Like many Americans, I was overjoyed by news that a Georgia jury had found three white men guilty of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man. The jury rejected the defense’s argument that the three men were “protecting and defending” their neighbourhood and therefore were justified in using their trucks to chase and trap Arbery and then use a shotgun to shoot him three times at close range. This verdict was especially welcome, coming just a few days after a Wisconsin jury found Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager, innocent in the shooting deaths of two other young white men.
Though there were obvious differences between these two cases, at stake in both were issues and values fundamental to the future of America: our obscene, pathological obsession with guns; the right-wing’s growing celebration of vigilantism; and racism.
First, a bit of background on the Rittenhouse story: It began in August of 2020 following the murder of Jacob Blake, a young Black man who was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Coming on the heels of a series of such incidents nationwide, Kenosha erupted in protests that came to include some rioting and looting.
Heeding the calls of some white nationalist groups, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse secured an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon, left his home in Illinois to join the effort to “defend property and help bring law and order” to Kenosha. It was there, on August 25th that Rittenhouse killed two men and wounded another. His lawyers argued that Rittenhouse felt threatened and killed the men in self-defense. And the jury, after deliberating for four days, agreed and found him innocent.
The jury verdict in the Rittenhouse case was troubling as it left several critical questions unanswered. How is it acceptable for a 17-year-old to secure a weapon of war? What is the justification for his crossing state lines with the intent to use this weapon? And if Rittenhouse had been a young Black man, wouldn’t he have been shot dead by police merely being seen on the streets holding a semiautomatic weapon?
During the past several years, there has not only been an epidemic of police killings of unarmed Black men, but also a number of dangerous incidents where armed white men have menaced both unarmed Black men and even elected officials with whom they disagree on matters of policy. There were, for example: the group of white militia who threateningly took to the steps of Michigan’s state capitol in April of 2020 to demonstrate their opposition to their governor’s covid-19 lockdown order; the couple in St. Louis, Missouri, who menacingly brandished weapons as Black Lives Matter demonstrators peacefully marched through their neighbo4rhood; the armed militia units who posted themselves along the southern border to shoot those whom they suspected were illegal migrants; George Zimmerman who, back in 2012, murdered Trayvon Martin because Zimmerman found it threatening that a young Black male was walking in his all-white neighborhood; and finally, on January 6th, the armed militia groups who stormed the US Capitol Building in a violent insurrection with the aim of threatening Congress, in order to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
In each instance, the perpetrators were lionized by the right as heroes because they were white and their intent was deemed patriotic. Millions of dollars were raised for their defense; the St Louis couple were invited to speak at the Republican National Convention; the January 6 insurrectionists and the “border vigilantes” have been called “patriots” by former President Trump and a host of Republicans leaders; and Kyle Rittenhouse has become a cause célèbre, hosted by Trump at Mar-a-Lago, appearing on Fox TV, and offered congressional internships by a number of Republican congressional offices.
The danger all of this poses is real. In legitimizing vigilante behaviour, the right is returning us to the days of the Wild West or post-Reconstruction, when mobs lynched thousands of Blacks or foreigners deemed a threat.
It’s also important to consider the issue of guns and the right’s insistence that the Constitution’s “right to bear arms” is absolute and without limits. While the Second Amendment does proclaim that right, it does so with the qualification as part of a “well regulated Militia.” It is a bizarre stretch to interpret “well regulated Militia” to include the mobs that stormed the Capitol, threatened the safety of Michigan’s governor, or a 17-year-old’s self-proclaimed mission to “protect property.” And despite the successful pressure exerted by the National Rifle Association, Washington’s most powerful lobby, the Constitution does not provide citizens the unfettered right to own, brandish, and use weapons of war.
Finally, there’s the critical issue of race. It is a fact that white vigilantes are often tolerated and celebrated by the right— even when they threaten “law and order” and our democracy. One doesn’t have to imagine what the reaction might be should Black vigilantes arm themselves with the expressed purpose of defending their communities or threatening a governor or Congress. All we need do is recall the way the Black Panthers were violently suppressed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The fact that our hyperpartisan, polarized political environment is becoming weaponized by white vigilantes who are being validated by political leaders poses an existential threat to our democracy. It is a danger we cannot ignore. That is why the guilty verdict in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery is so important. While the jury decision in the Rittenhouse case threatened to open the door to the chaos of the “law of the jungle,” in rejecting the defendants’ argument that Arbery’s killers were acting in self-defense and protection of property, the Georgia jury slammed that door shut.