the right

The United States of Vigilantes

Photo: Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK

Daniel Perry was ready for a confrontation. In Facebook messages, the Texas-based U.S. Army sergeant told friends he “might go to Dallas to shoot looters” and “​​​​might have to kill a few people on my way to work they are rioting outside my apartment complex.” Online, he searched for terms such as “protest tonight” and “protesters in Seattle get shot” and “riot shootouts.” On July 25, 2020, Perry, a white man, was driving for Uber when he drove his car into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in Austin. One protester, a white Air Force veteran named Garrett Foster, approached Perry’s car while legally carrying an AK-47. Perry shot and killed him.

Although Perry claimed self-defense in keeping with the state’s sweeping “Stand Your Ground” law, witnesses said Foster never raised his rifle. Prosecutors argued that Perry simply “couldn’t keep his anger under control,” and on April 7, a jury found him guilty of murder. But Perry’s conviction might not stand for long. Perry has not yet been sentenced, but the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has already said he intends to pardon Perry for his crime. “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand your ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or progressive district attorney,” Abbott said in a statement. “I will work as swiftly as Texas law allows regarding the pardon of Sgt. Perry.” On April 12, days after the verdict had been announced, the New York Times reported that investigators hired by Perry’s legal team had visited some jurors at their homes in an effort to show that they had “relied improperly on information not presented during the trial.”

The Austin American-Statesman reported that the Board of Pardons and Paroles must review the conviction and issue a recommendation to Abbott before he can issue a pardon. Abbott appoints the board’s members, and he perhaps assumes he can influence the board’s proceedings. “It’s what happens in Uganda or El Salvador,” a defense attorney who wasn’t involved in the Perry case told the American-Statesman. Don’t expect Abbott to care. Elements of the Republican Party are embracing vigilante violence with dire implications for its future and the safety of its opponents.

Abbott seeks to appease the far right. Tucker Carlson called Perry’s conviction “a legal atrocity” and invited Abbott to discuss a potential pardon on his Fox News show. To Carlson and his viewers, Perry may be the next Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three protesters and killed two in 2020. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the killings, became something of a hero to the right. After a jury acquitted him of murder, Carlson interviewed Rittenhouse and called him “a sweet kid.” He met former president Donald Trump and appeared at events for Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization. Rittenhouse may see something of himself in Perry. On Twitter, he called on Abbott “to step in and do the right thing.”

Rittenhouse and Perry weren’t alone in their vigilantism. According to Vox, there were 72 incidents of drivers ramming crowds of protesters during the height of the George Floyd protests from May 27 through July 7, 2020, alone. Drivers had powerful allies too. Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, a Republican, signed a bill that granted immunity to drivers who struck or killed a person if they were “fleeing from a riot … under a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death.” In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a similar bill into law. These laws make it much more dangerous to protest — and that’s exactly the point. The right wants to intimidate, punish, and even kill those who oppose it.

A deep history links conservatives to vigilante violence, though they sometimes deny it. Abortion providers know this well. By the time Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller in 2009, the Wichita-based Tiller had already been subject to death threats, a clinic bombing, and a shooting that wounded him in both arms. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly regularly called him “Tiller the Baby Killer” and said the doctor “had blood on his hands.” O’Reilly later condemned Tiller’s murder but defended his own language. The Christian right walked a similar line. In public, it distanced itself from Roeder, but it did not change its rhetoric, and some activists reportedly sympathized with the murderer. “The credit is going to go to him,” Mark Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life, told the New York Times. “There are people who are agreeing with him.” This was a familiar situation for the Christian right. Anti-abortion activists had marked the 1998 murder of another abortion provider, Dr. Barnett Slepian, with clinic protests despite the risk of further violence.

When vigilantes stalked Black Americans in the Jim Crow South, they did so with the help of powerful white conservatives. The 1899 lynching of Sam Hose painfully illustrates the complicity of elite whites who opposed racial progress. Hose, a Georgia man, had killed his white employer in self-defense and fled, knowing he would not receive a fair trial. The employer’s family later accused him of raping his employer’s wife, which further inflamed the lynch mob. The charge was a fabrication, as was typical. “The man wouldn’t pay him, so they got into a fight, and the man got killed — and then, in order to arouse the neighborhood to find this man, they brought in the charge of rape,” W.E.B. Du Bois would later write, according to Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. The press whipped the mob up further by imagining brutal fates for Hose. Georgia’s governor, a conservative Democrat named Allen D. Candler, offered a $500 reward for his capture. After authorities captured Hose, a mob kidnapped him from jail, tortured him, burned him alive, and fought over his remains. Candler would only attack Black Americans for not helping locate Hose. In Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, the late historian Leon F. Litwack quotes Candler as saying it was “deplorable” that Black Americans decried the lynching without acknowledging Hose’s “diabolical crime.” Subsequent investigations found that Hose had never entered his employer’s home or assaulted the man’s wife.

Although mobs no longer burn men at the stake, vigilante violence still threatens Black Americans in particular. They can hardly count on the police for aid. Police forces across the country have been infiltrated by white-supremacist elements. Officers commit extrajudicial killings for which there is rarely justice. As the journalist Ida B. Wells wrote in response to the murder of Hose, “The charge is generally made that lynch law is condemned by the best white people of the South, and that lynching is the work of the lowest and lawless class. Those who seek the truth know the fact to be that all classes are equally guilty, for what the one class does the other encourages, excuses and condones.” That basic dynamic is still at work in the United States. Black Americans are uniquely endangered by it, but it threatens anyone who crosses the right.

When men like Perry can kill with impunity, no one is safe. There will be other killings that Carlson will excuse and conservatives in power will condone. At stake is the right to protest and more: human life, even democracy itself. The streets are one front in a much bigger war.

Daniel Perry Is a Vigilante With Friends