Lz. A.
Original publication: lorenzoae.wordpress.com
Editing: Roderic Day, Nia Frome

A Brief History of American Vigilantism (2018)

89 minutes | English | Class Analysis Fascism & Colonialism

Lightly edited to correct minor issues with sources and spelling in the original. — R. D.

A group of industrialists finance a group of gangsters to break trade unionism, to check the threat of socialism, the menace of socialism or the possibility of democracy.
 — Orson Welles



People who read the news are probably accustomed to a type of story that keeps making headlines, and it goes like this: someone acting in the name of capital and/or white supremacy engages in an act of violence and is treated with what is relative leniency or understanding, especially compared to people who oppose white supremacy and/or capital. A few examples from the recent past include:

  • Armed militiamen working on behalf of a family of petty-bourgeois ranchers occupied a Federal wildlife refuge. A number of commentators viewed the law enforcement response to the occupation as more lenient than the treatment accorded to Black Lives Matter protesters. Professor Khaled Beydoun pointed out that “No tear gas was sprayed, not a single shot was fired, nor a single arrest made. Rather, the seizure of federal property went unchallenged by police. […] Muslims, are suspected of terrorism by merely being Muslims. While white militants, like the militiamen in Oregon, are seldom identified as terrorists when carrying forward a terrorist conspiracy.” [1]
  • A white man protested a visit from President Obama with an open-carried handgun and a sign saying “It is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty” (“…with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” goes the rest of the quote). [2] The man was interviewed by CBS News and reflected that police “were quite professional… People expected me to get my face planted (on the ground). But it was handled professionally.” [3]
  • A bomb, which one FBI agent described as “the most sophisticated” he’d ever seen, was planted along a parade route on Martin Luther King Day by a white supremacist and the case was largely ignored by national media. [4] Yet despite the “obvious threat” of men like the would-be bomber, “federal law enforcement has given little credence to the power of the nativist current in American society, [and] despite their obvious threat, there are no competitors to Peter King, holding congressional hearings on the recruitment of homegrown jihadist terrorists.” [5]
  • Two radical libertarian militia sympathizers murdered police officers in Las Vegas, an act which failed to gain much notice in the national media or prompt recriminations from police. [6] The killings certainly did not provoke the creation of a virulently reactionary pro-police movement, as happened when a black man was accused of a similar act. [7] “Taxation is Theft” sentiment on Facebook re: the Vegas murders was enabled by “the site’s lack of responsive action,” while Facebook posts about police brutality against blacks are getting activists arrested. [8]

And on and on. The template for liberal reporting on stories of racist impunity then goes something like this:

  1. Observe a double-standard.
  2. Point out the double-standard.
  3. Make no effort to investigate why the double-standard exists or how long the double-standard has actually been in place.
  4. Repeat ad nauseam. [9]

So, for example, there was a story last month about what appears to be collaboration between a police department and fascists. One radically branded writer whose star has been on the rise for a few years noticed that the police “have been really accommodating of fascists,” then threw up her proverbial hands and said, “That’s a practice that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.” [10]

Bad thing: denounced. Causes: inscrutable. Solutions: T.B.D. Thanks for the book deal, Verso.

The reason that coverage of right-wing vigilantism is mostly confined to endless accusations of hypocrisy is that to discuss the why would violate too many injunctions against radical analysis. Just as capitalism is defined by unemployment, boom/bust cycles, and racism, so is it defined by a higher degree of tolerance afforded to extrajudicial reactionary violence. The sanctioning of right-wing vigilantism is inherent to capitalism.

The state in a capitalist society exists to serve moneyed interests, so private groups likewise acting to serve those same moneyed interests will be afforded leeway, help, and a blind eye far more often than groups challenging those moneyed interests. This remains true even if those conservative interests are acting illegally, abhorrently, or monstrously; and even if those progressive challengers are following the law to the letter and behaving as saints. Since this is built into capitalism, it’s been the case since the transition from feudalism, as Gerald Horne explains:

The promiscuous use of mercenaries was a close cousin to the deployment of pirates, buccaneers, and soldiers of fortune, whose bloodthirsty escapades often were the basis of the primitive accumulation of capital itself. One scholar has observed that the concept of “plausible deniability,” which has served imperialism so well in episodes ranging from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal, was actually invented by rulers in the early seventeenth century as a spur to mercenarism and piracy: thus, if these bandits obtained the necessary booty — fine — and if they did not or were apprehended, then responsibility for their activity could be denied. [11]

For the vast majority of capitalist countries, when popular unrest threatens the status quo too much, the military steps in to impose its will. Since World War II, only the wealthiest countries have managed to maintain parliamentary procedures in the face of major progressive threats. For those market economies that have managed to survive without imposing the indignities of dictatorship, the threat of too much democracy is fought back through an extrajudicial struggle lurking behind the bourgeois framework.

