Vigilantes Are Longtime Defenders of White Supremacy
Trump’s warnings of a violent left are hand-me-downs from his vigilante predecessors
During a campaign rally in late August, President Trump stood before a packed crowd and railed against a familiar boogeyman. “Look at Joe Biden supporters on the streets screaming and shouting at bystanders with unhinged manic rage,” he said, referring to the hundreds of demonstrators who for months had been marching against police brutality. “They’re not protestors. Those are anarchists. They’re agitators. They’re rioters. They’re looters.”
Trump’s broadsides against protesters have spanned months and in some cases have been interpreted as a call to arms. In June, dozens of people with assault rifles patrolled the streets in parts of Idaho after social media posts echoing Trump’s rhetoric promised that “antifa agitators” were headed for their state. (They weren’t.) That same month, gun-toting white citizens in Oregon kept watch outside local businesses, NBC News reports, convinced of an impending antifa attack. Such processions have continued throughout the summer: From Philadelphia to Chicago to Portland, self-described patriot groups have mixed warily with peaceful protestors, usually in search of antifa, as those on the right call left-wing protestors whom they believe are anarchists, looters, and agitators.
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An interview with the journalist who filmed Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shooting two protesters
Across America, vigilantism is making a comeback. White vigilantes and far-right counterprotestors have shown up to oppose Black Lives Matter protests across the United States at least 497 times since the start of George Floyd–inspired demonstrations in late May, according to data collected and analyzed by Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. Just as the protests that followed the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, drew members of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia to prowl the rooftops of businesses, the death of Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake sparked a wave of white vigilante actions bent on enforcing “law and order” against mostly peaceful protestors. These counterinsurgency efforts turned deadly last month when Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Of course, modern-day vigilantes aren’t just motivated by some sense of extralegal civic duty; they’re taking their cues from Trump. And while that dynamic might seem out of place—a real estate mogul commanding an unofficial army of far-right extremists—it’s not unprecedented: Vigilantism has always served social and political elites, and vigilantes often have been the arm’s-length paramilitary forces for the rich and powerful.
Though vigilantism has been around since the end of the Revolutionary War, when the rapid expansion of American settlers and slow establishment of formal law enforcement created a lawless West, the first true vigilance committee emerged in San Francisco in 1851, following a rapid population explosion that fueled a surge in arson and murder. That year, local Gold Rush entrepreneur Samuel Brannan papered the streets with flyers to recruit 200 citizens into a Committee of Vigilance to protect property when conventional law enforcement couldn’t. The vigilantes eventually incarcerated 17 local bandits in the brig of a ship anchored in San Francisco’s harbor (there was no permanent jail at the time) and drove the rest from town before delivering their prisoners to a legitimate court for judgment, after which the committee of 1851 dispersed. It was, by most standards, as pure an example of justifiable frontier vigilantism as any in U.S. history.
But when vigilantism returned again in the city five years later, it took on a far less judicious tone. Despite significantly lower crime rates in 1856, journalist James King used San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin to relentlessly denounce the greed and abuses of local public- and private-sector elites both real and imagined, whipping the city into a “near-panic psychology.” This gave the newly reformed Committee of Vigilance cover to rally some 6,000 furious citizens to oust the city’s ruling Democratic Party, a victory not just for King, but for hundreds of other political operatives throughout the city. The righteous tone of vigilantism was then adopted by a new People’s Party that replaced the corrupt political machine and governed the city for more than a decade. Vigilantism, the province of God-fearing property owners, had become simply another tool for violent, chaotic political change.
Wherever the status quo was threatened in the post–Civil War order, white vigilantes would emerge.
