What Kyle Rittenhouse's fate reveals about 'law and order'

Kyle Rittenhouse listens during an extradition hearing on Oct. 30, 2020, in Waukegan, Ill.

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.

(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.

Nicole Hemmer
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.
      A man wears a shirt calling for freedom for Kyle Rittenhouse during a US President Donald Trump Campaign Rally on August 28, 2020.
      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.
          Clint Eastwood in 'Dirty Harry'
          Juries, too