This covert war usually involves warrantless mass surveillance, domestic covert actions, deployment of the military, and the formation of secret police units. In the United States, this means relationships with drug gangs and the Mafia, secret anti-subversive police units known as “red squads,” and the infamous COINTELPRO. However, one of the most reliable ways that ruling interests have maintained the status quo has been through tolerating, directing, funding, arming, and otherwise empowering private vigilantes.

This is a brief look at the privileged relationship that right-wing vigilantes have enjoyed throughout American history in the ruling class’s fight to keep us from getting what is ours.

Birth of a Nation

As with nearly everything to do with American governance, the privileged position occupied by vigilantes has its roots in fear of worker revolts, slavery, and the extermination of the continent’s indigenous people.

In Federalist 10, written in 1786, James Madison anguished over how to protect “both the public good and the rights of other citizens” against the danger of a majority demanding a more substantively democratic distribution of the common wealth. “To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.” Tolerance of vigilantism in defense of the status quo offers such a solution — a way to “preserve the spirit and the form of popular government” while preventing excessive democracy. [12]

The next year saw the first major labor unrest in the newborn United States in the form of Shays’ Rebellion. In August 1786, farmers in Massachusetts began protesting government measures which made their debts harder to pay off and restricted voting rights for non-landed males. As the protests escalated into an insurgency, the government lacked funds to raise a large enough army. General Benjamin Lincoln was tasked by the governor of Massachusetts with putting down the uprising. Lincoln, “a merchant-speculator and a personal friend of many wholesalers in the Massachusetts capital,” solicited funds from “the first characters in Boston” (a.k.a. the state’s wealthiest), collecting “upwards of £6,000” to hire a private militia to quell the uprising. [13]

In the antebellum South, paramilitary organizations known as vigilance committees acted as judge, jury, and executioner in order to protect the slave system. Though white supremacy was enshrined in law, anxieties around slave uprisings were so formidable that an extrajudicial system of repression existed alongside the formal legal system. One British visitor in the early 19th century was so struck by the martial nature of white Southern society that he proclaimed “The fact is, they are all soldiers.” [14]

In American Negro Slave Revolts, Herbert Aptheker recounts how a Mississippi vigilance committee known as the Regulators responded to rumors of a slave conspiracy:

A favorite slave was sent among the others as a spy and soon accused one Negro. This man “after receiving a most severe chastisement” confessed that a plot for revolt had been formed and implicated a Mr. Ruel Blake, a local slaveholder, and his slaves. One of that individual’s slaves “was severely whipped by order of the [vigilance] committee, but refused to confess anything — alleging all the time, that if they wanted to know what his master had told him, they might whip on until they killed him; that he had promised him that he would never divulge it.” Other slaves were tortured and it was finally determined, to the committee’s satisfaction, that there existed a general plot of the slaves and that a number of white men were implicated. By the decision of this extra-legal body about fifteen slaves and six white men were hanged in the month of July. [15]

In addition to the wars of extermination waged against the continent’s indigenous by the Federal army, states and municipalities paid bounties for murdered Indians. From the mid-18th century until around 1885, this kind of vigilantism was rewarded with both state sanction and cash payments. A newspaper article discussing expenses paid out by the treasury of the state of Minnesota in 1863 notes the following item:

J. C. Davis, Sioux scalp — $25.

This Item occurs in the list of disbursements, amounting in all to $7,870.06, under the head “Suppressing Indian War.” […] It doubtless strikes the general reader that $25 is rather a small inducement for securing Sioux scalps. [16]

In his memoirs, Indian-killer General George Crook recalled “It was of no unfrequent occurrence for an Indian to be shot down in cold blood, or a squaw to be raped by some brute. Such a thing as a white man being punished for outraging an Indian was unheard of.” [17]

From the Civil War to the Progressive Era

Despite the military failure of the slaveholders symbolized by the surrender at Appomattox, the white supremacist regime in the South was determined to maintain power, and entrenched enough to succeed. Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there was a roughly ten-year period in which the Southern oligarchy waged a successful vigilante war against both freed blacks and the Northern capitalist class represented by the Federal government. W. E. B. Du Bois famously summarized Emancipation and the subsequent counter-attack as “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

“But to say that Reconstruction failed does not adequately describe what actually happened in the South after the Civil War,” writes author Charles E. Cobb, Jr. “Reconstruction did not fail; it was destroyed, crushed by more than a decade of savage campaigns of violence carried out both by the local governments that had largely remained intact and by vigilante terrorists. Lynchings and other forms of mob violence were the instruments of Reconstruction’s brutal death.”

