Have you seen that vigilante man?
I’ve been hearin’ his name all over the land.
Would he shoot his brother and sister down?
- Woody Guthrie
Vigilante violence spreads a bloody stain over the pages of American history.
The novels of John Steinbeck and songs of Woody Guthrie highlighted attacks by union-busters and racists on the labour movement, people of colour, and the poor in general in the 1930s. “Vigilantism” was also associated with the violence of the Klu Klux Klan and other racist-terrorist groups intent on maintaining white supremacy in the southern USA from the end of the civil war right through to the civil rights era a century later.
The recent trial and acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse (pictured above) in Wisconsin demonstrates that vigilante violence in defence of white supremacy is still a grave danger for those seeking racial justice. Rittenhouse crossed the state line carrying an illegal assault rifle and journeyed twenty miles to the town of Kenosha where a demonstration was taking place against the police shooting of a local black man. There he shot dead two protesters and wounded another.
From the very start the trial judge showed bias towards the defence by decreeing that they could not refer to Rittenhouse’s victims as “victims”, but it was OK to call them “rioters” and “arsonists”. If anyone needed confirmation of the political sympathies of the judge, they got that during the trial when the ring tone on his phone blared out “God bless America” — a cheesy country song much played at Trump rallies.
Since his acquittal, Rittenhouse has been adopted as a mascot by far-right figures who now dominate the Republican Party. Three congressmen have offered him internships on Capitol Hill. QAnon acolyte Marjorie Taylor Greene says he should be awarded a congressional gold medal (she voted against giving one to police who defended the Capitol on 6 January). Donald Trump jnr. suggested Rittenhouse be given a brand new assault rifle as a present. To cap it all was the puke-inducing sight of Trump himself with an arm around Rittenhouse, declaring him “a nice young man” — a sentiment the families of the victims he gunned down would find disgraceful.
The verdict sets a precedent by giving the green light to all self appointed militia groups and fascist formations to up intimidation of civil rights activists, trade unionists and the left in general. Turn up armed to the teeth and shoot demonstrators down, and there’s a good chance of getting away with it by citing “self defence”. It matters not one jot that the men Rittenhouse killed were white. They came to support the cause of racial justice and their murder is of the same order as those of white civil rights activists in the 1960s — intimidation.
Just days after the Rittenhouse trial concluded, another trial of vigilantes claiming “self-defence” ended in Georgia, this time with their conviction for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Three white men took it upon themselves to chase Arbery, corner him and shoot him dead because he was jogging around the neighbourhood, which they considered “suspicious” simply because of the colour of his skin.
Their conviction was regarded as a positive outcome by supporters of the Arbery family and some advance on the days of Jim Crow rule when all-white juries would never convict racists accused of murdering black people or their supporters.
Nevertheless, despite this outcome, serious instances of racial discrimination were evident in the legal proceedings. Foremost was the fact that it took the state authorities 74 days before getting around to charging the three man lynch mob with murder. That was mainly because one of the perpetrators had previously worked with local law enforcement.
Additionally the defence managed to whittle down the jury to just one black member despite the population where the trial took place being 25% black. Even this though was not enough for the defence, who complained that the jury pool did not contain enough “Bubbas or Joe six-packs” — i.e. racists prejudiced enough not to convict despite the obvious guilt of the accused.
Both these cases occurred against a background of growing threats of political violence across the US being “normalised” by Republican members of Congress. One such is Paul Gosar, a member of the House of Reps from Arizona, who sent an animated video showing him killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He got censured in Congress for it, but only three Republicans there supported the censure. Those three are likely to receive death threats for their stand, as countless election officials and school board members have done throughout the country.
White supremacy is under threat in America and the Republican Party is the political force that wishes to maintain it or else risk being swept from power. Their four main weapons are voter suppression, electoral gerrymandering, racist dog whistles and threats of violence. Heavy support exists in the police and military for their politics. Notable amongst the numbers charged after the 6 January insurrection attempt were ex-members of the police and military.
Some historians have compared the present situation in the USA to that in the years running up to the American civil war (1861-1865). With the current trajectory of Trumpism, the fear is not wildly exaggerated or alarmist. The Biden administration, failing to seriously tackle racial injustice, voter suppression, or general social inequality, will not block the threat. That will take a movement to combat the violence of white vigilantes and the system they uphold. The American labour movement and those committed to socialist values need to step up to the task.