As the world watches two high-profile murder trials stemming from separate shootings of Black men, one thing they each have in common has become abundantly clear: Both trials wouldn’t be taking place if white males decided against taking the law into their own hands in purported attempts to dole out vigilante justice.
Though white vigilantism is far from a new concept, the practice has been increasingly rearing its racist head in recent years, culminating with the murder trials of Kyle Rittenhouse for killing two protesters and injuring another and Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan for shooting Ahmaud Arbery.
All four are white men, and each made a conscious decision to use lethal force in disingenuous attempts to defend themselves against people who were not armed with a rifle like the accused murderers were. The Michaels and Bryan are accused of racially profiling Arbery, who was jogging in their neighborhood, suspected him of committing a nonexistent crime, armed themselves, hopped in their trucks, chased him down, trapped him on a street and killed him in broad daylight — an alleged murder that Bryan recorded on video with his cellphone.
Rittenhouse says he was simply defending himself from the two people who he killed and the one person he injured, but prosecutors have highlighted how the then-17-year-old has his mother drive him across state lines with an assault rifle that didn’t belong to him to purportedly patrol the streets and protect local businesses from looting and rioting during a protest against police for shooting a Black man in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
In each of the above instances, all of the accused aligned themselves with law enforcement in imagined police deputizations that apparently convinced them they were legally operating within the boundaries of the law.
Sadly, they are far from alone.
Their actions were consistent with those of people like George Zimmerman, the armed neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2014. In that case, Zimmerman was even told by the police to stop following Martin, who he racially profiled as a suspect of a crime that was never committed. Still, he shot Martin and got away with it under a Stand Your Ground law that allows civilians to defend themselves with lethal force if they feel their lives are being threatened.
In 2019, Hannah Payne was so outraged at what she perceived to be a hit-and-run on her car by a Black motorist that she chased after the driver, caught up with him, blocked his car with hers and shot him to death within “seconds.” Come to find out that 62-year-old Kenneth Herring, who was driving the other car, was likely suffering from a medical emergency when he allegedly clipped her car in Georgia. “I know he was having a diabetic episode because he don’t just run off the scene,” Herring’s wife said at the time. “I knew he was trying to get to the hospital.”
Like most of the above defendants, Payne said she was just trying to be a good Samaritan (who was also caught lying about the shooting.) A Clayton County police detective ultimately testified that Payne could be heard saying to Herring on her 911 call, “Get out of the car, get out of the car, get out of the fucking car! I’m going to shoot you!” After Payne shot Herring, she reportedly told the 911 operator, “He just shot himself with my gun.”
Just about one year after Hannah Payne took the law into her own hands, Anthony Trifiletti followed suit in a similar fashion when the white driver shot and killed a Black man after both men’s cars were involved in what was described as a “minor collision” in St. Paul, Minnesota. Trifiletti, naturally, told police he feared for his life, even though he was the only one who was armed with a gun. In April of this year, Trifiletti was found guilty of second-degree murder.
Often mocked as harmless fodder for fun social media memes, women weaponizing their whiteness have emerged as a serious societal scourge in a steady stream of viral moments that show the extent of the damage these Karens can cause by flexing their vigilante muscles. More times than not, Karens are trying to police Black people, especially if it means operating outside the parameters of the law. From arbitrarily assaulting Black men to calling the cops on Black joggers to racist child abuse to preventing a delivery man from entering a building to racially profiling to pulling a gun on a Black family to — perhaps, most famously — calling police on a Black bird watcher and lying that he was threatening her life, Karens routinely play the role of the victim while trying to illegally regulate fellow citizens.
Jan. 6 Rioters
That is to speak nothing of the white vigilantism displayed on federal property at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when self-identified American patriots broke into the hallowed building in a failed effort to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election. The disproportionately group of white people violently flouted the law to mount an insurrection that left five people dead.
Experts have linked white vigilantism with the racist tradition of slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan and pointed to their affiliations with law enforcement.
“Police and vigilante violence not only have common origins and functions, and not only do they often complement one another, but they are often comprised of the same people,” Noel Cazenave, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the author of “Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism,” told the New Yorker in an interview last year. “Racist neighborhood culture and racist police culture fuel one another in an intense cycle of hatred directed toward those deemed to be racial outsiders.”
This is America.