Violent white fury quickly coalesced around a determination to restore white supremacy. Vigilante violence found a comfortable place beside political argument in postwar southern legislatures, as groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Regulators, the Red Shirts, the White League, the knights of the White Camellia, the Pale Face Brotherhood, and other white-supremacist organizations began campaigns of terror. [18]

The most (in)famous American vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan, was organized shortly after the end of the Civil War by members of the southern oligarchy. Its reign of terror began shortly after the war’s end; the National Archives list 116 acts of Klan violence between 1867 and 1871 in Kentucky alone. [19]

By the early 1870s, vigilante terror was formidable enough that the Ulysses Grant White House began to scale back Federal Reconstruction efforts. Du Bois elaborated:

In Mississippi, the White League began organized work in 1874. Seven organized armed groups were formed in Vicksburg to control the city election. The charge here was extravagance in building school-houses and “too many niggers in office.” Armed companies patrolled the city, and yet there was perfect order at the polls. Voters were thus intimidated and kept at home while in the surrounding counties some 200 Negroes were killed. At Clinton, in 1875, another blow was struck when a mass meeting and barbecue was being held by the colored people. Five hundred armed white men assembled, food and wagons were destroyed, mules and horses stolen, hundreds of Negro homes searched, and fugitives driven away.

Grant wrote to the Senate, January 13, 1875, regarding the condition of Louisiana. He said “On the 13th of April [1873] … a butchery of citizens was committed at Colfax, which in blood-thirstiness and barbarity is hardly surpassed by any acts of savage warfare… Insuperable obstructions were thrown in the way of punishing these murderers, and the so-called conservative papers of the state not only justified the massacre but denounced as Federal tyranny and despotism the attempt of the United States officers to bring them to justice.” Concerning Mississippi, President Grant said: “As to the state election of 1875, Mississippi is governed today by officials chosen through fraud and violence, such as would scarcely be accredited to savages.” [20]

Vigilante intransigence not only suppressed the black proletariat and stole local elections, it prevented the economic development that might have threatened the power of the region’s planter class. An 1871 report from the Governor’s office of South Carolina noted “It is proper that I should add that the armed violence which has prevailed in this state for the past three years has had upon our bonds the same effect as actual war in lessening their purchasing-value, as money is dearer in war than in peace. Ku-Kluxism made capitalists shrink from touching the bonds of this state, as a man would shrink from touching a pestilential body.” [21]

In 1876, wrote DuBois, “came the bargain between Big Business and the South” which essentially surrendered the South to the erstwhile Confederacy. [22] In 1883, the Supreme Court nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875, effectively rendering the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments powerless in the South.

While racist vigilantes rolled back the gains of emancipation in the South, the North was roiled by a major wave of labor unrest. 1871 saw the beginning of an economic bust which became a depression; this, coupled with the brief experiment that was the Paris Commune caused serious panic for the powers-that-be, culminating in a wave of repression in 1877. This repression was carried out by the police, militias, and “Citizens Associations” — the latter of which could be private detectives or any hired thug. The idea of deputizing vigilantes as Citizens Associations “was adopted in the post-Civil War era by employers and their supporters in conflicts with workers and other protest groups,” writes Frank Donner in Protectors of Privilege. “These associations became the core of later vigilante activities.” [23]

During the late-19th century, official police worked hand-in-glove with various paramilitaries to break strikes, attack labor leaders, and act as agents provocateurs to provoke brutal police crackdowns. In the 1880s, private detectives like the Pinkerton and Burns Agencies became the major response to labor agitation, deputizing thugs to act as both vigilantes and spies. The words “private detectives” imply a great deal, but Sherlock Holmeses these men were not.

In countless cities and towns with labor unrest, it was society’s meanest and most antisocial who showed up to receive a badge and a quick dollar cracking heads under the aegis of a detective agency. In 1913, journalist Harold West, covering the Paint Creek Mine War, observed that the mining company’s army was made up of mercenaries supplied by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. They “frequently have been the ‘bad men’ of the towns from which they came. And these towns have produced some pretty hard characters. The ruffian of the West Virginia town would not take off his hat to the desperado of the wildest town of the wildest West.” The Baldwin-Felts men “have been indicted for offenses ranging from common assault to murder. In every case, however, bail has been ready and it is rare that charges against them have been brought to trial. Some of the assault cases in which they have figured have been of great brutality, yet rarely has any serious trouble resulted for the guards.” One victim of the Baldwin-Felts thugs, Gianiana Seville, was a miner’s wife who was 5-months pregnant; mine guards beat her until she miscarried. [24]

Between the depression of the 1870s and the Great Depression, there were dozens of major struggles between management and labor, many of which have come to be termed “battles” or “wars,” including the Battle of Blair Mountain, the West Virginia Coal Wars, and the Harlan County War. [25] In 1914, Robert Hunter observed that:

There are unquestionably numerous agencies in this country where one may employ thugs, thieves, incendiaries, dynamiters, perjurers, jury fixers, manufacturers of evidence, strike breakers and murderers. A regularly established commerce exists, which enables a rich man without great difficulty or peril to hire abandoned criminals who, for certain crises, will undertake to execute any crime. If one can afford it, one may have always at hand a body of highwaymen or a small private army.

