“White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness. They don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing.’’ James Baldwin
The acquittal of George Zimmermann for the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin nearly a decade ago shocked many, and continues to do so. Yet it is just one more notch in the gun belt of one of the oldest characters on the American scene, the white vigilante. Sometimes acting under the cover of a “Neighborhood Watch,” as in the case of wannabe cop Zimmermann, sometimes highly organized as in the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes on the pretext of a “citizen’s arrest,” as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery’s executioners, and sometimes as a freelancer, like acquitted killer Kyle Rittenhouse—the one thing that these “protectors of the realm” can almost always count on is nonaccountability. These heirs to the cowboy posse need only read from the scripted exoneration narrative—“I believed my life was in danger, so I had to kill.” Done. Go home.
From the Fugitive Slave Law to Texas’ anti-abortion bounty hunter statute, we have delegated to civilian actors the function usually served by government, thus circumventing constitutional protections, constraints, and review by courts. This is not to say that state actors always stay their hand—the Klan acted with the complicity of deputy sheriffs and police in many of the infamous killings of the Civil Rights era, including the three young men in Mississippi in the violent summer of 1964.
Rittenhouse is now a celebrated hero among many in this troubled nation, with Republican politicians competing to hire him as their intern. He no doubt will receive a long standing ovation along with the January 6 insurrectionists at the next State of the Union address by a president from that corrupted party.
How do we find our Republic—the “City on a Hill,” the “Beacon of Liberty,” the model for pro-democracy activists the world over—back in the shoot-em-up Old West of our childhood cowboy films? The culprits are too numerous to name. Most prominent among them are the politicians of both parties who cower at the NRA’s bluster while we became a nation of far more guns than people.
And then there was the nearly all-white jury that acquitted Zimmermann in the face of overwhelming evidence that his self defense story was pure fiction, concocted after he stalked the terrified high school student nearly half his size on that dark rainy night in February 2012 because Trayvon looked “suspicious.” i.e., a Black youth in the gated community, the kind of punk who “always get away with it,” as he told the 911 operator (who warned Zimmermann to remain in his car until the police arrived, to no avail). In truth, Trayvon was returning to the home of his father’s fiancé with snacks to watch a basketball game; he died seven yards from his destination, a bullet from Zimmermann’s 9mm pistol in his heart
Often ignored are our overly generous and easily satisfied self-defense laws. A relic of a bygone time before the Supreme Court invented a Second Amendment individual right to bear arms, something that would shock its framers who wrote it to assure the militias of the day could protect the new nation against attack. It now assures that the Rittenhouses among us can walk freely through our streets with military firearms and, if challenged, shoot to kill without consequence. They’re simply “standing their ground.”
Thankfully some jurors are beginning to see through the charade, as in the Arbery trials, where the killers were convicted in both state and federal court. But accountability for civilian brutality remains the exception.
Prison activist George Jackson observed many years ago with regard to police killings that, “Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow. Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity.” Rittenhouse, Zimmermann, and how many others, have added another dimension to our vulnerability to sudden unprovoked violence—shooting by our fellow citizens, who need not pass any such examination, but must merely learn the exoneration narrative.
Professor Mark S. Brodin is a professor of law and the former associate dean for academic affairs at Boston College Law. He can be reached at email@example.com.