Alliance Between Vigilantes and Law Enforcement: A US Tradition

Bizar Male

In 1938, Seth Wheeler Jr. wrote a brief article about the American Protective League (APL)—a short-lived organization of citizen volunteers who helped federal agencies root out radicals—for The Military Engineer magazine. By then, the violent, nativist wave that crested with the first Red Scare and the US entrance into World War I had broken and receded. The APL itself had dissolved. But Wheeler, the former chief of the league’s Albany division, wanted to remind the public of the organization’s historic importance.

“The initials A.P.L mean little or nothing to the great majority of the people of this country,” he lamented, but without it, the Department of Justice’s newly founded Bureau of Investigation (BOI)—which we know today as the Federal Bureau of Investigation—would have been unable to operate at the scale necessary to “combat the activities of over a quarter of a million members of various secret enemy organizations.” It was only a matter of time, he predicted, before Uncle Sam would once again find himself imperiled by foreign wars and seditious citizens. When such a time arrived, he reassured his readers, patriotic citizens would be ready “to jump in and do their bit” to protect the American way of life.

When pro-Trump protesters breached security and stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in order to disrupt the certification of an election they baselessly deemed fraudulent, Americans were shocked. Pundits, news anchors, and politicians from both sides of the aisle repeatedly stated that this turn of events was un-American, something that doesn’t happen here, not how our democracy works. “We’ve never seen anything like this” was the refrain.

As the late, great Gil Scott-Heron observed, amnesia is a function of being shocked—a state that Americans seem to be particularly fond of. Just last September, for example, protesters armed with AR-15s and kitted out in MAGA hats and Proud Boys paraphernalia stormed the state capitol in Lansing, Mich. Groups of armed white people with far-right political sympathies are neither anamolous nor actively discouraged by law enforcement agencies, who are not only reluctant to use force against them but frequently collude with them as well.

January 6 was upsetting, infuriating, disorienting, and perhaps even frightening, but to characterize it as “shocking” requires a willful failure of recent and historical memory. It’s precisely these sorts of organizations—now exemplified by the Proud Boys, National Alliance, National Anarchist Movement, European Heritage Association—that helped to consolidate the very notion of true Americanism, establish the boundaries of democratic expression and participation, and build the law enforcement agencies that are now so hesitant to interfere with their activities. In other words, both Americanism and law enforcement have right-wing vigilantism baked into them.

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