Anti-Government Unrest and American Vigilantism

The crash of a shattering window as a brick is hurled at a politician's office; the hiss of gas from a slashed utility line outside the home of a congressman's relative; snarling epithets left in the voice mailboxes of elected officials. These are among the most unsettling noises of the backlash against the new health care law, and to some, they sound like an echo of a checkered American tradition: vigilantism, taking the law into one's own hands.

Vigilantism is often presumed to be synonymous with racism or irrational political extremism. True/Slant's Sarah Libby decries "the notion of vigilante justice" as "a scary one that has deeply racist roots" in the post-Civil War lynchings of southern blacks. Frank Rich of the New York Times termed the spate of post-vote incidents "vigilante violence" and compared the perpetrators to the Nazis on Kristallnacht. Even the Associated Press is using the magic V-word in its write-throughs about the unrest.

Since 2008, instances of anti-government outrage have gradually escalated, from Joseph Stack's plane crash into an Austin federal building to the vandalism, death threats and intimidation of the past few weeks. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the United States has enjoyed a 244 percent increase in the number of active patriot groups--"militias and other extremist organizations that see the federal government as their enemy"--in 2009. Pundits nervously wonder what the future of vigilante violence will hold. "The weapon of choice for vigilante violence at Congressional offices has been a brick hurled through a window," penned Rich. "So far."

While the facts of some of the recent incidents are disputed, it's incredibly appropriate that vigilantism is being invoked to brand the instances of political violence. Vigilante justice is not a historical artifact of the Wild West, where American pioneers on the lawless frontier banded together to protect life, liberty, and property. From the "Dirty Harry" movies of the 1970s through the eco-terrorism of the animal rights and anti-mansionization movements, the impulse to impose "justice" where the system fails to is not confined to one era or ideological extreme. Recalling the historical roots of American vigilantism can help us understand where the current anti-government violence fits and where it may be headed.
While vigilantism has been defined in a variety of ways by academics, there is broad agreement that it is essentially a conservative impulse. Vigilante scholars H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg situate vigilante activity between revolutionary and reactionary violence, as "acts of threat or coercion in violation of the formal boundaries of an established sociopolitical order, which, however, are intended by the violators to defend the order from some form of subversion." Historian Richard Maxwell Brown, a long-time scholar of American violence, sees vigilantism as inherently driven by the desire to restore the sociopolitical order to a previous level of stability. The sources of instability vary throughout history--crime, demographic shifts, government corruption--but the impulse remains the same: to restore stability to a world turned upside down, and reinforce those values at risk in a rapidly changing world.

No wonder, then, that conservative backlash and the vigilantism associated with some of its adherents has been accelerating since the economic collapse and the 2008 election; notions of "change" coinciding with economic instability are a classic recipe for anxiety and paranoia.

While vigilantism was a fixture on the American frontier in small settler communities since the end of the 18th century, the current uproar has much in common with the granddaddy of large-scale American vigilante movements, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856. San Francisco had already been home to a small vigilante movement in 1851, when fears of arson and larceny in the face of the California gold rush prompted the organization of a temporary militia until municipal law enforcement could take control. But a few years later, with street crime in check, the issue was soaring municipal debt, rising taxes, and bankruptcy under corrupt political leadership, in a city described by Brown as a "seething caldron of social, ethnic, religious, and political tensions." The political elite exploited those tensions to mobilize support from its base, strong-arming elections and mobilizing the Irish-Catholic and mostly Democratic working class of the city as its political backbone. After a muckraking journalist, James King, who had been exposing machine abuses, was murdered by a political operative, enrollment in the vigilance committee soared. The vigilantes saw the municipal courts as corrupt and ineffective, so they methodically collected material evidence of election fraud and municipal corruption before ousting the machine.
The San Francisco Committee shares many of the same features and focus as the recent political unrest: frustration with government, underpinnings of socio-cultural strife, and urgency to act promoted by an aggressive, inflammatory press. Students of today's anti-Obama, anti-Washington rhetoric will recognize the style King employed, portraying his city as caught in the grip of a "second class" of men who "stand all day at the street corner, flourishing whale bone canes and twirling greasy mustachios. At night they flock to the gambling halls, abounding in all our thoroughfares, where they feast and carouse, bet and blackguard, damn their own souls and take the name of God in vain. Or else, flushed with wine and lust, they throng the houses of prostitution." Concluded this latter-day Glenn Beck: "Men without one particle of claim to the position have filled the post of Mayor and Councilman in the city, for the sole purpose of filling their pockets with the ill gotten gains of their nefarious schemes, their pilfering and dishonesty." King's editorials created a "near-panic psychology" concerning municipal crime (despite low crime rates reported by the California Alta), bringing the anger of average citizens to a boiling point before focusing their popular rage on the negligent state government.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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