The following year, the Commission on Industrial Relations noted that during labor unrest not only was “one of the greatest functions of the State, that of policing, virtually turned over to the employers or arrogantly assumed by them, but criminals employed by detective agencies [were] clothed, by the process of deputization, with arbitrary power and relieved of criminal liability for their acts.” [26]

Racists, Red-baiters, and Strike-breakers

The power of the labor movement post-WWI was abundantly clear by 1919, a year which saw a general strike in Seattle and a nationwide steelworker’s strike. As always, the state rescinded Constitutional protections at will — gatherings above a certain number of people were banned, and in numerous jurisdictions, it became illegal to fly a red flag. The official response was also to pass measures like the 1919 Criminal Syndicalism Act and the Palmer Raids. Unofficially, dozens of vigilante groups were created by business groups and other conservative interests to spy on, harass, and attack radicals and reds — groups with names like the American Defense Society, the American Vigilant Intelligence Federation, the Black Legion, the Knights of Liberty, and the National Security League. “These superpatriot groups gathered their strength from the right wing, not the general public,” write Glen Yeadon and John Hawkins, “their financial support coming directly from corporations and the rich elite. The National Civic Federation received most of its support from V. Everit Macy, August Belmont and Elbert Gary. Likewise, the National Protective League was supported by T. Coleman du Pont, Henry Frick, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.” [27]

One such organization, the American Protective League (APL), boasted 350,000 members at its height organized in a police-style hierarchy made up of 1,600 urban units. “Its mission,” according to Frank Donner, “was primarily to check on the loyalty of individuals, report rumors harmful to national security, round up draft dodgers and deserters, and collaborate with federal agencies in the surveillance of enemy aliens.” In addition, APL members were deputized by local police and given the power to arrest, resulting in operational collaboration in rounding up deserters and draft evaders with police units in cities such as Minneapolis, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia.

As in the earlier police-private detective partnership, league members engaged in such undercover surveillance activities as wiretapping, planting undercover agents, impersonation, subterfuge, and infiltration. In Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities, combined police and APL forces monitored speakers at socialist and Wobbly rallies and conducted raids on their closed-door meetings. [28]

“Wobblies,” as they’re colloquially known, are members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), at the time one of the country’s most powerful labor unions. As such, they were targeted with particular ferocity. Donner elaborates on one typical attack:

In June of [1924], a vigilante band armed with clubs, blackjacks, and guns descended on the IWW hall, demolished the furniture, clubbed men, women, and children, scalded several children by dipping them in a coffee cauldron, and abducted a number of men to the desert, where they were tarred and feathered. Both the 1923 and 1924 episodes were furthered by the collaboration of the Los Angeles police. [29]

The 1920s saw a resurgence of Klan membership culminating in a membership peak of an estimated 4 million Americans. In 1930, a member of the Alabama KKK named John G. Murphy testified to the House Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities that the Klan worked with the Birmingham police and the Federal Department of Justice by surveilling communists. According to Murphy, Klansmen would monitor meetings and report them to the local police, “who sent several men there” to arrest attendees. [30]

In 1921, African-Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma suffered one of the most egregious episodes of vigilante brutality, and possibly the largest in US history. Over the course of multiple hellish days, mobs attacked what was known as “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa. The attack destroyed 35 city blocks and crushed what was the wealthiest center of black business in the country. In the orgy of barbarism, several hundred black residents were killed, and many claimed to have seen police and National Guardsmen joining in. Other eyewitness claimed to see planes dropping bombs. The event was not formally investigated until 1996.

Enter the Legion

As far as paramilitaries and strike-breakers, no group was more powerful, was deployed more often, or enjoyed greater official favor than the American Legion.

The Legion’s official history holds that it was formed in 1919, as veterans of the Great War united semi-spontaneously to secure their benefits. According to the sanctioned narrative, 20 members (canonized in Legion lore as “the Big 20”) of the US military’s American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France hit upon the idea of creating a veteran’s advocacy group. The idea was supposedly proposed at an officer’s club in Paris by Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Teddy’s son, giving the group an esteemed lineage. “Who started the American Legion? Nobody, and everybody,” wrote Richard Seelye Jones in the semi-official chronicle A History of the American Legion. The Legion professed neutrality in political matters, committing itself to an ideology called “Americanism.” They were funded through membership drives, donations from 400 anonymous “friends of the Legion,” and loans — or so goes the approved version of the legend.

