Legal Brief: Vigilantes in America

Vigilantism is alive and well in America. Defined generally as taking the law into one’s own hands, vigilantism has been at the center of violent, extralegal justice since before the American Revolution, when “regulators” in South Carolina fought against colonial officials they thought were corrupt. 

Later, in Virginia, Justice of the Peace Charles Lynch set up a court to punish outlaws and those loyal to England. “Lynch Law” led to the imposition of sentences without due process that included hanging, later popularly referred to as “lynching.”

Throughout our history, various forms of vigilantism have appeared whenever vigilantes have seen a need to defend their values against a perceived attack on their way of life. Our country’s founders supported community participation in law enforcement and believed it to be instrumental in combating the oppression inflicted by the British system across the sea.

Before structured law-enforcement agencies existed, private citizens participated in “posses” and were deputized to carry out traditional common law. In many areas after the Revolution, vigilantes continued to impose their own form of law and order upon others, often in an attempt to establish racial and economic dominance.

Vigilantes appear to be more active during times of political and cultural change, and often they are opportunistic and violent. “Stand your ground” laws passed in recent years are a form of vigilantism that gives private persons the discretion to use even deadly force to protect themselves, often with tragic consequences, especially for people of color who are often seen as threatening for doing nothing more than their white counterparts.

Vigilantism is hitting closer to home with groups such as the Kenosha [Wisconsin] Guard, a militia group that posted on its Facebook page a call to arms during the protests in August 2020. A 17-year-old from Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse, responded and allegedly shot and killed two and injured a third. Rittenhouse will go on trial in November for first-degree intentional homicide and other charges because he answered the call of the vigilantes who apparently didn’t believe legitimate law enforcement would keep Kenosha safe.

It must be noted that law enforcement has often partnered with vigilante organizations in the past. The American Protective League (APL) – founded in 1917 by Albert Briggs, vice president of the Chicago company Outdoor Advertising – offered the Chicago Bureau of Investigation (BOI, now the FBI) 75 cars and volunteers to help the bureau identify German aliens and spies. Briggs also offered the services of his 100,000 volunteers to other federal agencies to provide “national security.” 

By 1918, APL had 250,000 members, and in September 1918, 2,000 members assisted BOI agents, police and military personnel in arresting 50,000-75,000 “slackers”: men who were suspected of dodging the draft, according to a Jan. 19, 2021, article in The Nation.

The APL was not given arrest power by the Department of Justice, but many of its members assumed they had been authorized to act as official agents of the BOI. Without oversight, the APL began reporting “suspicious” activity, made arrests, confiscated property belonging to German Americans, broke up political meetings and engaged in breaking strikes for businesses. In Illinois, a German immigrant was wrapped in an American flag, beaten and lynched. Despite President Wilson’s condemnation, the vigilantism did not stop.

In Wisconsin, cities with German names changed their pronunciations to Americanize them. All over America, neighbors spied on neighbors, and private police forces blurred the boundaries between themselves and legitimate law-enforcement agencies. After the war, many private police forces continued to traumatize those they opposed, including unions and ethnic groups, especially Black Americans.

But times were changing. The power of white Anglo-Saxon elites was diminishing as more diverse ethnic groups emigrated to America. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920 and further eroded the control of white men.

We’re seeing the rise of state-sponsored vigilantism again, with some in law enforcement not taking seriously the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol or efforts directed against women and their supporters in Texas.

A hundred years ago, 250,000 vigilantes terrorized German Americans, minorities and union organizers to further the goals of the elite in the name of national security. Seventy-five years ago, we terrorized Japanese Americans. Today, vigilantes are terrorizing political opponents and women in the name of political and religious ideology. When will America learn that vigilantism is un-American in any form? 

Joan Korb is a former Door County district attorney and assistant district attorney. She lives in Egg Harbor.