Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Tuesday, prosecutors revealed that they had lost track of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident accused of killing two people at anti-racist protests in Wisconsin last August.
Rittenhouse, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of homicide and a felony count of attempted homicide, was seen recently partying with Proud Boys and flashing White power hand signs while out on bail. His legal team now says he is in a “safe house” after receiving death threats and that they need to keep his location secret. In the meantime, he has become a folk hero in some conservative circles, with his name appearing on T-shirts declaring “Rittenhouse did nothing wrong.” Right-wing activists have raised more than $2 million in donations for a legal-defense fund.
The glorification of Rittenhouse, who apparently believed himself to be in Kenosha as part of a militia and whose lawyers have said was acting in self-defense, is part of a rising cult of the vigilante, one that has found an eager following in the past five years.
Former President Donald Trump helped fuel that rise: he personally suggested Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense, and his Department of Homeland Security reportedly sent around an internal memo directing federal officials how to respond to any questions about Rittenhouse. Trump also welcomed other vigilantes into his circle, giving a prime speaking slot at the Republican convention to Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple facing charges (to which they pleaded not guilty) for brandishing guns at protesters who walked down the private street in front of their house.
The embrace of these armed suspects might seem to contradict the right’s “law and order” message. But vigilante violence has often been part of law enforcement in the United States, a complement to state power rather than a threat to it. Both have been required to uphold America’s racial order, and both will need to be radically re-imagined – or dismantled – if the country is to have a fair and equitable justice system.
Though we tend to think that the state has a monopoly on legal violence, that has seldom been the case. White vigilantes have long acted as an extension of state violence against Black people and other people of color, and their allies, often with the tacit approval of police, prosecutors, and juries in a spectrum of legal and illegal acts that together create the political idea of “law and order” that has been the backbone of right-wing politics for more than 50 years.
It’s easy to caricature this relationship between law enforcement and vigilantism as a feature of the Jim Crow South, when the Ku Klux Klan worked with local sheriffs to attack Black people and their White Republican allies who seemed to imperil the social and political order of the White South. But Klan violence persisted after Jim Crow, and vigilantes have worked with – and been part of – governments throughout the US.
This was especially true in the years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, when White vigilantism became a powerful force in American culture and politics. A wave of vigilante films in the 1970s and 1980s depicted White men fed up with the limits of policing, eager to take the law into their own hands. In part in response to rising crime rates and in part in response to growing Black political power – two forces routinely conflated – White vigilantism featured in movies like “Dirty Harry” (where the vigilante himself was a cop) and “Fighting Back” (where vigilantes worked in tandem with the police).
Filmmakers were inspired by people like Anthony Imperiale, a city councilor in Newark who formed the North Ward Citizens Committee, a White vigilante group in New Jersey in the late 1960s. “If the Black Panther comes, the White Hunter will be waiting,” Imperiale famously warned, referring to the Black power group that, notably, was not granted the same freedom to act as vigilantes. (Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, pushed for gun control laws in response to Black Panthers carrying firearms.) In reporting on Imperiale in 1968, The New York Times wrote that police “officially frowned on” his organization’s street patrols, a description suggesting that unofficially they were more supportive. As were voters in New Jersey: Imperiale would go on to serve as a member of the New Jersey state government for most of the 1970s.
Juries, too, sometimes went easy on vigilantes. In 1984, when four Black teenagers approached Bernhard Goetz on the New York City subway and asked for five dollars, Goetz shot them all, then fled. He became known as the Subway Vigilante, lionized as a force of order in a city plagued by crime. During his trial, Goetz confessed that he’d hoped to kill the teens, who he thought were about to rob him, and that the only thing stopping him was that he’d run out of bullets. That the young people he shot had committed no crimes did not faze Goetz nor the jury that sentenced him to just eight months in jail for criminal possession of a weapon.
That vigilante spirit infused the rise of everything from neighborhood watches to militias in the decades that followed. Though the militia boom that started in the early 1990s at first centered on groups that were explicitly anti-government and anti-police, over time it has grown to include groups who see themselves as an extension of law enforcement, whether as unofficial border patrol agents seizing suspected migrants or armed groups defending Confederate statues or countering anti-racist protests.
Police have often welcomed these groups, as seen in footage from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where shortly before the August shootings, officers thanked the armed men – including Kyle Rittenhouse – who appeared at the protests. This was not an uncommon sight at protests this past summer.
A recent report by Michael German at the Brennan Center for Justice outlined not only these incidents, but the ways militias have maintained active ties with law enforcement – including officers who are part of these groups. The line between police and vigilantes often blurs not only because some officers approve of vigilantism, but because some officers likewise engage in unlawful yet unpunished uses of force against Black people, as decades of police riots and brutality demonstrate.
Some lawmakers welcome them as well, helping to enshrine vigilantism in law. The radical gun jurisprudence and legislation of the past few decades has enabled citizens not only to legally arm themselves with military-grade weapons, but to use those weapons against other humans in increasingly unrestricted ways. That’s the case in states like Florida, where the law allowed George Zimmerman to follow and kill 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
That said, as the insurrection at the Capitol last month showed, neither police nor lawmakers are themselves safe from vigilante violence. Considered “oath breakers” by the mob for not helping overturn the election, these members of law enforcement and Congress were no longer viewed as instruments of law and order, but violators of it. That mental shift helps to explain why people bearing “Blue Lives Matter” flags overwhelmed and injured Capitol Police, in violence that left one police officer dead.
Of course, not everyone can engage in armed vigilantism and escape unscathed, left to skip bail or ransack the Capitol. As staff writer David A. Graham noted in The Atlantic in 2016, gun radicalism has extended almost exclusively to White Americans. When Black Americans take up arms, it quickly becomes clear that they are what he called “the Second Amendment’s second-class citizens”: arrested, charged, and even killed for the sort of gun ownership that White Americans consider a sacred right. Thus while Black vigilantism does exist, it is far riskier to engage in and far less likely to receive the sanction of law than its White counterpart.
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Rittenhouse has, of course, been charged, and the facts of his case are still being investigated. But there are many on the right who see his prosecution as a disruption of a tacit understanding that White vigilantes have been sanctioned to police, and even injure or kill, anti-racist activists who they see as disruptive. And no wonder they think so: they have more than 100 years of history showing that, most of the time, that’s exactly what “law and order” means.