America seems to be experiencing a troubling upswing in what we might call vigilante “justice.” It isn’t limited to cases like the murder of Ahmaud Arbery or the cowboy fantasies of Kyle Rittenhouse–in Texas, the state legislature, unhappy with constraints imposed by the rule of law, turned over state authority to vigilantes willing to ignore legal process in pursuit of their notions of righteousness (and money).
As one scholar of America’s history of “vigilante justice” has written,
Through U.S. history, the distinctions between vigilantism and lawful arrest and punishment have always been murky. Frequently, vigilantism has been used not in opposition to police efforts, but rather with their active encouragement. Indeed, in some recent protests that still seems to be the case.
Before police departments existed, arrests were made under traditional common law, which depended on private participation in legally organized posses and serving as deputies. Institutions like slave patrols required that non-slave owners were willing to use, or at least permit, violence to maintain white supremacy…
Even the spate of “stand your ground” laws passed in the last 15 years borders on vigilantism, giving private citizens lots of freedom about how to use force to protect themselves.
The linked article makes the point that vigilantism has often “abetted the worst instincts in the politics of crime in the U.S.,” reducing notions of justice to whatever the people want it to be at any given time, rather than the rule of law. That, of course, allows the majority to disadvantage marginalized minorities with impunity, and gives police permission to act violently.
If there’s any doubt that today’s vigilantes act to protect White Supremacy, legislation offered by Congressional looney Marjorie Taylor Greene to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Rittenhouse should resolve the issue.
In a recent essay, Charles Blow considered the effects of the Rittenhouse verdict on the growing vigilantism of today’s Right wing. As he notes,
One can argue about the particulars of the case, about the strength of the defense and the ham-handedness of the prosecution, about the outrageously unorthodox manner of the judge and the infantilizing of the defendant. But perhaps the most problematic aspect of this case was that it represented yet another data point in the long history of some parts of the right valorizing white vigilantes who use violence against people of color and their white allies…
The idea of taking the law into one’s own hands not only to protect order, but also to protect the order, is central to the maintenance of white power and its structures.
As we now know, the jury saw the Arbery racists for what they were, thanks to an effective prosecution, but the system only worked because a video existed and was seen.
As Blow notes, the vigilante impulse can render justice or terror, depending on its use and one’s perspective, but it has been a longtime, central feature of the American experience–as has the practice of making heroes of vigilantes, as today’s Right is doing.
One could argue that the entire Jan. 6 insurrection was one enormous act of vigilantism.
You could also argue that our rapidly expanding gun laws — from stand your ground laws to laws that allow open or concealed carry — encourage and protect vigilantes.
It goes without saying how ominous this all is for the country. Or, to turn the argument around, how intransigent the country is on this issue of empowering white men to become vigilantes themselves.
Black vigilantes are not celebrated, but feared, condemned and constrained by the law.
Blow reminds readers that when Black Panthers showed up at the California Statehouse with guns, their vigilantism led to huge backlash, including legislation tightening gun laws and prohibiting open carry in the state. As he says–and as we all know–“Whether vigilantes are viewed as radical or righteous is often a condition of the skin they’re in.”
I worry along with Blow that the verdict in the Rittenhouse case will encourage other vigilantes, especially among those on the Right who don’t want to see streets filled with people demanding redress from official misconduct. There are undoubtedly other Rittenhouses out there — angry and immature young men who will take exactly the wrong message from the way in which the Right is celebrating the acquittal of a murderer.
Vigilantism differs dramatically from civil disobedience, where individuals violate a law in order to make a point, and willingly accept the consequences. They are expressly upholding the rule of law, and underlining its importance.
The pursuit of justice cannot include the arming, empowering and/or rewarding of White Supremicist vigilantes– or any other kind, for that matter.
18 thoughts on “Vigilante “Justice””
Perhaps there was a violation in federal law when 17 year old Rittenhouse put down his video games, picked up his rifle and crossed state lines looking for someone to shoot. Perhaps.
It was my understanding that the prosecutor in the Arbery case cut out most of the race-based arguments intentionally. It was a wise move that I am sure others will follow.
Leave the fears and biases of the jury out of it. Make it about the law.
You see, this is identity politics used by the strategists for the DNC who work for the oligarchy. Divide and conquer. Make the people of color see the DNC as their saviors. “They must vote for us because the GOP is all about white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, the DNC doesn’t provide opportunities for people of color. The DNC doesn’t enhance economic opportunities. When you peel back their identity politics, the DNC policies and the GOP policies are almost the same: enrich the oligarchy and fund the military.
I wonder why that is? Oh yea, that’s where they get all their funding. 😉
It’s a big con.
The Rittenhouse trial was a travesty. We saw an incompetent prosecution and an insane judge come together to protect an entitled child (I thought of other words, but I didn’t feel comfortable using them). If there had been justice in this case, we might also see the prosecution of his mother for aiding and abetting his criminal behavior.
