The white mobs didn’t care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.
It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The “red” referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The “summer” actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.
In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country’s wealthiest African American community (“Black Wall Street,” as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.
During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.
Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.
White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they’re gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.
According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” More than 40% agree that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.” In a recent essay on his survey’s findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism “has a substantial negative effect on Republicans’ commitment to democracy.”
As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of “their mobs” and “Antifa terrorists” to drive its base to the polls. “We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities,” tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: “I’m the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos.”
Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conductedtwo ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme “All Lives Splatter” around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.
The prospect of far-right vigilantes or “militias” heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. “Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020,” reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe — however incorrectly — that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives.”
As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.
When Donald Trump paints a picture of lawlessness sweeping through the United States, he’s effectively accusing the institutions of government of not doing their jobs. In a September 2nd memo, the Trump administration laid out its charges:
“For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance.”
As president, Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for anything, not the more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, not the pandemic-induced economic collapse, and certainly not the racial injustices that prompted this summer’s wave of protests. Simultaneously above the law and outside it, the president consistently portrays himself as a populist leader who must battle the elite and its “deep state.” With conspiracy-tinged tirades about Democrat-run cities failing to enforce the law, he has already symbolically put himself at the head of a mob — for this is just how such groups justified their extra-legal actions throughout our history.
The right-wing racists who currently bear arms in defense of the president are part of a long tradition of Americans resorting to vigilantism when they believe the law is not protecting their interests. Whether it was the displacement and massacre of Native Americans, the horrors that slaveowners inflicted on African Americans, the wave of lynching that followed Reconstruction, the bloodletting of Red Summer around World War I, the murders conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist organizations, or even everyday resistance to federal policies like school desegregation, gangs of Americans have repeatedly taken the law into their own hands on behalf of white supremacy.
To be sure, mobs are hardly responsible for all the racist ills of this country. America has always been a place of institutional racism and violence. Slavery, after all, was legal until 1865. The U.S. government and its military did the bulk of the dispossessing of Native Americans. Police departments cooperated early on with the Ku Klux Klan and today’s police officers continue to kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Mobs have eagerly cooperated with state institutions on the basis of shared racism. But they have also stood at the ready to enforce the dictates of white supremacy even when the police and other guardians of order treat everyone equally before the law.
The mob has occupied an unusually prominent place in our history because Americans have cultivated a unique hostility toward the state and its institutions that goes back to the early years of the Republic. As historian Michael Pfeifer notes in his groundbreaking book, The Roots of Rough Justice, the violent libertarianism associated with the American Revolution and the subsequent lack of a strong, centralized state gave rise to mob violence that gathered force before the Civil War. He writes,
“Antebellum advocates of vigilantism in the Midwest, South, and West drew on Anglo-American and American revolutionary traditions of community violence that suggested that citizens might reclaim the functions of government when legal institutions could not provide sufficient protections to persons or their property.”
Those mobs didn’t necessarily think of themselves as anti-democratic. Rather, they imagined that they were improving on democracy. As Pfeifer points out, many of the vigilante outfits that targeted minorities practiced democratic procedures of a sort. Some adopted bylaws and even elected their own leaders. They held mock trials and votes on what punishments to mete out: hanging or burning alive.
Such mobs functioned both as a parallel military and, to a certain extent, a parallel state.
The two, in fact, went hand in hand. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, but that was the German tradition. In the United States, particularly during its first 150 years, the state only aspired to possess such a monopoly.
Instead, a rough form of frontier justice often prevailed. Before and just after the American Revolution, even whites were its targets, but increasingly its victims were people of color. Slave owners, slave patrols, and ad hoc mobs dispensed justice throughout antebellum America and the tradition of “Judge Lynch” continued long after the abolition of slavery. The pushing of the frontier westward involved not only the Army’s killing of Native Americans but extrajudicial violence by bands of settlers. Historian Benjamin Madley estimates that the Native population in California declined by more than 80% between 1846 and 1873, with as many as 16,000 killings in 370-plus massacres. This “winning” of the West also involved the widespread lynching of Latinos.
The “Right” to Bear Arms
Mobs were able to dispense frontier justice not only thanks to a strong libertarian tradition and a weak state, but also because of the widespread availability of guns. Coming out of the Civil War, this country developed a distinct gun culture sustained by a surge in firearm production. Gun prices fell and so guns fell into the hands of more and more citizens.
Mobs used firearms in the infamous Draft Riot in New York in 1863, which ended up targeting the city’s Black community, and in New Orleans in 1866 when enraged whites attacked a meeting of Republicans determined to extend civil rights protections to African Americans. In their drive westward, settlers favored Winchester rifles with magazines that could fire 15 rounds, giving them a staggering advantage over the people they were displacing. Early gun control laws seldom prevented whites from acquiring firearms because they were mainly designed to keep guns out of the hands of Blacks and other racial minorities.
Even today, widespread gun ownership distinguishes the United States from every other country. Approximately 40% of American households own one or more firearms, a figure that has remained remarkably consistent for the last 50 years. If you look at guns per capita, the United States ranks number one in the world at 120 firearms per 100 civilians. The next country on the list, war-torn Yemen, comes in a distant second with 52 per hundred. With more guns than people within its borders, it’s no wonder that the federal government has often struggled to maintain its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.
