‘Struggle for racial justice’: Town hall discusses vigilantism, white supremacy

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Christian Sundquist, a professor at Pitt’s School of Law, said the brokenness of the criminal justice system can be seen in the “divergent” rulings of three recent trials — Kyle Rittenhouse, Ahmaud Arbery’s killers and prominent organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.

Sundquist said defendants in cases of racially motivated violence are able to claim self-defense because they rely on “racist tropes as part of their defense strategy.”

He said one example is the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, an 18-year old white man, who was acquitted on all charges in November for fatally killing two citizens with an assault-style weapon at an Aug. 2020 racial injustice rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Health Sciences Diversity hosted a town hall titled “Vigilantism and White Supremacy: The Power of the Courts to Defend and Disrupt on Thursday afternoon. The event spotlighted the legal and academic expertise of three Pitt professors — Sundquist, Kathleen Blee and David Harris — who discussed white supremacy and vigilantism.

Sundquist added that the rise of white vigilantism is “directly connected” to current self-defense laws.

“The otherwise criminal acts of white vigilantes are often excused by self-defense laws if they’re deemed reasonable in relation to the perceived threat of harm,” Sundquist said. “The assessment of what constitutes a reasonable fear is often shaped by racist stereotypes, such as Black criminality or superhuman strength.”

David Harris, a professor in the School of Law, said he was frustrated by Rittenhouse’s acquittal.

“Here’s a kid who had no business being where he was, looking for trouble and armed to the teeth going into a very volatile situation,” Harris said. “How in the world is that self-defense?” 

Harris said self-defense laws coupled with some legal changes since the 1970s “helped to create a growing culture of vigilantism in this country.” Prior to 1970, Harris said the rule of retreat, which states that citizens can and should retreat from dangerous situations if possible, was the norm in self-defense law.

But during the 1970s, Harris said states began to replace rule of retreat laws with stand your ground laws — which allow citizens to defend themselves against a perceived imminent threat. He added that “concerted efforts led by corporations and interest groups,” such as the National Rifle Association, in the 1990s to early 2000s resulted in stronger and more widespread stand your ground laws.

Harris said these laws, combined with greater availability and use of firearms, create “a recipe that virtually calls forward people like Kyle Rittenhouse.”

Sundquist advocated for the elimination of peremptory challenges, which he said allow litigants to exclude jurors from a trial “without giving a particular reason.”

He also focused on the trial of Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William Bryan – the three white men who shot and killed 25-year old Black man Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in Feb. 2020. All three men were sentenced to life in prison in January.

The trial for Arbery’s killers consisted of 11 white jurors. The judge of the case, Judge Walmsley, claimed the peremptory challenges in the jury selection process were not racially motivated. Sundquist said he disagrees as there was “very clear evidence of racial bias and the selection or exclusion of jurors.”

Another recent trial that involved white supremacy concerned prominent organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville. A federal jury found the organizers liable for conspiring violence awarding $26 million in compensatory and punitive damages to plaintiffs in November.

Kathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies, said the organizers marched through the streets of Charlottesville chanting “you will not replace us” the night before violence erupted in downtown Charlottesville at the rally.

Blee testified at the Charlottesville rally trial in November, after researching “millions” of Discord chats, text messages and other forms of online communication provided to her by the prosecution for three years. She said a common defense tactic employed by white supremacist leaders is plausible deniability.

“White supremacist leaders, like leaders of many criminal arrangements, are very adept in using other people to commit violence and thereby creating plausible deniability for their own involvement,” Blee said. “[The leaders] peppered their own [online] posts by saying things like ‘please be nonviolent,’ ‘don’t bring weapons’ and ‘remember we’re just there as nonviolent participants.”

Blee said while white supremacist leaders costumed statements of nonviolence on “more public platforms,” through her research she found their rhetoric “backstage” was very different. She said they sent messages on how to embed “knives and other sharp objects” into different materials and how to attach ax handles to flag poles to be used as weapons.

Blee said while “it’s hard to have a crystal ball,” she is “somewhat optimistic that the verdict in Charlottesville is going to have a pretty major negative impact on leadership in the white

supremacist movement.” She believes the verdict will follow the actors that conspired the violence and “disable them.”

When asked what advice she has for everyday citizens on how to deal with white supremacy and vigilantism, Blee said it is critical to make “every effort to really protect the elements of our democracy.”

“Once that starts to erode, it will trigger all kinds of other social inequities and problems in society,” Blee said. “I think every effort to shore up our democratic institutions and access to voting is really essential.”

Sundquist said while he believes the criminal justice system is not working” and has “significant flaws,” he also believes in the potential “to use law as a lever to achieve some positive change.”

“There can be moments of meaningful progress. There are real people living on the ground who need help and can be assisted through a reform of our laws,” Sundquist said. “Even if it only reaches a dozen people, even if it only reaches a few thousand people, that is meaningful, that can be helpful, and that can help our broader struggle for racial justice.”

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