by Mara Hvistendahl, Alleen Brown
Part 2 - A History of Collaboration
The United States has a long history of vigilantes working with police and government officials to oppress Black and Indigenous people. As European Americans violently settled Indigenous territories, the U.S. government offered rewards for the scalps of those they sought to displace. In the Jim Crow South, violent mobs lynched thousands of Black Americans, often advertising the killings in the newspaper ahead of time. Police sometimes attended, and many of the victims were political activists.
“There’s a very close connection historically between the police and vigilantes in the United States,” said Noël Cazenave, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut and author of “Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.” Vigilante mobs tend to flare up in reaction to a perceived increase in the power held by Black people, he said. In the Jim Crow South, the trigger was abolition; today it is the movement for Black lives. “Such violence is a way of keeping Black people in ‘their place,’” Cazenave added.
That close relationship has endured. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s election, militia and anti-government groups proliferated. One prominent group, the Oath Keepers, is made up of current and former military and law enforcement members who believe they have a duty to protect citizens from tyrannical U.S. government actions, such as confiscating guns. A 2017 investigation by The Intercept revealed a classified FBI counterterrorism guide that stated, “Domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers.”
In April and May, with Trump’s encouragement, many groups began organizing around the issue of reopening the economy amid lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “The reopen protests became a recruiting ground for these folks to start coming together and concocting more horrific plots,” said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Burghart draws a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric and the appearance of far-right groups and white vigilantes at Black Lives Matter protests. “They are in many respects echoing the words that they hear coming from the president,” he said.
After a police officer murdered Floyd on Memorial Day, protests broke out across the U.S., some involving extensive property damage and looting. In the early morning hours of May 29, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” calling Minneapolis protesters “THUGS.” As the protests endured, he blamed chaos on antifa and the “radical left” and stated that he would be designating antifa a “terrorist organization,” a dubious claim considering that antifa is not an organization, and the U.S. government has no mechanism to designate domestic groups as “terrorist organizations.”
Nevertheless, Attorney General William Barr chimed in. “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda,” he claimed. “The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
In the days that followed, rumors flourished on social media that busloads of antifa actors were headed to small communities across the U.S. The rumors were repeatedly proven to be false. Twitter suspended an account that claimed to be run by antifa supporters but turned out to be associated with the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.
But the damage was already done. “Virtually everywhere major counterprotests emerged over the last two weeks, they involved reaction to rumors and speculation about antifa based on disinformation spread through social media and other online platforms,” said Ross. In many communities, police and public officials encouraged the pushback.