Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot three white people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Travis and Gregory McMichael felt the need to attempt a citizen’s arrest and murdered Ahmaud Arbery because, of course, the Black man jogging less than two miles from his house must have been the same burglary suspect they’d heard rumors about.
While the results of each trial were very different, both the acquittal of Rittenhouse and the fact that Arbery was murdered in the first place demonstrate how the United States’ penal system not only legitimizes, but protects and encourages the right of white people to violently self-deputize.
I’d argue the general leniency afforded to the McMichaels and Rittenhouses of this country — white people who take up arms in “self-defense” — is a lasting impact of the politics of American slavery.
Historically, whiteness in the U.S. has come with a certain set of benefits, particularly in contrast with Blackness: Higher economic returns in the short and long-term, different rules for social engagement, and, most topically, the validation of white frustration that becomes white violence — especially when it comes to “protecting” white people, white spaces and white property. Rittenhouse was “protecting” businesses from demonstrators, and the McMichaels were “protecting” their space against a scary Black man.
The very nature of these self-defense laws in the U.S. make it so that white people are afforded ample room to decide what feeling “threatened” or “under duress” looks like for them. In the case of people such as George Zimmerman, the McMichaels and countless others, simply seeing a Black man walking around in their neighborhood was threatening enough to entertain murder.
The ability to then take that feeling and use it to legitimize committing gruesome acts against often underrepresented people is still only reserved for white men — and so is the ability to have those fears acknowledged and supported inside the court of law, and celebrated outside of it.
Rittenhouse’s trial result was slightly less surprising to me than the McMichaels’. While Rittenhouse had an expensive legal team, minor celebrity status, and been typecast as a “true patriot,” it seemed like the state of Georgia was doing everything in its power to make sure the McMichaels got away with effectively lynching Arbery in broad daylight.
For starters, Gregory McMichael was a former long-time officer for the Glynn County Police Department, which had jurisdiction over the investigation. The head prosecutor, Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the investigation because of her past work with McMichael. A second prosecutor, George Barnhill, took over, then determined there was insufficient cause to arrest the McMichaels due to self-defense, and then finally recused himself once the Arbery family found out his son had worked for the Brunswick district attorney.
It wasn’t until a graphic video of the killing was released in May for arrests to be made. It took over two months after the murder of a Black man for the wheels of justice to even get started — and the jury was almost all white.
This is what I mean when I say the state encourages and protects white vigilantism and racist “self-defense” killings. While these “whataboutisms” can feel useless and obvious, if two Black men chased and shot down a white man out for a jog, I think we all know damn well it would take less than two months for arrests to be made. The McMichaels would’ve gone about their lives comfortably if those two prosecutors hadn’t recused themselves, and Rittenhouse will likely have a solid following of Proud Boy wannabes and Trump coattail riders for the rest of his life.
I’d be lying if these patterns of white violence weren’t scary to me. I think this all happens way too casually, especially when it comes to the way white people justify their own actions with self-defense. I first felt this fear when Zimmerman was acquitted and have felt it more acutely since the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Even worse, the same system that allowed Rittenhouse and the McMichaels to conduct violence in the first place is the same one our Democratic politicians still seem to have faith in.
It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s at a protest, a gas station or a quiet southern neighborhood: The state still allows white people to pull up to an event with a gun and let it off the second they feel “threatened.” This supreme violence all too often results in Black suffering.
The “white vigilante” has been a cultural figure for my entire life. If the U.S. is serious about handling this kind of structural racism — granted right now, they are laughably unserious — then some kind of material change needs to be made to self-defense and/or citizen’s arrest laws to dissuade white men from playing sheriff. Black people are dying, and we’re running out of diplomatic options.
Malcolm Ferguson is a community planning master’s graduate student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.