There was a letter to the editor in the local rag this morning, suggesting that the gun was perfectly okay and it was perfectly okay for Rittenhouse to have it. The writer suggested that, if we didn’t like it, we should change the Second Amendment. I might suggest that Scalia, Thomas, Alito, et al have already changed that Amendment to the point where Madison would not recognize it. Originalists? Hah! Bring back the unabridged version of the Second Amendment.
Todd, is it freeing or exhausting to live in world utterly devoid of nuance? The Democratic party and the Republican party are, demonstrably, not the same. It’s a silly argument (buzz phrase maybe? It’s never framed as an argument. People just say it as a “fact”).
One side (I’ll leave you to guess which) wants to burn down the entire concept of governance and the whole social safety net and fantasizes about social Darwinism during Lord of the Flies Cosplay. The other can mostly convinced (48/50) to pass a 3 trillion social improvement program – just as a simple example.
I’m not saying the democrats are perfect. Or great. Or EVEN GOOD. Just that they are demonstrably more sane. Open to negotiation on social priorities, in favor of protecting minority (racial, ethnic, religious…), in favor of doing something to assist environmental problems, pro independent redistricting commissions, etc.
Does CitiGroup et.al. give money to both? Yep. Does money in politics buy you what you want? Yep. Is that a huge freaking problem? Absolutely. Would I pick even Nancy Pelosi over Marjorie Taylor Greene as someone to have to negotiate with to make improvements? ABSOGODDAMNLUTELY.
Insisting everything is same isn’t very helpful. It hurts voting turn out and is just negative for no reason. I can fix a car with a seized engine that’s been in a bad wreck if I really want to. It’s tough to do and expensive and time consuming. I can’t really fix one that’s been burned out/torn apart, melted down, and thrown away. Neither can drive, but both aren’t equally hopeless. Reality matters.
Sorry for the rant
MTG is a vigilante. She is without any glimmer of a clue about the law. AND the 25% elected her to Congress.
The 25% continue to invade the rights of the other 75%. It’s the way it’s always been. Now that the police are compromised by a confused public and an even more idiotic court system – forever poisoned by the Trump appointees – I see vigilante-ism as a natural outcome. We’ve always endured vigilantes.
Why just yesterday, the 9th district of appeals had to overrule a lower court’s ruling (Trump appointees) regarding gun magazine sizes. WTF?
Peggy, speaking of the Second Amendment: The Amendment became part of our original Constitution because we didn’t have a standing army in 1783, and were still afraid the British would invade – which they did in 1812. The specific language that we have to endure today was based on the southern states needing to “bear arms” to old off slave rebellions and to form posses to go after runaway slaves. Our original sin of slavery still echoes today.
Our love affair with guns is reflective of the inherent lack of civic confidence. How about that kid who killed three other kids in Michigan yesterday and was found in the restroom by the cops? And he still had bullets left in his gun after killing three and wounding another eight. Where did he get the gun? Oh. Right. Dad bought it. Silly me. Gotta have that home protection.
What was that idle comment about good parenting? Oh. I guess if the parent harbors that kind of fear, and is a vigilante in his/her own right, the kid with an underdeveloped sense of social awareness is going to act out. Incredibly, awesomely stupid…
Where is our “well regulated militia” and when will some big lawyered lobbying group take up the fight for our constitutional right?
Right on, Dirk_Gently!
Dirk Gently, your comments were not a rant, but a well expressed series of truths. Thank you.
Dirk and company, you’re falling for the con by pointing at the GOP. I’m just trying to help you out so you don’t make fools of yourselves.
As Chris Hedges so eloquently put it:
“The alliance of Republican and Democratic oligarchs exposes the burlesque that characterized the old two-party system, where the ruling parties fought over what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences” but was united on all the major structural issues including massive defense spending, free trade deals, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, the endless wars, government surveillance, the money-saturated election process, neoliberalism, austerity, deindustrialization, militarized police, and the world’s largest prison system.
The liberal class, fearing autocracy, has thrown in its lot with the oligarchs, discrediting and rendering impotent the causes and issues it claims to champion. The bankruptcy of the liberal class is important, for it effectively turns liberal democratic values into the empty platitudes those who embrace autocracy condemn and despise. So, for example, censorship is wrong, unless the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop are censored, or Donald Trump is banished from social media. Conspiracy theories are wrong, unless those theories, such as the Steele dossier and Russiagate, can be used to damage the autocrat. The misuse of the legal system and law enforcement agencies to carry out personal vendettas is wrong unless those vendettas are directed at the autocrat and those who support him. Giant tech monopolies and their monolithic social media platforms are wrong unless those monopolies use their algorithms, control of information, and campaign contributions to ensure the election of the oligarch’s anointed presidential candidate, Joe Biden.”