Despite the altruistic and anodyne origin story, the League quickly developed a reputation drastically at-odds with its nonpartisan mythology. According to author and labor activist Justin Gray, many believed that “the Legion had the worst politics, that it was reactionary and a tool of Wall Street, and that no self-respecting vet could be happy imbibing Legion brew.” Gray served as an Army Ranger in World War II and later joined the American Legion, becoming Director of the Legion’s National Americanism Commission. He grew disenchanted with the Legion’s authoritarian leadership and reactionary politics, ultimately writing an essential muckraking exposé titled The Inside Story of the Legion, from which the following history is drawn.

Gray pointed out that despite the Legion’s foundation in 1919, a certificate was submitted to the county clerk of New York County on March 5, 1915 — before America entered the Great War — for an organization calling itself the American Legion, Inc. This Legion not only shared a name with the group formed in 1919, it shared numerous founding members with the later Legion, including Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. The Legion first acknowledged its pre-war predecessor in a 1943 issue of its magazine, calling it “a coincidence,” and only incorporated the initial group into its official history following a 1945 magazine article by George Seldes. [31] While the professed impetus for forming the Legion was the end of World War I, the October Revolution of 1917 may have played a larger role. In explaining why the “Big 20” backed the Legion, Franklin D’Olier, the Legion’s first National Commander, wrote:

You will recall the state of things after the Armistice. Nerves the world over were on edge. Bolshevism was the bogey. Disgruntled soldiers had provided the manpower for the cataclysm in Russia and the surface of the earth was pretty well covered with soldiers who had little to do but think of their troubles.

In 1946, Richard S. Jones recounted:

There was a general concern about the postwar attitude of the average soldier toward extreme political radicalism […] Rumors and reports from America on radical, communistic movements, the formation of soldiers’ and sailors’ councils among men and women who had been discharged quickly after the Armistice.

Even the restless lack of discipline in the AEF itself was vaguely attributed by some to Soviet ideas. A safe and sound organization of veterans might be the best insurance against their spread. This concern about a condition then generally covered by the term Bolshevism was to be voiced frequently during the formative period of the Legion. [32]

Regardless of when the Legion was founded, more significant was who actually paid for it. According to Gray,

I turned first to the list of the “Big 20” who had heard Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., first expound the Legion idea in Paris. I can’t say that every one of the twenty was a key Wall Street figure, but I can say that practically everyone was — or was destined to become — identified with what is generally called Big Business. [33]

While in the Legion, Gray noticed an extremely tight relationship between the group’s leadership and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a coalition of thousands of American corporations. In 1943, for example, NAM pledged to donate $20,000,000 “to keep America sold on Americanism,” and then cut a check to the Legion for $19,996,000. [34] NAM was one of the main organs that America’s rich and super-rich used to propagandize the public: the country’s 13 most powerful families were NAM members and “With the possible exception of three of these families all had close connections with fascism and the arming of Hitler.” [35] The Legion was in close alliance, according to Gray, “from top to bottom,” with the kinds of people whom F.D.R. once called America’s Economic Royalists, and who, in turn, denounced the Groton-educated F.D.R. as “a traitor to his class.”

The phrase from top to bottom is not meant figuratively. I’ve examined the business background of every on of the Legion’s twenty-nine National Commanders who have served since 1919 and I’ve found the list to comprise an almost unbelievable succession of men with direct financial connections with big business. They were either officers and directors of large financial or industrial institutions, or corporation lawyers representing such institutions. I’ve found only three exceptions. [36]

Wall Street got what they paid for almost immediately. On November 11th 1919, the first anniversary of the armistice, a parade of veterans marched through the town of Centralia, Washington. Centralia was a lumber town, and the Wobblies had played a major role in organizing the local workers against their exploiters.

That November day, as the parade column passed the local IWW office, Legionnaires surrounded the building. A Legionnaire blew a whistle and the IWW was attacked. However, the radicals inside were armed, and they fired at the invaders, killing the local Legion post commander and two other members. One Wobbly, Wesley Everett, attempted to escape, but was arrested. That night, all the lights in Centralia were turned off, during which time Legionnaires stormed the jail and kidnapped Everett, who was then castrated and lynched. At trial, multiple IWW members were given 25- to 40-year sentences for defending themselves, though 7 of the jury members subsequently recanted their verdict. Centralia’s coroner ruled Everett’s death a suicide. [37]

The Legion quickly became the nation’s pre-eminent strike-breaking outfit. Practically no Legion members were union men, and dozens of unions throughout the country barred members from participating in the Legion. During the Great Depression, the Legion ramped-up its vigilante activity and espionage — one of its National Commanders declared that “the American Legion is fighting every element that threatens our democratic government — Soviets, anarchists, I.W.W., revolutionary socialists and every other red.” [38]

