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).
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.