Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Return Of The Vigilance Committee

     Matters are coming to a head:

     Three Philadelphia police officers riding in an unmarked car were checking on a man on a bike when he pulled out a gun and fired at them before a second shooter joined the fray, setting off a gun battle that saw two officers briefly hospitalized, police said.

     The 14th District officers, two men and one woman, were driving down the 1400 block of Sharpnack Street, in the Cedarbrook section of the East Mount Airy neighborhood, when the first gunman pulled up next to them on his bike around 8 p.m. Friday, Philadelphia Police Department Sgt. Eric Gripp said.

     The officer driving the car rolled down his window to check on the man when he suddenly pulled out a gun and started shooting, causing the officer to pull off Sharpnack Street and onto Fayette Street, where he crashed the car into a fence, Gripp said.

     The first gunman kept firing after the officers crashed, striking their vehicle multiple times, with one bullet piercing the car door, going through the seat and hitting the driving officer in the back, Gripp said. The officer’s bulletproof vest saved him, the sergeant added.

     As the cyclist kept shooting, the officers were able to get out of the car and return fire, but that’s when a second shooter further down the street joined in and also rained bullets on the officers, placing them in a crossfire, Gripp said.

     If it went as reported, this seems to have been a “hit:” a planned and coordinated two-person assassination attempt on the Philadelphia police. It’s not the first such attack in recent weeks, though reports of previous attacks on the police have generally not spoken of multiple attackers.

     Glenn Reynolds, not given to excesses of sentiment, opines thus:

     So at what point, faced with assassination attempts, do the police go rogue and form their own death squads to neutralize their enemies? That’s what generally happens in corrupt third-world polities, which is what our Democrat-run cities are becoming.

     One of Glenn’s commenters expands on his thought:

     [I]t WILL NOT create support for gun confiscation. It will, slowly, support the formation of "Societies of Vigilance", in which "law enforcement" is fast and certain, but perhaps at the cost of "justice". Because if I can't call the police to remove a live criminal from my property, I'll call the coroner to remove a dead criminal from my property.

     And indeed, a return of the vigilance committee of the 19th Century West is looking very good.

     Vigilance committees, whence we get the pseudo-pejorative vigilante, are of course disparaged, even condemned, in the official histories of the United States. The term of opprobrium most often attached to them is private justice, which is intended to imply that when justice is privatized it ceases to be just. But is that truly the case?

     Yes, some of the vigilance committees of yore did commit excesses. However, the committees arose in response to a need that would not have existed were the “official” mechanisms of justice in those places and times honest and responsive. In The Enterprise of Law, his massive survey of justice systems outside of State control and sanction, Bruce Benson of the Pacific Legal Foundation argues that in many cases the vigilance committee was a superior substitute for the “official” organs of justice:

     Local governments were established to replace privately produced law fairly rapidly in some places in the western frontier, and public police (e.g., sheriffs) were appointed. State and federal officials also appeared on the scene. But in several instances this government law enforcement was so ineffective or corrupt that private citizens had to re-establish law and order. As Alan Valentine wrote, “If the people had the right to make their own laws and to elect their own officials, then it followed in pioneer logic that the people had the right to change or overrule them. When they were sufficiently aroused to do so, they were not inclined to waste time on fine points of procedure or to show much deference to a protesting officer of the law.” Perhaps the best known cases of this kind occurred in San Francisco.

     Most of San Francisco’s laws during the late 1840s and early 1850s were developed through popular assemblies of citizens. Governmental law enforcement was instituted early, however, so anyone accused of a crime had to be arrested by the publicly employed sheriff and waited for a trial in the next Court of Sessions, which met every two months at the county seat. Lawyers often got trials delayed, and because jail facilities were scarce or nonexistent “postponements almost always meant that the accused would be discharged if he had not escaped first.” Witnesses had to pay their own expenses; and given the delays, many did not wait for the trial. With the swelling of San Francisco’s population during the gold rush, things began to get out of hand. In Valentine’s words:

     As they became increasingly harassed by crime and arson, San Franciscans became more and more ready to sacrifice legal procedure for elementary justice and security. The situation was becoming worse, not better, as new criminals moved in and more and larger fires swept across the city. The better citizens were torn between two fears: fear that nothing short of popular tribunals could cope with crime and fear that popular tribunals would degenerate into lynching mobs, led by the worst elements in town. . . .

     Many of the most respectable citizens believed that the only compromise between rampant crime and rampant lynching was an organized, stable popular tribunal that could be controlled by the better elements in the city. . . .

     San Franciscans wanted something better than slapdash justice, whether legal or popular, but above all they wanted crime reduced.

     The city’s press was urging drastic action by early 1849, but the citizens of San Francisco held back until February of 1851.