  • In 1933, Michael Kane, the police chief of Alequippa, Pennsylvania faced a steelworkers’ strike organized by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a precursor to the CIO. Kane enlisted a posse of 200 armed men, mostly local Legionnaires, to attack the strikers. One striker was killed, and hundreds more were wounded and gassed. [39]
  • In 1934, the Legion attacked a lettuce pickers’ strike in California’s Imperial Valley. The Calexico Chronicle claimed that the Legion was mobilized “to keep down the rising tide of strike sentiment.” The Los Angeles Times reported that “It’s a secret, but the vigilantes are really Legionnaires.” A member of the El Centro, California Legion post boasted to the American Legion Bulletin that “the veterans of the valley… took matters in their own hands and solved the situation in their own way. Now the valley is free from all un-American influences.” [40]
  • That same year, the California Legion set up a Subversive Activities Committee, later renamed the Radical Research Committee of the American Legion, to spy on labor activists and union members. The Committee’s dossiers were provided to San Francisco businesses to help break up a waterfront strike.
  • In 1935, Michael Kane reappeared as the head of a group called the Constitutional Defense League. According to Kane, his group was an offshoot of the American Legion and consulted with Legion commanders at the highest levels, a charge which the Legion did not deny. Kane’s policy towards union men was, in his words, “Don’t debate with them, it isn’t a debatable question, punch them in the nose, take them for a ride, hang them if necessary!” [41]
  • In 1937, steel workers went on strike in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Legionnaires in these towns took up arms to attack the strikers. Testifying to the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, Jesse Fisher, the police chief of Monroe, Michigan, claimed that it “is true, the American Legion boys are taking care of the business district. They told me before I left the city building ‘Don’t worry about the business district, we will take care of this up here.’” In Youngstown, Ohio, the local sheriff hired “about 50 Legion boys for extra police work” during strikes at the local steel plant, according to the La Follette Committee. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the mayor deputized the local Legion commander as a special policeman, saying “This deputizes the entire membership of the American Legion post in Johnstown.” [42]

In 1934, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler testified to the Congressional McCormack-Dickstein Committee that he had been approached by a cadre of tycoons and asked to lead a coup against President Franklin Roosevelt. Butler was to command an army of half a million Legion members to institute fascism in the US; he told the Committee that “You know very well that it [the Legion] is nothing but a strike-breaking outfit used by capital for that purpose.” Butler also told the Committee that Wall Street had donated $125,000 to the Legion at its inception. [43] The next year, Time magazine observed that “Ever since the Centralia, Wash. Massacre of 1919 the nation’s most potent strike-breaking force has been the American Legion.” [44]

By 1937, the strength of organized labor and the popularity of the New Deal were such that the Legion’s relentless strike-breaking was proving to be a liability. In response, National Commander Harry Colmery had an idea. Rather than tell Legionnaires to put down their guns and clubs, Colmery told them to downplay their Legion membership:

Legionnaires have right to be deputized as citizens but such deputization must not be associated with Legion membership. Urgently request you advise all posts in your department that members on such duty must not wear Legion uniforms, caps, or other similar identifying regalia, or sanction use Legion name in connection with such service. [45]

All this time, the Legion enjoyed a healthy if quiet relationship with the FBI. Files that the American Legion obtained by spying on radicals were open to FBI agents, and vice-versa. During World War II, J. Edgar Hoover said that “The Legion has worked closely with the FBI for many years in maintaining peacetime security here at home. Since the emergency the liaison relationship has been even closer and the results still more gratifying.” [46]

The Legion’s resemblance to Germany’s Freikorps, the gang of ultra-right wing veterans who waged war on labor activists and socialists, goes beyond their mutual fervor for strike-breaking. The Legion’s ideology of “Americanism” was, like fascism, a far-right superpatriotism which demonstrated fealty towards capital and virulent hostility towards labor above any other cognizable values. Even the Legion’s professed neutrality in partisan matters sounds familiar to those familiar with fascist phraseology. The preamble to the Legion’s constitution, while committing the organization to maintaining “law and order” and fostering “a 100-percent Americanism,” also swears “to combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses.” In promising to harmonize classes through a totalizing fealty to God Almighty and “Americanism,” the preamble sounds very much like the vision of fascism described by Mussolini (in his “Doctrine of Fascism”), who promised that the fascist state “concentrates, controls, harmonizes and tempers the interests of all social classes, which are thereby protected in equal measure.”

