If you have not heard of the city of Rosewood, Florida or the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma it is because both were destroyed by people who no doubt viewed themselves as “law abiding” gun owners. Contrary to the popular phrase, an armed society is not always a polite society. American history is full of examples of the perils of allowing armed citizens to take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism has an ugly history in this country. The fact that the loudest advocates today for arming the populace come from those on the political far right, should give us pause for concern. The tradition of vigilantism in this nation is a history of upholding xenophobia, racism and white privilege by lethal force. From lynch mobs to riots to extrajudicial executions, that history undermines the logic for unqualified support for the second amendment.
Lynch mobs: Upholding the social order with guns and nooses
The most widespread form of vigilante violence in American history is the lynch mob. Lynchings were a popular form of meting out extrajudicial justice, and many public hangings attracted large crowds to witness the event in a macabre carnivalesque atmosphere. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the United States had thousands of lynchings, usually but not always initiated against black people. Mobs of armed men would drag a black man from his home or from a court house for his crimes, real or imagined, and beat him, burn him or hang him. Lynchings became especially popular following the defeat of the South in the civil war. They became a means by which white Reactionaries maintained social control over blacks in the South in the Reconstruction period and for many years thereafter. While lynchings occurred in nearly every state, they were especially common in the South and most were committed against black men. From 1880 to 1915, the peak years of lynch mobs, no white man was convicted for lynching-related crimes despite scores of lynchings taking place year after year.
Tulsa Race Riots 1921
Although lynch mobs often singled out one or two people at a time, sometimes armed mobs destroyed entire communities. The most extreme incident of racial violence in US History was the Tulsa race riot of 1921. After a black boy apparently stepped on a white girl's foot in a downtown elevator, uneasy racial tensions that already existed in the city, boiled over and a bloody wave of violence followed. A white mob attempted to lynch the alleged offender, but they were held back by armed black men. Having failed in their attempts to lynch the teenage boy, angry white vigilantes turned their rage on the black community in the Greenwood district, home to a thriving black business community and to the “Black Wall Street”. The black community tried in vain to defend itself from white vigilante violence, but they were simply outgunned. Through the night and the following day white vigilantes murdered unarmed black residents and conducted drive by shootings in the Greenwood neighborhood.
The armed mob began killing indiscriminately. They murdered an unarmed black man in a theater, shot a white man in a car who they mistook for a black man, and they murdered an elderly black couple, shooting both individuals in the back of the head before gratuitously burning their house down. As the riot wore on, the Greenwood District was literally burned to the ground. Over eight hundred residents were wounded and dozens were killed (the official count was thirty-six dead, but historians now estimate the real death toll to be closer to three hundred).
Rosewood Florida 1923
A similar situation to the Tulsa riot unfolded two years later in the town of Rosewood, Florida. White men from nearby cities responded to an unsubstantiated rumor that a white woman in neighboring Sumter had been assaulted by a black drifter. White men organized armed posses and began combing the countryside hunting and murdering black men. They also marched into Rosewood and burned nearly every structure in the community, driving out the residents by force. Several people were murdered and the city had to be abandoned by the black residents who lived there. The town was completely destroyed by the white mobs and it was never rebuilt.
Hurricane Katrina 2005
In the supposedly post-racial twenty-first century, the aftermath of a monster storm created a vacuum in law enforcement and New Orleans became a laboratory for a society where citizen patrols supplant the police. Three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, white residents of the Algiers Point community stockpiled shotguns, rifles, handguns and military style rifles to fight people who entered their community who “didn’t belong”. Forming a sort of citizen’s posse the men patrolled the streets in pickups and SUVs and opened fire on black men. In the span of a couple of days, the vigilantes murdered at least eleven black men. One of the men later boasted "It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it." A female resident recalled that her uncle was thrilled that Algiers Point became “a free-for-all--white against black--that he could participate in," says the woman. "For him, the opportunity to hunt black people was a joy." She added that her uncle and others viewed black people who wandered into Algiers Point as "fair game." They hunted African-Americans under the premise that they were all looters even though Algiers Point had been set up by the National Guard as an evacuation site for New Orleans residents. In other words, the people who were shot had a right to be there as many were simply trying to evacuate the city.
Ginned up with fear and heavily armed, the residents of Algiers Point turned the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina into an open season on hunting African-Americans who they felt did not belong. In their fear or their zeal to protect their property they murdered outsiders with impunity taking little care to determine if the shootings were justifiable. The armed society that manifested itself during the storms lawless chaos was not a polite society at all, but rather it became an urban killing field.
The Dark Side of Vigilantism
Vigilantism is often portrayed in the movies and depicted by advocates for the gun lobby as a heroic movement by citizens to protect themselves from lawless hordes. However, the history of vigilantism reveals that it is often the armed protectors of privilege who themselves become the lawless hordes. The Tulsa riot, the Greenwood massacre, and the New Orleans armed patrols during Katrina, are just three of the more egregious incidents in American history, but the Tulsa riot and Greenwood massacre were only exceptional in their scope, not in their brutality. The Algiers point shootings were unexceptional, but recent enough so that they suggest that even in the twenty-first Century, vigilantism can take on an ugly racist tone. Nor were these incidents confined to assaults on African-Americans. Chinese immigrants, Italians, Latinos and others have been targeted as well. In some cases, so have striking workers, both white and non-white. The point of course is not to disparage all vigilante actions. There are legitimate defenses of life and property that are done by armed men and women. However, when the shrillest voices arguing against gun regulations use violent rhetoric or express hints of racism, or when they make inflated claims about the necessity of armed defense as they conjure up dystopian scenarios of social and economic collapse, one must pause and look at the history of vigilantism in America to inquire as to their true motives. Far too often, fear has been an ingredient that has led white vigilantes to commit unspeakable atrocities against people who “don’t belong”. Let us not repeat that ugly history by giving free reign to vigilantism under the guise of self-protection. The history of that mentality is stained with the blood of too many innocents to be worth repeating.