“Favor and Affection:” From Glynn County, Georgia to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Police/Vigilante Collusion is a Far Bigger Story Than The Verdicts

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In late November, Jackie Johnson, the District Attorney in the Arbery murder case, was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for showing “favor and affection” toward the murderers. 

No wonder it took over 70 days for the killers to be arrested. No wonder it took a public campaign to even bring the case to trial. Sure, the guilty verdict against the three murderers gives us some basic accountability but justice? Not yet. For justice, we need to expose and abolish the police/vigilante alliance. The indictment of Johnson is a step in the right direction.

According to detailed coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a pattern of immunity for police-involved killings had already been established. The murders saw themselves as patrolling their neighborhood in lieu of regular police. And, they enjoyed a special relationship with authorities which the charges against Johnson accurately describe as “favor and affection.” In fact, Johnson had previously worked with ex-cop Greg McMichael. It was a classic cop/vigilante alliance.

Johnson was released on her “own recognizance.” She did not have to pay the bail so routinely used to control Black, Brown, and working-class suspects. The waiver of bail implies that Johnson is no threat to public safety. But this the second time she was on the wrong side of a police shooting. In 2010 Caroline Small an unarmed Black woman was killed by police. Johnson intervened clearing the police of any wrongdoing. The claims of misconduct — possibly criminal — against her in Small’s death were raised by former Glynn County prosecutors. She sure sounds like a menace to public safety to me. 

Johnson will be tried for the crime of telling police officers that no crime had occurred and instructing them to lay off the shooters. George E. Barnhill, her friendly neighboring DA also concluded that no crime had been committed. In an official letter, Barnhill wrote, “We do not see grounds for the arrest of any of the three parties.” Is this a criminal conspiracy or just the default mode of a racist, classist penal system?

Greg McMichael, the former cop, and now convicted murderer, and his son the convicted shooter would not have been so willing to be cop, judge, jury, and executioner had they not been accustomed to the protections and immunities usually granted to police and their allies. 

Kenosha: The Verdict Was A Sideshow

When is the other shoe going to drop in Kenosha? The Kenosha police had hundreds of regular officers under their command and the help of 40 different police agencies it could have counted on but instead relied on an armed group of militia and vigilantes to do their dirty work. 

Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha politician and self-styled “commander” of the “Kenosha Guard” circulated a call to action on Facebook recruiting would-be vigilantes to oppose the protesters. Did the police counteract the command from a militia leader? No, but, the police did use, “rubber” bullets, tear gas, flash-bang grenades and armored vehicles to drive protestors into the hands of the vigilantes — including their most famous pawn Rittenhouse. “Kettling” has become a common police tactic.

The cops showed “favor and affection” to the vigilantes (as is consistent with the historical pattern) so they could wash their hands of the violence and let their allies take the heat. But in truth, the cops did everything but pull the trigger themselves.

And, if you think police do not commit crimes take a look at the recent bombshell report covered by Forbes that found the FBI, DEA, and ATF had authorized 22,800 crimes for their informants between 2011-2014. While the overlap between informants and vigilantes is unknown, the long-standing relationship between the FBI and Enrique Torres, the leader of the Proud Boys is a telling example.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

Lacking the broader context of vigilantism, a number of left-leaning commentators and journalists went astray. They were eager to distinguish themselves from corporate media’s inflammatory treatment of Rittenhouse, which they saw as divisive and distracting. But, they gave in to the media’s single greatest power: the ability to determine what is newsworthy and what is not. Police/vigilante collusion was not on the corporate news agenda — the courtroom drama was.

It is far, far better to be the authors of our own narratives than critics of the existing ones.

While many journalists were obsessed with the details of the case they were all but silent about the much bigger story that unfolded in Kenosha, in Minneapolis, in Portland, and in other cities. The story of police and their vigilante allies has everything to do with how the ruling class rules. White supremacy is more than bad attitudes or who shot who — its most powerful forms are systematic and routine.

If the left was more grounded in grassroots organizing and less on media commentary, this kind of mistake — missing the forest for the trees — would not happen so easily nor be faithfully repeated by so many well-meaning people. 

What the left media should have said is that the legal system,  is broken. We have a penal system for Black, Brown, and working-class people and a justice system to protect the chosen few. 

Margaret Kimberly captures it clearly in Black Agenda Report:

“Of course an armed Black man would not have been warmly greeted by law enforcement as Rittenhouse was in Kenosha. Nor would a Black person be able to fatally shoot two people and then leave the scene without being arrested. A claim of self-defense in a situation brought about by the perpetrator placing himself in a situation where his presence created a danger would not be permitted. Black people rarely find friendly judges as Rittenhouse did. All of these observations are valid, but they are no more true for Rittenhouse than in hundreds of other cases across the country.”

Inequality before the law is one more form of inequality that is woven into the fabric of American politics. Wealth and political inequality have reached epic proportions. The system has put far more effort into protecting the rights of corporations than the rights of living breathing people.

The left-leaning defense of the Rittenhouse verdict claimed their stand was principled. But, self-defense, right to a trial of your peers, due process: these are only actual legal principles in a system where everyone – rich and poor, black and white, powerful and powerless — have equal protection under the law. That is clearly not the case.  

What should be universal rights for all instead regularly functions as privileges — the property of those that serve power. Many acted as if the kind of justice Rittenhouse received could be applied universally. Without sweeping social change, that is an illusion. 

Did we forget that twenty million people marched to protest the fact that police routinely deny these rights by too often acting as cop, judge, jury, and executioner? Police continue to kill on average 1,000 people and wound 3,000 more every year. Approximately 95% of state crimes and 97% of federal crimes never go to court. So much for our right to a trial. The penal system very efficiently metes out punishment and the US has the largest prison population in the world to show for it. 

But, when a police ally — a vigilante — is caught killing or wounding, the heavy-handed penal system suddenly switches gears and becomes a noble “justice” system with all the trappings of due process and trial by jury. Rittenhouse’s innocent verdict is not truly in keeping with due process or rule of law but illustrates how the system works to protect some while punishing others. 

Yes, in Georgia the verdict was correct but that was the result of public video evidence and public pressure. Left to their own devices the system’s agents might have covered it up as was successfully done with the murder of Caroline Small. 

Why is the cop/vigilante connection far more important than the verdict in any one case? Individual trials are episodes that set an uncertain legal precedent while the cop/vigilante alliance is a structural feature of policing with deep historical roots reaching back to slavery. It is also evidence of a tyrannical police state that extends from the front-line police to the 18 secret police forces we euphemistically call “the intelligence community.”

This unholy alliance also lies at the heart of Jan. 6 and no government investigation will ever uncover a conspiracy for insurrection because that would mean revealing the police/vigilante collusion that goes right to the top.

These forces — top to bottom — are hostile to our human and political rights and part of the reason the old Constitution is dead as a doornail. We abandoned the rule of law long ago and we will not recover it easily. 

The “favor and affection” between the penal system and its vigilante allies carry the threat of fascism far beyond the courtroom dramas of Kenosha and Glynn County. It is as dangerous as the other tendencies pushing us toward despotic rule: neofascist gangs, the merger of corporation and state, white supremacy, censorship and propaganda, austerity, mass incarceration, the collapse of meaningful elections, and other authoritarian measures championed by both major parties and the corporate elites. 

Richard Moser writes at befreedom.co where this article first appeared.