This is no coincidence. The Legion’s preamble was written by founding father Congressman Hamilton Fish III, who was an early and enthusiastic promoter of Nazi Germany. In 1938, he traveled to the Third Reich, met its leaders, and returned the states a hero to fascists and Nazi sympathizers. “Do not forget,” said National Commander Alvin Owsley, “that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” [47]

The War Years

The affinity between the Legion’s leadership and European fascists was typical of the majority of America’s ruling class, even during the Second World War. Since there were shared class interests between Washington and New York on the one hand and Rome and Berlin on the other, pro-fascist sentiment predominated among America’s elites. So while various iterations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated pro-fascist and Nazi forces in the US, these groups always enjoyed greater leniency than HUAC’s left-wing victims. The FBI harassed the German-American Bund into nonexistence, but the Bund’s case was more an exception than the rule. Even following the attack on Pearl Harbor, pro-Axis propagandists and saboteurs didn’t suffer the consequences typically meted out to wartime traitors and subversives. Progressive journalists Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn discuss one typical case, that of Nazi activist Homer Maerz:

In 1939, Maerz came to Chicago to organize branches of the Silver Shirts and the Deutsch-Amerikanische Einheitsfront, an important Bund propaganda affiliate. At one of his mass Nazi rallies in Chicago, Maerz promised that America would be converted into such “a living hell for the Jews” that “Hitler will look like a cream puff.” In October 1939, Maerz was arrested in Chicago, along with four of his followers. In line with the typical Nazi “propaganda by terror” strategy, Maerz had organized gangs to paint swastikas on Jewish stores, smash windows and stage similar Nazi anti-Semitic terrorist demonstrations. William Wernecke, the Nazi agent and Bund leader in Chicago, paid Maerz’s bail. Maerz was found guilty of malicious mischief and sentenced on December 29, 1939, to serve one to ten years in the penitentiary. He was released from jail late in 1940, and immediately founded a new Nazi propaganda agency in Chicago called the Pioneer News Agency. In the fall of 1941, in a raid on Maerz’ residence, congressional investigators found more than half a ton of “anti-Semitic, pro-fascist, pro-German and pro-Japanese literature,” quantities of stickers reading “Gentile America” and “Long Live Lindbergh,” and numerous pictures of Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, Maerz remained free.

In the spring of 1945, Homer Maerz, expert Nazi propagandist, former Bundsman, Silver Shirt organizer and ex-convict, was still at large and carrying on his work of undermining the foundations of American postwar security and peace. [48]

Joe McWilliams, fuehrer of an American Nazi group called the Christian Mobilizers, boasted that he was “gathering around me the meanest, the toughest, the most ornery bunch of German soldiers, Italian veterans and Irish I.R.A. men in the country. I’m going to have the greatest collection of strong-arm men in the country. And if anybody tries to stop us… they’ll think lightning hit them.” One journalist described McWilliams’ retinue as “a prize collection of cut-throats, convicts, racists, pimps, burglars and goon squad bruisers.” [49]

There were over 750 pro-fascist publications in the United States before the war, and dozens continued after Pearl Harbor, including Gerald L. K. Smith’s The Cross and the Flag and Elizabeth Dillings’ Patriotic Research Bulletin. In November 1941, a Federal Grand Jury began an investigation of fascist propaganda and alleged spy networks in the US. By July 1942, having interviewed 670 witnesses and compiled 6,800 pages of testimony, the Grand Jury indicted 30 men and women for disloyalty and conspiracy to provoke revolt against the armed forces. “Yet by the spring of 1945,” write Sayers and Kahn, “after three years of Government investigation and court procedure involving an expenditure conservatively estimated at $70,000, not a single one of the persons accused of seditious conspiracy had been convicted on these charges.” [50] In the annals of American political trials, the fascists were probably given uniquely generous dispensation: one history professor writes that “The judge went far — too far — to protect bigoted defendants from a hostile jury, asking, for instance, whether prospects were Jews, had Jewish relatives, or read Jewish publications.” The jury ultimately contained no Jews, no African-Americans, and 3 German-Americans. [51]

Numerous Congresspeople and Senators came to the aid of the accused, including Congressmen Hamilton Fish and Martin Dies, the latter then the head of HUAC[52] The 1944 sedition trial, known as United States vs. McWilliams, was only one of multiple trials brought about under the Smith Act. While the wartime case against the 30 fascists fell apart, the Smith Act was successfully used to prosecute 18 members of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party and the Teamsters in 1941, and over 100 members of the CPUSA in the 1950s. Representative John McCormack (D-MA), the co-chairman of HUAC’s predecessor organization, “had made it clear from the beginning that Communists were the principal targets of” the Smith Act, according to law professor Michal R. Belknap. [53]

