Panel discusses rise of vigilantism among white supremacists


Experts on law and white supremacy explored the U.S. judicial system’s response to recent incidents of vigilantism and protest-related violence at a virtual panel on Jan. 20.

“Vigilantism and White Supremacy: The Power of the Courts to Defend and Disrupt” was the latest in the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s “This Is Not ‘Normal’: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19” town hall series.

Panelists included Kathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, and Pitt law professors David Harris and Christian Sundquist. Tomar Pierson-Brown, Pitt School of Law’s associate dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, moderated the discussion.

Panelists discussed three November 2021 court decisions in the trials for organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville rally, Kyle Rittenhouse, and the three men who chased and murdered Ahmaud Arbery.

These cases have brought significant public attention to how the U.S. judicial system handles vigilantism, claims of self-defense, and protest-related violence, Pierson-Brown said.

“The outcomes of each trial challenge the development of a shared understanding of the scope of accountability for actors whose conduct results in foreseeable harm,” she said. “That the defendants in each of these cases were white and predominantly male, adds a racial and gender element to these outcomes which politicizes the verdicts in ways that further complicate their impact.”

Blee, who also wrote “Understanding Racist Activism” and “Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s,” specializes in racial extremism. With her expertise, she worked for three years with the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the trial of the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., rally organizers.

The case involved more than a dozen white supremacists — leaders of Ku Klux Klan groups, neo-Nazi groups and others — who organized hundreds of white supremacists and conspired to promote and commit violence at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville.

When the white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters, it provoked a series of assaults on the protesters and the death of Heather Heyer when a white supremacist drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. Last November, jurors awarded the plaintiffs more than $25 million in damages. 

White supremacist leaders use several tactics, particularly through social media, to escape accountability, Blee said.

“They’re very adept at using other people to commit violence and thereby creating plausible deniability for their own involvement,” Blee said. “In other words, some of them have themselves been involved in violence, but their general mode is to get other people to commit the violence, while they stay back, invulnerable to arrest and proceed to organize the next round of violence.”

Blee said this trial showed how vital the role of academic research is and served as a cautionary tale for media on how to handle cases like these, which present an opportunity for white supremacists to spread their ideology.

Arguments in this trial are being used in other trials involving the leaders of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, she added.

Harris was recently appointed to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team on community health and safety. He specializes in police behavior, law enforcement, and race and search-and-seizure law.

He analyzed the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who, in 2020, traveled from northern Illinois to Kenosha, Wisc., where civil unrest erupted after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Rittenhouse traveled there “without invitation from police, National Guard” in Kenosha, brandishing a rifle to “help out.” 

A protestor chased Rittenhouse, who fatally shot the protester. Rittenhouse also shot and killed another protester and wounded a third. A jury later acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges in the criminal trial.

Harris said the trial shows that self-defense and stand your ground laws and more widely available firearms encourage vigilantism and create “a recipe that virtually calls forward people like Kyle Rittenhouse.”

“We should not be surprised at this acquittal, I’m sad to say” Harris said. “And we should not be surprised to see more cases like that, particularly in volatile demonstrations.”

Sunquist — one of the leading scholars on issues of technology, race and innovation, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank — examined the Amaud Arbury case.

Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man who was chased down in Georgia by three white men in a pickup truck, trapped and killed after being shot three times. Earlier this year, the men were sentenced to life in prison.

Sunquist agreed with Harris, saying a recent rise in vigilantism is connected to the expansion of self-defense laws in the United States.

While these men were ultimately sentenced, “criminal acts of white vigilantes are often excused by self-defense laws if they’re deemed reasonable in relation to the perceived threat of harm.”

“The assessment of what constitutes a reasonable fear is often shaped by racist stereotypes, such as Black criminality, or superhuman strength that were often deployed at trial,” Sunquist said. “And so, the defendants in the Arbery trial claimed self-defense, but they also regularly relied on racist tropes as part of their defense strategy.”

To view the rest of the discussion, visit the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s YouTube channel.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.