Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Beyond the obvious racist underpinnings of these incidents lurks something far more sinister: the rise of racially motivated vigilantism. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Beyond the obvious racist underpinnings of these incidents lurks something far more sinister: the rise of racially motivated vigilantism. (Photo: Shutterstock)

‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Encourage Dangerous Vigilantism

Some Americans call the cops on black people for frivolous reasons. Others appoint themselves judge, jury, and — sometimes — executioner

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

This summer featured at least a dozen stories of black Americans across the country having the police called on them for little or no reason at all.

Famously, two black men in Philadelphia were arrested while simply waiting for a friend at a Starbucks.

Then the police were called on a black family grilling at a park in California. They were called again on a black child mowing a lawn in Ohio. And again on a black Yale University student napping in a common room. And again on a black Wisconsin man unlocking his own car.

It’s bad enough that a few white Americans are bringing in the law over mundane and ordinary behavior. But more dangerously, others are appointing themselves officers of the law.

In Clearwater, Florida, a man named Michael Drejka deputized himself to handle a traffic infraction he believed to have been committed by Markeis McGlockton, a black man.

For the alleged crime of parking in a handicapped spot, Drejka fatally shot McGlockton in the chest in front of his young children and girlfriend. Pinellas County law enforcement argued that Florida’s “stand your ground” law rendered his actions self-defense and, therefore, legally permissible.

Drejka, it turned out, had a history of punishing perceived traffic violations with threats of violence — and, at least on one occasion, of hurling racial insults. Only after weeks of outrage did prosecutors charge him with manslaughter.

There’s a direct line between what happened to those people who had the police called on them and Markeis McGlockton. Beyond the obvious racist underpinnings of these incidents lurks something far more sinister: the rise of racially motivated vigilantism.

Instead of allowing the police to perform their jobs, some white Americans have taken the responsibility of investigating crimes and pursuing criminals upon themselves.

Take the example of the white man in North Carolina, who demanded to see the pool passes of a black mother and her son in a video that went viral. It was as if he’d been personally charged with safeguarding the private pool there.

“Concerned citizens” like these aren’t even stopping actual crimes. Instead, they’re attempting to prosecute completely imagined crimes — acts made criminal merely by the presence of a black person.

Consider the now-infamous Alison Ettel, dubbed “Permit Patty,” who called the police on Jordan Rogers, an eight-year-old black girl, for selling water without a permit. Did Ettel even know if a permit was necessary?

It’s one thing to point out that these incidents show bias. But the more pressing question is this: What keeps empowering white Americans to act on these biases?

There’s a hint in the Drejka case.

Whereas Alison Ettel acted as judge and jury, Michael Drejka acted as judge, jury, and executioner — taking a man’s life for what Drejka, not the criminal justice system, determined to be a crime. The promise of impunity offered by “stand your ground” laws ensures that others will feel similarly empowered.

There’s good reason to feel empowered: Under many state statutes, police officers only need to claim that they feared for their lives to justify shooting unarmed suspects. So it stands to reason that ordinary citizens can invoke “stand your ground” laws to do the same.

“Stand your ground” laws create a slippery slope in at least 25 states across the country. At their worst, they allow racial bias to manifest as legally permissible murder.

As Americans debate how to combat racially motivated 911 calls — including imposing a criminal penalty for them, as one New York bill would do — it’s worth considering the deadly consequences of what happens when citizens act on vigilante impulses.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who covers history, race, and the criminalization of poverty.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

US Gas Flaring Releases Five Times More Methane Than Previously Thought

"This study adds to the growing body of research that tells us that the oil and gas industry has a flaring problem," said Jon Goldstein of EDF, which conducted related research on the practice.

Jessica Corbett ·


Activists Call Fed Pilot Program to Assess Banks' Climate Risk a 'Welcome First Step'

"To truly safeguard financial stability," said one campaigner, "the Fed must further introduce policies that reflect the high risk of fossil fuel investments."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Gut Punch': Biden Pulls Student Debt Relief for Millions as GOP States Sue

"The Biden administration told several million people they'd see their debt reduced by $10-20K, and a month later quietly wrote 'just kidding' on a website," said one affected borrower.

Brett Wilkins ·


Controlled by Right-Wing Justices, US Supreme Court's Approval Hits All-Time Low

"This is what happens when SCOTUS nominees lie about settled law at their nomination hearings," said one observer.

Kenny Stancil ·


Acidification of Arctic Happening Up to 4 Times Faster Than Other Oceans

The research followed reports that the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the Earth as a whole.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo