Danny Porter and Natalie Paine in Augusta, were swept out of office in 2020, defeated by a group of diverse, progressive Democrats who campaigned on a promise not just to deliver justice, but to redefine what justice means in Georgia in 2020.

“I think criminal justice reform, police reform, accountability, second chances, all the things that I’ve been working on for the last four years are now in all of the conversations,” said Boston, the Dekalb DA who supports Jordan. “Do I think it’s going to affect the AG’s race? Yes.”

Boston said that Keith Ellison’s role in prosecuting Chauvin shows people around the country, including Georgia “the breadth of what an attorney general’s office can do.”

During Carr’s time in office, he supported the passage of the state’s new hate crimes law, along with this year’s effort to repeal the Citizens’ Arrest law.

Both of those efforts followed the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was gunned down by two white men in Brunswick during a run. Two months and two local prosecution teams later, Carr called the GBI to investigate the case.

Within 24 hours of the GBI’s involvement, the two white men were arrested and charged with felony murder, but only after a video of the graphic shooting surfaced on the internet.

Bailey, who has said he would create a Civil Rights Division within the Attorney General’s office, said Carr took too long to intervene in Arbery’s case.

“His mother had to wait for two and a half months and for the dumb luck of one of the folks who would become a defendant to leak a video that then we all saw.”

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the Carr campaign, rejects the criticism.

“Chris Carr has got an excellent center-right record, standing up with a plan to make sure that we had justice in the Arbery case,” he said. “Democrats want DAs to selectively choose which criminal laws to prosecute, and which laws not to, based on their political calculations to respond to the mob in their face.”

Robinson also said that Carr will “enforce the laws on the books. He is going to fight crime.”

That’s a safe space for any Republican to be in a primary race. But the issues and debates that Carr faced in 2018, namely gang violence and human trafficking, are highly unlikely to be the primary ones he’ll deal with in 2022.

Since the last time Carr faced voters, 15 incumbent District Attorneys either retired or were defeated in the 2020 elections alone, including the DAs in Fulton, Cobb, Douglas, Augusta, Columbus, Chatham County and Brunswick.

Dalia Racine flipped the Douglas DA’s office from Republican to Democrat on a platform of restorative justice. The new Gwinnett DA defeated longtime Republican Porter with a promise to end mass incarceration and racial disparities in sentencing.

Flynn Broady, who flipped the Cobb District Attorney’s office from Republican to Democrat, said he heard from voters in 2020 that they wanted an end to “hate, intolerance and divisiveness.”

“They want to be able to live in a world where the color of your skin is not going to result in your death,” he said.

Broady has now taken over the Arbery case from Joyette Holmes, the former Cobb District Attorney whom Carr assigned the case to after taking it out of South Georgia. Broady isn’t picking sides in the Democratic primary.

“I think most people try to think of the criminal justice system as is one way or the other, black and white, but it’s not like that,” he said. “It’s all about justice and we all deserve justice, no matter who we are.”

What justice looks like, and who can best deliver it, will be the question on the ballot for the AG’s race in 2022.

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