A Lynch Mob of One

The assault rifle has enabled racists to act alone.

A skull with AR-15 bullets for teeth
Universal History Archive / Getty
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Everyone seemed to be fleeing the brutality of the Chicago sun. There was no haven that compared to the cooling waters of Lake Michigan. Thousands of blacks and whites flocked to its beaches. That is where 17-year-old Eugene Williams and his friends fled. They knew all about the racial battles at the 29th Street Beach—or, they did not.

The boys splashed into the black side of the lake. Williams climbed on a raft and floated, his friends not far away. His raft accidentally drifted past the invisible color line at 29th Street onto the “whites only” side. Yes, Jim Crow had become national.

Twenty-four-year-old George Stauber saw Williams and started pummeling the boys with stones. Hit, Williams plunged into Lake Michigan and drowned. Daniel Callaghan, a Chicago police officer, arrived on the scene first and refused to arrest Stauber, as William Middleton, a black detective sergeant, insisted he should. Callaghan’s backup arrived and stood as stone-faced as the stone that murdered Williams. A standoff. One black beachgoer drew a gun and fired at the police line.

Then the city’s white rage, to use Carol Anderson’s term, exploded amid the false rumors of a black “invasion” to “clean out” white neighborhoods. When the lynch mobs finally disassembled nearly a week later, 38 people—23 black, 15 white—had perished, more than 350 people had reported injuries, and about 1,000 black homes lay in ashes. The worst incident of white-supremacist terror during the Red Summer of 1919 ended on August 3.

Exactly a century later, on Saturday, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, wielding an assault rifle, allegedly entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and murdered 22 people. Hours later, 24-year-old Connor Betts, holding an AR-15-style firearm, allegedly entered Dayton’s Oregon District and murdered nine people. A manifesto linked to Crusius said he targeted Latino people. Six of Betts’s nine victims were African American in majority-white Dayton, although police have been unable to determine whether his victims were deliberately targeted.

The American crisis of white-supremacist terrorism—its deadliest form, mass murder—is as old as it is new. The death knell still sounds. The deliverer of mass death has changed.

In 1919, the white lynch mob was the deadliest domestic form of white-supremacist terror. Back then a sizable number of armed and coordinated white supremacists were needed  to slaughter a sizable number of people of color. Now it takes only one.

The lynch mob endures in a different form. The assault rifle is the lynch mob of one.

Eugene Williams escaped the brutality of the Chicago sun, but, like countless Americans before and after him, he could not escape the brutality of white-supremacist terrorism. As false rumors of the black “invasion” spread, the white lynch mobs and their terror grew to “defend” their Chicago.

Southern migrants doubled Chicago’s black population in the five years leading up to 1919. Racist whites despised the demographic shifts, all the black people supposedly infesting the city’s historically white workforce and voting rolls. Months before the so-called Chicago race riot, black voters had put their preferred candidate over the top in the heated mayoral election.

The great northern migration of black people was cast as an invasion then, just as the great northern migration of Latino people is cast as an invasion today. The “New Negro” stood for “absolute and unequivocal social equality” then, just as the New Antiracist stands for absolute and unequivocal racial equity today. Angry and fearful whites marched with the Ku Klux Klan then, just as angry and fearful whites flock to the rallies of Donald Trump today. On Memorial Day 1927, 1,000 white-robed Klansmen marched through the neighborhood where I would grow up six decades later—Jamaica, Queens. Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was arrested for “refusing to disperse from a parade.” The Klansmen claimed to be defending their white supremacy.

In 1919, black people had to defend themselves all year long from white lynch mobs in more than two dozen cities across the country. The first white lynch mob that year tipped off in April in Jenkins County, Georgia, due to “a deep-seated envy and animosity toward a few thrifty and industrious Negroes,” according to a local black paper. But most of the lynch mobs rose up during that Red Summer of 1919. The lynch mob, today, is again reddening an American summer.

Americans should shudder at the thought of an assault rifle in the hands of a white supremacist as they shudder at the memory of the lynch mobs of white supremacists. The carnage of yesterday is today—and it seems never ending. Lynch mobs terrorized Americans for nearly 100 years. How long will these new lynch mobs of one terrorize Americans?

Moved by the victims of gun violence, antiracists are struggling, unsuccessfully, to ban the assault rifle today and control the flow of guns—just as they struggled, unsuccessfully, to ban the lynch mob a century ago. Moved by the National Rifle Association, racists are struggling, successfully, to defend the assault rifle today as they struggled, successfully, to defend the lynch mob a century ago.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922, just as in February of this year, the House passed H.R. 8 to enact universal background checks for all gun purchases. But filibustering segregationist senators blocked anti-lynching legislation for decades, while today Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking H.R. 8 from receiving a vote despite overwhelming bipartisan support.

No one in Chicago’s lynch mobs wrote a manifesto to explain an attack in 1919. If someone had, then it would have resembled the manifesto linked to Crusius. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me,” it said. “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” Swapping out Hispanic for black and Texas for Chicago, the 1919 manifesto would have read: “This attack is a response to the black invasion of Chicago. They are the instigators, not me.”

The lynch mob of many and the lynch mob of one are formed of the same racist logic. Protect white supremacy. Crusius wrote at length about “losing Texas and a few other states with heavy Hispanic population to the Democrats,” which would allow them “to win nearly every presidential election.” Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman defended the lynch mob on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 23, 1900. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man.”

At the time, lynch mobs were snatching the political and economic power of African Americans, justifying the carnage by also claiming, “We will not submit to [the Negro’s] lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him,” as Tillman did in the same speech. But as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells had already written in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.”