Remember when Obama was president? Obama is coming to get your guns. NRA’s one of the best advertisements for record gun sales. Wrong message for America.
It is the “silent vigilantism” that is even more worrisome. Maggats are running for school boards and being placed into election oversight roles. Restrictions on them at/in polling places are being lifted. One wonders whether soon they may be placed into heath system administration (see FL) just in time for the next wave….
Let’s not also forget on this key SCOTUS day (some are calling it Clarence Thomas’s big coming out) how vigilante judges are operating. Check out the fed judge (appointed by The Former) stopped Biden’s vaccine mandate a few days ago…
“The idea of taking the law into one’s own hands not only to protect order, but also to protect the order, is central to the maintenance of white power and its structures.”
Republicans wrapped up in a sentence. The order. The past. Entitlement, now at the expense of democracy, the republic, our Constitution, and our freedom. Authoritarian capitalism. Neo-liberalism.
There is a reason why all of those words connote the return of the medieval aristocracy that we thought that we had ended with the Revolutionary War, then the Civil War, then the Civil Rights Era of the 60s.
What I find particularly galling is that it snuck back in under the guise of entertainment.
I never listen to Chris Hedges because he is extremely pessimistic, same for Noam Chomsky.
I really believe that the problem with Rittenhouse playing the vigilante goes beyond white supremacist thinking. It begins when a boy is told that big boys don’t cry. It begins with the vision of being a hero who “defends the weak”. It begins when white boys are separated from black boys as playmates. It begins when boys are told that they cannot express any feeling but anger, and that they must always present a strong, confident appearance. They are not allowed to be weak, to ask for help. They are not allowed to express fear or sadness. And God help the artistic, sensitive boys who are also straight because they will be lumped with the “gay, sissies”.
And God help the gay men because they are not really “sissies”. They are men who are not afraid to embrace the feminine parts of themselves. And many are strong enough to defend the weak; some are in our armed forces.
Rittenhouse was a 17 yo who should not have had an AR-15 because he was under aged. His 18 yo friend who gave him the gun is facing criminal charges. Who influenced Rittenhouse? Which adults aided and abetted his attitude of becoming a heroic man defending small businesses? Did his father encourage him, his mother to go and “defend” the small businesses? And why did the judge throw out the charge that he was underaged and should not have had the AR-15?
Like the police often do, it is my understanding that the 2 men killed by Rittenhouse had mental health issues. Rittenhouse had no skills in deescalating people.
It is a scientific fact that the frontal lobe of the brain does not become fully mature until we are 25 years old. Rittenhouse and his 18 yo friend are perfect examples of that scientific fact. And now the question for me is this: What has Kyle Rittenhouse learned about being a vigilante, trying to be a hero? Has he learned anything or will he do this again?
Chris Hedges is but one of the doom-and-gloomers and has been for years. Todd is his acolyte, parroting his everything-is-black-and-white rhetoric. They believe they alone know the ‘truth’ of what is happening/going to happen, while the rest of us are ignorant drudges working for our own demise, unaware of the “oligarchs” and “elites” who rule everything.
Put simply, I reject that.
It’s so easy to complain and rend one’s garments in despair and anger. And it’s apparently too hard to come up with workable solutions, as opposed to some of the solutions (e.g., local currencies) proposed by Hedges. Plenty is wrong with the world and this country and god knows more crap is coming, but I don’t pretend to know what, aside from the bad results of addressing climate change too late to blunt its effects.
And I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this time as to who will be to blame for all that–I have a hunch there will be plenty of blame to go around. And the doom-and-gloomers will still be in business, as they proclaim “Told you so” and repair their garments.
Some claim that we are witnessing the last, panicked, attempt to maintain our (rancid) bigoted system, and the, new, rise of
vigilantism may be a symptom thereof. After the Civil War the country saw the rise of the likes of the James brothers. We call
them outlaws, but, as I understand it, their perspective was that they were carrying on the “Lost Cause.” He died in 1882, so
we are on the edge of the 140th anniversary of his death, (in April) and he is considered “Famous…” rather than infamous. I expect that
one could make the case that he was a sort of vigilante.
The “right” and, especially the “far right” has always been about bigotry, and that “Lost Cause,” it ought not be a surprise that it’s all about
“…the skin you’re in.”
Well, I’m sorry if you reject the truth. It doesn’t care. Just like Universal Laws and Karma. You can reject it all you want, but…
I believe it is part of the scientific method of inquiry. Your job is to refute it with what you believe is true with facts to back it up versus slinging arrows or offering pollyannish hopes that fall into the category of Einstein’s “insanity.”
Democracy is an illusion in this country.
Be cautious. You just might inadvertently make Joseph Rosenbaum (a convicted child-rapist) the face of the Democratic Party.
Robin – so true, so real – kudos.
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