Gun enthusiasts have erroneously enlisted the Constitution to justify this extreme democracy of firepower. To guard against tyrannical federal behavior, the Second Amendment of the Constitution preserved the right of state militias to bear arms. However, organizations like the National Rifle Association have campaigned for years to reinterpret that amendment as giving any individual the right to bear arms.
That has, in turn, provided ammunition for both the “castle doctrine” (the right to use armed force to defend one’s own home) and “stand your ground” laws (the right to use force in “self-defense”). Armed extremist groups now imagine themselves as nothing less than the Second Amendment’s “well-regulated Militia” with a constitutionally given “right” to own weapons and defend themselves against the federal government (or anyone else they disapprove of).
Improbably enough, for the last four years, the head of the federal government has become one of their chief supporters.
Donald Trump: Leader of the Pack
Long before becoming president, Donald Trump was already acting as if he were the head of a lynch mob. In 1989, he published full-page ads in the New York Times and three other local papers calling for New York City to reinstate the death penalty in response to a brutal gang rape in Central Park. He sworethat the city was then “ruled by the law of the streets” and that “muggers and murderers… should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
It was language distinctly reminiscent of white mobs bitter about the failure of local law enforcement to execute Blacks accused of crimes. Like many of their predecessors, the accused Black and Latino teenagers were, in the end, found to be quite innocent of the crime. After a long legal struggle, the Central Park Five (as they came to be known) were released from prison. Trump has never apologized for his campaign to kill innocent people.
When he ran for president, he quickly moved beyond mere “law and order” rhetoric. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump deliberately cultivated a following among armed extremists. At a rally in North Carolina, for instance, he warned of what might happen to the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton were to win.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he lamented. Then he added in his typically confused and elliptical manner of speaking: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.” He was, in other words, suggesting that followers with guns could do something about Clinton’s choices by shooting her or her judicial picks.
Throughout that campaign season, he regularly retweeted white supremacist claims and memes. At the time, it was estimated that more than 60% of the accounts he was retweeting had links to white supremacists. At his rallies, he encouraged his supporters to get “rough” with protesters.
As president, he’s continued to side with the mob. He infamously refused to denounce neo-Nazis gathering in Charlottesville in August 2017, applauded the armed demonstrators who demanded the reopening of the economy in the pandemic spring of 2020, and defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.
Trump has stood up for the Confederate flag, Confederate statues, and keeping the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases. In a recent speech denouncing school curricula that teach about slavery and other unsavory aspects of our history, he pledged to erect a statue of a slaveowner in a project he’s been promoting — building a National Garden of American Heroes park. The current administration has cultivated direct links to white nationalists through disgraced figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, as well as current advisers like Stephen Miller.
In his reelection bid, Trump pointedly held his first pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he excoriated Democrats who “want to take away your guns through the repeal of your Second Amendment” and “left-wing radicals [who] burn down buildings, loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers.” In a literal whitewashing of history, he made no mention of the White mobs that had looted businesses and destroyed property in that very city in 1921.
Trump’s exhortations to his followers over the heads of state and local officials appeal to the mob belief that citizens must reclaim the functions of government, if necessary through force. Right-wing militias explicitly embrace that history. The “Three Percenters,” a militia movement that emerged in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, purports to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Their name derives from the inaccurate belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British empire in the eighteenth century.
Of course, three percent of Americans are not now members of such militias and White nationalist movements, but their numbers are on the rise. White nationalist groups increased from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. The several hundred militia groups now in existence probably have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members, including an increasing number of veterans with combat experience. Far from a homogeneous force, some are focused on patrolling the southern border and targeting the undocumented. Others are obsessed with resisting the federal government, even in a few cases opposing Trump’s various power grabs.
West Virginia University professor John Temple argues, in fact, that not all right-wing militias hold extremist views. “I have listened to many hours of ‘patriot’ conversations that didn’t sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News,” he writes. “Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose — not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans.”
This is not exactly reassuring, since the politics of right-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans have grown more extreme. With nearly half of the Republicans surveyed by Larry Bartels prepared to take the law into their own hands, Trump has nearly succeeded in transforming his party into a mob of vigilantes.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the president is a law-and-order candidate. He flourishes in chaos and routinely flouts the law. By siding with right-wing militias and their ilk, he daily undermines the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.
The debate over defunding the police must be seen in this context. In a country awash in guns and grassroots racism, with a major party flirting with mob violence, getting rid of police departments would be akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of uncontained extremism. Sure, local law enforcement needs major reforms, massive civic oversight, and right-sized budgets. Police departments must be purged of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The Pentagon has to stop supplying the cops with military-grade weaponry.
But remember: the police can be reformed. What was once an all-white force now better reflects America’s diversity. The mob, by definition, is not subject to reforms or any oversight whatsoever.
This is no time to permit the return of frontier justice administered by white mobs and a lawless president, especially with a critical election looming. Mob violence has often accompanied elections in the past, with rival factions fighting over the results, as in the street battles of 1874 in New Orleans between Republican integrationists and racist Democrats. Like nineteenth-century Louisiana, the struggle this November is not just about Democrats versus Republicans. It’s about the rule of law versus racist vigilantism.
White supremacy is not going to give up its hold on power without a fight. If you thought you’d seen real American carnage in Trump’s four years in office, prepare yourself for the chaotic aftermath of the November election. The mob is itching to take the law into its own hands one more time on behalf of its very own mobster-in-chief.
This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.