     On February 19, 1851, the owner of a San Francisco clothing store was robbed and beaten. The sheriff arrested two men and charged them. A large number of people gathered the next day before the city offices, demanding quick action against the accused. Some speakers advocated an immediate hanging, but one, William T. Coleman, prevailed. He told public officials,

     We will not leave it to the courts. The people here have no confidence in your promises, and unfortunately they have no confidence in the execution of the law by its officers. Matters have gone too far! I propose that the people here present form themselves into a court. . .that the prisoners be brought before it. That testimony be taken, counsel on each side allotted. . .if the prisoners be found innocent let them be discharged, but if guilty let them be hung. . . . We don’t want a mob! We won’t have a mob! Let us organize as becomes men!

     A committee of fourteen prominent citizens, including Coleman, was chosen to take charge of the case. The legal authorities were invited to participate but declined, although they raised no resistance and handed over the prisoners. The committee impaneled a jury and appointed three judges and a clerk. Two “highly regarded” lawyers were appointed to represent the prisoners; Coleman acted as prosecutor. After hearing the case, the jury voted nine guilty and three for acquittal. The prisoners were turned back over to the authorities. The impetus for a vigilante organization was in place, however.

     Plainly, had San Francisco’s “authorities” been trustworthy and diligent, Coleman’s call for an alternative would not have resonated with the public. Compare this to today’s situation in America’s riot-torn cities...and in other places where agitators are permitted to harass private citizens dining, shopping, or going peaceably about their business.

     If the law is too mild, private vengeance comes in. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation”

     While no institution – especially no “public” institution – is wholly trustworthy and perfectly diligent, America’s police forces, on net balance, are an asset to the maintenance of public order, and of justice as Americans generally understand it. Private citizens are rightfully outraged, both at the “orders from above” that have handcuffed the police in dealing with looters and rioters, and at attacks on the police such as occurred in Philadelphia. Both varieties of outrage testify to a developing urge among decent Americans to act as law enforcers, especially in those districts where the police are unable or unwilling to do so.

     If modern vigilance committees should arise, I have no doubt that our “public officials” will condemn them – “Private justice!” they will shriek — and issue orders to the police that they be suppressed. Whether the police will comply with such orders, given those selfsame “public officials’” unwillingness to allow them to enforce the laws that “protect” life and property, I cannot predict. But we may be sure of one thing at least: questions vital to the conception of justice itself will be raised and hotly discussed:

For whose benefit is there law?
Who owns it?

     With that, I yield the floor to my Gentle Readers.


Jess said...

It's always those that can manipulate the law, or ignore the law, that benefit from the law. Whether it's money, deceit, or violence that's used for the manipulation doesn't really matter. The result is always the same.

Paul Bonneau said...

"do the police go rogue and form their own death squads to neutralize their enemies?That’s what generally happens in corrupt third-world polities..."

In corrupt, but DISARMED third-world polities.

I have to wonder on which side, will police come down on. I suspect the chiefs, who are political appointees, will side with Antifa. Some percentage of officers will go along with that. Police are going to be a wild card in the coming struggle, sometimes helpful, other times harmful. They are already arresting people for defending their homes and businesses from the mob, rather than arresting the mob - at least in some cases.

This is exactly the environment in which vigilance committees naturally appear. Rough justice is better than no justice. But yeah, the ruling thugs will screech and moan. They don't like the competition.

"For whose benefit is there law?
Who owns it?"

The ruling class, of course. That is the problem.


I see twin cracks forming.

1. The mask-enforcement "just following orders" is getting ramped up. Australia is a hot mess already as are other countries. At ItAin'tHolyWater is this - in America:

Thus, the first crack is between The People and the police, and over a "danger" more and more people are realizing is utterly overblown.

2. Between the police and the government. Just in reading I get a sense the police are feeling increasingly abandoned by those who should be #1 in having their back.

Double plus ungood.

1LLoyd said...

For about six months, I have been commenting that this is where we are headed. It is not too late, but I don't see the idea being taken as a possibility. I am from the South, where protecting family and property is a given.

Look at the history of the Old West. Things weren't always handled well, but they were handled.

I pray it does not come to this. I will not be surprised if it does.



"I pray it does not come to this. I will not be surprised if it does."

I will be surprised - pleasantly - if it DOESN'T come to IT startin.

Linda Fox said...

In America, the people have a long tradition of involvement in matters of justice, from informal 'hangings' to circuit/local courts. Our culture is one that traditionally is supportive of personal and property rights, and not indulgent of those that disregard them.

Our country was established by those who had experience with average citizens sitting in judgement of criminals, not the Elite deciding those matters as they saw fit.

I doubt we'd hang many, barring any murders committed. However, we WOULD likely deliver some time in the pokey, and with some labor involved, as well.