On November 19, Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse received not only an acquittal in his criminal trial but acclaim among the American Right. Three days later, he was a guest of former President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. He received internship offers from three Congressional offices. “He has God’s favor and has been delivered from the gallows,” declared “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander (Washington Post). The parents of one of the victims said that this adulation sends “the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street” (Business Insider). However, a glance at the history of vigilantism in the U.S. shows that white male vigilante violence has always been at the nation’s core.
A vigilante enforces order without the formal title of law enforcement. To become a cop requires training and certification. In contrast, anyone, theoretically, could fashion himself a vigilante. (We should note that vigilantes are almost exclusively male). While a group of cops makes a police department, a band of vigilantes is a militia. Though the term suggests a sense of lawlessness, vigilantes and militias have explicitly colluded with the police throughout history.
• Investigate the relationship between far-right groups and your local police.
• Consider: who has a right to safety? What does legitimate self-defense look like? Who is allowed to defend themselves, and who is assumed to be an aggressor?
The “well-regulated militias” enshrined in the Constitution were closer to vigilante groups than today’s National Guard. Such militias kidnapped and returned enslaved people who escaped from their captors. They also played a role in the genocide on the nation’s Western frontier (Huffington Post). From the arrival of the Puritans to the Manifest Destiny era of imperial expansion, white Americans believed in the “idea of the covenant between God and the whites who wished to make this continent theirs” (Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report). This racist covenant was imposed and enforced by both federal policies and military orders, and the self-organized actions of members of the white nation.
The pioneer, frontiersman, and cowboy are American archetypes. They are the reference point for contemporary U.S. beliefs around gun rights, freedom and liberty, personal and property rights, and the entire American project. Each was the patriarchal head of a white nuclear family, defending his homestead as he expanded the white nation over stolen land. Each serves as the mythological, armed symbol of active citizenship: both the state and its citizens must actively defend the privileges and liberties of a nation built on slavery and genocide.
But not everyone gets to be a cowboy (Columbia Political Review). What counts as self-defense for white men who fit the lauded Western archetype becomes aggression, terrorism, or crime when enacted by others. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, known more commonly as Malcolm X, publicly rejected aggression in the quest for Black liberation and self-determination. But he did support collective physical self-defense in the face of brutality, like the lethal bombing of an Alabama church (History, Britannica). For this, he was branded a fanatic, an extremist, and a racist (Grunge).
In 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense began armed patrols of Oakland, California neighborhoods to discourage police brutality and harassment of residents. Legislation was introduced specifically to make such community self-defense patrols illegal, ensuring that police would be the only armed presence in Black neighborhoods. In protest, Black Panther Party members entered the state Capitol with uniforms and firearms. At the time, this protest was entirely legal. It was nonetheless called an “invasion” in the press. The gun control legislation passed swiftly… with the support of both Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association (Capitol Weekly).
White self-defense is justified by American culture and condoned by U.S. law enforcement. Self-defense — self-preservation and survival — by communities of color is denied while white vigilante violence continues. While unarmed protestors last summer were called “thugs” and “terrorists,” police officers fist-bumped and posed for photos with “friendly” armed right-wing vigilantes they supported, defended, and coordinated with (Newsweek, Daily Beast, Huffington Post). Some officers opened the Capitol doors for January 6th insurrectionists; one helped an individual cover up incriminating digital evidence after the fact (The Atlantic). In most countries, open cooperation between the police and paramilitaries would represent a deep political crisis. But as a decades-old protest chant and organizing slogan put it, “the cops and the Klan go hand-in-hand” (PRA). The alliance between self-organized white male vigilantes and the government is as old as the nation itself.
We can’t depend on a structurally racist police system to help communities of color. We also can’t rely on it to end white vigilantism. Stopping the Rittenhouses of the world means confronting their allies: the criminal justice system. And as we oppose violence, we need to consider wildly different standards for what counts as self-defense for some and aggression for others.
- • The police openly assist vigilantes and militia members like Kyle Rittenhouse.
- • Vigilantes and law enforcement groups have long worked together to create and protect the racial order in the United States.
- • At the same time, members of oppressed communities are denied the right to self-defense.