The threadbare lie energizing the lynch mob today is that the Latinos are invading, the Muslims are terrorizing, the Jews are exploiting, and the blacks are infesting—the threadbare lie of Trumpism is that these groups “will hasten the destruction of our country,” to use the El Paso shooter’s words. Instead of viewing these threadbare lies on the big screen through The Birth of a Nation, which was shown at the White House in 1915, the potential lynch mobs of one are viewing them on the little screen, watching Fox News, which is shown at the White House today.

Instead of reading these threadbare lies in Madison Grant’s 1916 bestseller, The Passing of the Great Race—later translated into German, after which it found a fan in Adolf Hitler—the potential lynch mob is reading them on 8chan and other online klaverns. Less than an hour before the carnage in El Paso, the manifesto linked to Crusius was uploaded to 8chan’s unmoderated message board with a request: “Do your part and spread this brothers!”

Today as yesterday, the state does little to crack down on the institutional and actual public bodies promulgating racist ideas. Then and now, the state calls the peal of white supremacy “free speech.” Democrats defend the freedom of public officials to broadcast this speech with the First Amendment as vociferously as Republicans defend the freedom to buy assault rifles with the Second Amendment. Democrats blast Republicans, even as they ignore that contradiction.

A century ago, the state hardly ever investigated and cracked down on white supremacists bound to become lynch mobs, because that would mean investigating the Klan-dominated party of the Klan-adoring president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Today, “the FBI is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white supremacist movement,” says Dave Gomez, who formerly supervised terrorism cases at the bureau. “There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base.”

But there are importance differences between the old lynch mob of many and today’s lynch mob of one. Police officers and public officials do not customarily participate in today’s lynch mob like they used to. Tillman participated prominently in the Hamburg and Ellenton massacres in South Carolina during the violent election year of 1876. Future Chicago Mayor Richard Daley allegedly joined the white lynch mobs in Chicago in 1919.

Back then, law-enforcement officers looked away from, if they didn’t participate in, the mass murder of bodies and economic lives. Their implicit sanction upped the death toll and the amount of stolen black wealth. Breaking black bodies was not, in practice, breaking the law. It was a time when “anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind,” to quote from Toni Morrison’s masterwork, Beloved. None of the white attackers in Chicago in 1919 were ever punished.

But Betts was quickly killed by Dayton law enforcement. Crusius was apprehended and charged with capital murder, and Texas is seeking the death penalty. When the lynch mob of one fires on Americans these days, law enforcement usually responds as swiftly as it can to stop the slaughter, arresting or even killing the perpetrator. Today’s lynch mob usually meets the stone face of justice. That is the hopeful news, the antiracist progress in all of this slaughter.

Today’s one-man lynch mob is easier to stop. But it is harder to prevent than the old lynch mob of many. That is the disheartening news, the racist progress in all of this slaughter.

Empowered by the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant sent federal marshals and troops into South Carolina to break up the Klan. The Klan requires the coordinated acts of many individuals to be a ready-made lynch mob. Coordinating lines can be cut. Financial resources can be seized. Leaders can be arrested. Meetinghouses can be raided.

Today, no white-supremacist organization is needed for a ready-made lynch mob. No false rumor is needed. There is no need to assemble a large group of coordinated white supremacists. Any young white male can become enraged listening to Trump’s racist ideas, or reading the racist messages on 8chan. Any young white male can become the raging lynch mob, the next Crusius. All that’s needed is an assault rifle, and the assault rifle of racist ideas—two weapons of war manufactured, offered for sale, and bought legally and easily in the United States of America.

With racist ideas so widespread, with so many Americans in denial about racist ideas, with “Send her back” chants so audible, with guns more numerous than people, it is hard to know when to raise a red flag on family members and ask a judge to seize their guns. State-level red-flag laws have reduced gun-related suicides—an acute problem among white males—but not necessarily mass murders.

It is hard to know who will be the lynch mob until he pulls the trigger. And the lynch mob is so instant these days. A minute later, a dozen people, including him, can be dead.

The lynch mob of one is harder to prevent than the lynch mob of many, but it is not impossible to prevent. Preventing today’s lynch mob involves removing the assault rifle from his hands and the rifle of racist ideas from his mind.

Take the case of the El Paso shooter. Crusius lamented the economic and political power of corporate America—its unchecked march to automate. “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist. The job of my dreams will likely be automated.” But if he had learned to be antiracist, then he would have realized the great truth in America’s racial and economic history—that the racial polarization of the working classes has disempowered people like him and empowered the very “elites that run corporations” he so loathes.

If he had learned to be antiracist, then he would notice how immigration actually boosts wages and creates more jobs (and as a white male, he’d be at the front of the line to benefit). Indeed, the job of his dreams in Texas would have likely been the result of the very Latino immigrants he wanted to mass murder. Being racist suspended him from reality, and he ended up targeting his own livelihood in targeting Latino immigrants. Being antiracist brings Americans back to reality.

As an antiracist, he could have banded together with Latino Americans in the same social movement, in the same political party, fought with them for corporate regulations and more worker power, fought with them for the right to organize unions, and wielded those unions, parties, and movements instead of the assault rifle to achieve economic security, to save the people of the state and country he claims to love.

Antiracism and banning assault rifles could have saved Crusius—and most important, his 22 precious victims. If we are not struggling to ban and seize every assault rifle in America, if we are not struggling to control the flow of guns, if we are not promoting antiracism, if we are not striving to be antiracist ourselves, then what the hell are we doing in our lives to save life?

Banning assault rifles is literally a life-or-death conversation. So too is antiracism. Racism is death. Antiracism is life.