As vigilantism became more common in the ensuing years, so did its paramilitary offshoots. A few decades after King’s editorials inciting violence engulfed San Francisco, Montana journalist Robert Fisk used the Helena Daily Herald to warn of a “coterie of petty offenders” and “the horde on our borders,” creating a public perception of lawlessness despite relatively low crime rates. The fear became so intense that a newly organized vigilance committee emerged in Helena in the fall of 1879, posting the numbers 3-7-77 across town as an ultimatum to Helena’s roughnecks to “Get out of town, using a #3 ticket on the 7 a.m. stagecoach to Butte, by order of a secret committee of seventy-seven.” Within a few years, vigilance committees popped up throughout Montana territory, using the “mystic numbers” as a warning to robbers and vagrants — preindustrial shades of Q and other dog whistles of the reactionary right.
Thanks in part to the legacies of success in San Francisco and Montana, vigilante groups continued to spread across the United States, often organized by establishment leaders as a means of combating a newly insurgent enemy, usually in the form of those who challenge the existing status quo. Indeed, the aftermath of the Civil War gave America the White Caps and the early iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, both organizations led by local socioeconomic elites and bent on “the moral regulation of poor whites and ne’er-do-wells of the rural American countryside,” as historian Richard Maxwell Brown put it. The initial economic concerns of the postwar Reconstruction were inherently mixed with racial animus, and the vigilante lynchings of Blacks that became both groups’ signature would last well into the 1960s. Forget the threat of violence and anarchy: Wherever the status quo was threatened in the post–Civil War order, white vigilantes would emerge — more often than not, led by those who had the most to lose from the changing face of American society.
As the frontier closed and the country evolved, vigilantism had little to do with preventing anarchy and everything to do with maintaining elite power. According to historian Michael Cohen. the post–World War I “Red Scare” of the 1920s saw a major wave of vigilante countermovements against the pro-labor Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which, spurred on by the Department of Justice and its thousands of civilian allies in the American Protective League, cast the burgeoning labor movement as “dangerous outsiders, agitators, bums, and anarchists whose mere presence was a moral, ethnic, and insurgent threat to the social order.” For years, reactionary vigilantes conducted raids on IWW gatherings hand in glove with local law enforcement and with the tacit approval of Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory, who “described vigilante violence against radicals as a sign of the vitality of American loyalty and martial spirit,” according to Cohen. Years later, the Associated Farmers of California would borrow this vigilante playbook to brutally repress labor leaders during the early years of the Great Depression in the 1930s; where bandits and highway robbers were once legitimate concerns, labor leaders became the new boogeyman for average Americans.
In San Francisco, King portrayed the city as being in the grip of a “second class” of men — those who steal — tying the criminal lawlessness and moral decay from accepted middle-class norms to the “domination of political plunderers.” In Helena, Fisk used his position in the press to exaggerate the extent of lawlessness and to call for a new vigilance committee: “Would it not be a wise precautionary step to invite some of these desperate characters to ‘take a walk,’” he wrote, “or shall we wait for outer murders and robberies, and perhaps until they burn the town down again?” With the IWW, even Attorney General Gregory struck a tone of sinister compassion when he spoke of radicals and anti-war dissenters, proclaiming, “May God have mercy on them, for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.”
Vigilantism in the United States is, at its core, a conservative and reactionary enterprise, and Trump’s conspiracy-mongering and xenophobia — and, really, the entire genre of “law and order” political rhetoric — are hand-me-downs from his vigilante predecessors. While vigilance committees were once the sole domain of private-sector elites like Brannan and King — and now, entrepreneurial “patriot groups” like the Oath Keepers — Trump has upped the ante by branding vigilante action as an extension of his governance. Kenosha suspect Kyle Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter (he was in the front row at a rally) and Blue Lives Matter devotee, could easily be seen to have patrolled the streets of Kenosha, where he did not live, in response to Trump’s warnings of a violent and dangerous left-wing presence. The president’s emphasis on looters and agitators will almost certainly not abate as the country hurtles toward elections in November; indeed, it may be the best tool he has to dodge any responsibility for the root cause of the protests. The specter of lawlessness has worked for unscrupulous manipulators before. Who’s to say it won’t work again?