Of Law, Order, and Vigilantism

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

This Tuesday, 11/2, voters in Texas and across the country will go to the polls to vote in various state and local elections.  One of the more rational and welcome trends to emerge from the campaign season is the growing tendency of mayoral candidates to reject “Defund the Police” programs in favor of programs to promote “Law and Order.” Mayoral candidates justify their demand for more police and more resources for the police because of the rising crime rate over the past year.   But two trials of vigilantes charged with murder simultaneously show the dangers of vigilantism and the need for more police-provided law and order as well:  Had the legitimate forces of law and order been stronger and more effective, there might have been less need for the vigilantes, and less likelihood that the horrific deaths caused by the vigilantes would have occurred.

Since the emergence of the “Defund the Police” movement following the murder of George Floyd last year, murder has risen by 30% and other crimes of violence have increased as well.  Today 47% of Americans want more funding for police, while only 15% want less—down from 25% last year.  Especially noteworthy is the strong support for more police in Black and Latino neighborhoods, although their desire for more law and order should hardly come as a surprise—People of color are more likely to be victimized by crime, so it’s only natural that they want more protection from their would-be predators.  You can read more about this here:  https://www.reuters.com/world/us/democratic-cries-defund-police-fade-us-mayoral-races-crime-surges-2021-10-29/.

As the campaigns gear up—with candidates for local office pledging more police and more resources for them, 2 trials of vigilantes charged with murder are also getting underway—that of Greg McMichael, his son Travis, and their neighbor Roddie Bryan for killing Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and that of Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting 3 men, and killing 2 of them, in the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Neither case is open and shut.  In both cases, the defendants are entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  But both cases offer lessons, whatever their respective verdicts turn out to be.

In the Brunswick case, the McMichaels were on the lookout for someone (or someones) who had been committing a rash of burglaries in their neighborhood.  They saw Arbery emerging from a vacant and partially built house which he had evidently stopped to visit while out for a jog, gave chase to him in their truck, and in the course of trying to detain him shot and killed him.  Their neighbor, Bryan, joined in the chase and filmed everything on his smartphone.  Their defense will probably rest on their assertion that they were legally using their guns while engaged in a legal activity at the time of the shooting—attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of a burglary suspect–, as well as self defense in the course of a struggle with Arbery.  

In the Kenosha case, Rittenhouse had a loaded rifle and volunteered his services to help guard property following several days of looting and rioting in the wake of a police shooting of a Black man who had a knife at the time police were trying to arrest him.  Rittenhouse is claiming self defense and those who’ve seen video of the shootings say the recordings show Rittenhouse being chased and physically threatened and assaulted before opening fire.  

The most obvious lesson is that vigilantism can go horribly wrong, with the shooting deaths of men who were either not guilty of a crime justifying the death penalty, or not guilty of any crime at all.  In neither case did the vigilantes apparently have the training with which to either defend themselves without killing others or, in the Arbery case, deal with him without killing him. Could professional police have handled either situation better?  Perhaps, although given the instance of well-publicized police killings, not necessarily.  Nonetheless, the probability that well-trained and well-armed police might have been able to avoid the deaths that the untrained vigilantes cause should be taken seriously.

This may well be disputed, especially by Rittenhouse’s supporters, who claim that the violence of those who assaulted him, including at least two of his victims, as well as their previous participation in the Kenosha riots, justified their deaths.  Maybe so.  Violence is sometimes necessary, as a last resort, to counteract unprovoked violence.  Self-defense is a legitimate defense, and may well work, especially in the Rittenhouse case.  And for the record, I believe that all law-abiding and mentally sound citizens have the right to use deadly force, if necessary and as a last resort, to defend themselves against life-threatening attacks on their persons, as well as to repel home invasions and attacks on their businesses (I’ve put this in since several Rittenhouse defenders, not liking what I’ve written about him in the past, have falsely accused me of wanting to deny the innocent of any means of self-defense).

But another lesson is that whether vigilantism is right or wrong, vigilantes will take action if they believe that the legitimate forces of law and order are unable to effectively fight crime.   In Kenosha, Rittenhouse and other armed civilians decided to involve themselves after witnessing two nights of rioting in which the police and the national guard, seemingly ineffective and outnumbered, failed to restore order.  The Arbery case did not involve unsuccessful efforts to end violence, but did involve a failure on the part of police to stop the burglaries; hence the decision of vigilantes to get involved.  

Public opinion polling currently shows that those supporting law and order over “defunding the police” will, in most cases, probably win their elections.  We can expect the restoration of resources already taken away from the police and perhaps the provision of new resources as well.  We can hope the police can more effectively fight crime, and that with greater effectiveness in the preservation of law and order there will be less vigilantism, and fewer tragedies and atrocities committed thereby.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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