The Trotskyites and Teamsters were incarcerated on the pretense that their actions would lead to a slowdown in wartime production, which couldn’t be tolerated under the extraordinary circumstances. Organized labor pledged a “no strike” policy at the outset of the war, one which was almost totally observed. American Legion National Commander Roane Waring urged that “slowing down of war production be deemed treason,” and his successor, Warren Atherton, said that “those responsible for such dastardly actions should have some chairs wired up and the current turned on.” [54] However, even in this climate, the injunction against slowing down production was not ironclad, and had some predictable exceptions:

  • In Mobile, Alabama, on May 25, 1943, thousands of white workers revolted after 12 African-Americans were promoted at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Island Yard. Sixteen thousand black workers were driven from their jobs during the terror, and many were seriously injured along with some white workers who tried to protect them. Work at the major shipyard was interrupted for two days. 4 whites were arrested.
  • In Beaumont, Texas, for two days in June 1943, armed bands stormed the black quarter, killed two men, injured scores more, and wrecked shops and homes. War work throughout the city was seriously interrupted for several days. 29 were arrested. “Of those retained, the majority were charged with such offenses as loitering, drunkenness, and carrying firearms,” according to a report in the East Texas Historical Journal. “These crimes carried a penalty of $25 plus court costs, so that participation in the riot, regardless of what had happened to the black community, essentially carried a $30.20 fine.” [55]
  • “Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Jersey City, Chicago and other war production centers were the scenes of violent outbursts incited by anti-Semitic propaganda. Jewish people were attacked in the streets by armed ruffians shouting Nazi slogans. Store windows, sidewalks and residences were smeared with anti-Semitic slanders and swastika signs. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated.”
  • “The most violent, terrifying and destructive of all the racist outbreaks, a dreadful anti-Negro pogrom, occurred in June 1943, in America’s largest war production center, Detroit, Michigan. By the night of June 21, when martial law was declared in the city, the following destruction had been accomplished: Thirty six persons dead and more than a thousand injured; the loss of more than 1,000,000 man-hours of production; the total disruption of the life of the most important war production center in the United States.” 1,800 were arrested, of whom 85% were black and 15% white. Detroit was the headquarters of both Father Charles Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith’s The Cross and the Flag — fascist propaganda outfits pumping out race-hatred — but no sanctions were meted out to these groups. [56]

Historian Vyacheslav Nikitin summarizes how the brief era of official American anti-fascism came to a close:

The Justice Department’s blacklists also included a number of fascist organizations, but not the Silver Shirt Legion or the Knights of the White Camelia — well-known groups that flooded the country with fascist propaganda in the 30s. After the Second World War Congress did not conduct a single investigation of these or other fascist organizations. Legal proceedings begun by the Roosevelt administration in the early 1940s were discontinued. In 1946 a district court failed to find anything criminal in the activities of Hitler’s followers in the USA; in the next year the Justice Department, with the approval of President Truman, dropped all charges against them. [57]

The Second Red Scare and the Revolutionary Sixties

While Hitler’s white supremacist nightmare lay in ruins, another white supremacist nightmare-state had emerged from the war stronger than ever. In 1948 400 African-Americans had registered to vote in Johnson County, Georgia. On the eve of the county’s Democratic Party primary, a crowd of almost 700 white citizens assembled in front of the county courthouse in Wrightsville, GA. Nearly 250 additional citizens arrived in hoods and cloaks, including Georgia’s Grand Dragon, an Atlanta physician named Samuel Green, who took to the courthouse steps to address the crowd. Here is how Time magazine described the events:

“Again you will see Yankee bayonets trying to force social and racial equality between the black and white races,” he bellowed. “If that happens there are those among you who will see blood flow in these streets. The Klan will not permit the people of this country to become a mongrel race.” When he finished, the Klansmen paraded back to the ballpark and had a barbecue.

In the election the next day, no Negroes voted. [58]

The fact that thousands of African-Americans had taken up arms and played a major role in domestic manufacturing spurred the growth of the nascent Civil Rights Movement and wider black liberation struggle. The anti-racist, labor, and peace struggles intertwined in the 1949 Peekskill concert which I described in an earlier post:

In 1949, Paul Robeson and other musicians put on a concert in Peekskill, NY, which was attacked by a crowd of fascist thugs shouting “We’re Hitler’s boys” and “Go back to Russia, nigger.” The police allowed the mob to attack the progressives and send 140 to the hospital — Robeson claimed “perhaps no single event in the postwar anti-fascist struggle has had the same impact and importance as the incident of Peekskill.” [59] [60]

As he was leaving the grounds in a car with shattered windows, radical folk singer Pete Seeger saw a police officer standing with his arms folded next to a rock-throwing protestor. Seeger told the officer to “do something,” and the cop responded with orders to “move on.” The singer later recounted:

It may sound silly now, but we were confident law and order would prevail. I had been hit with eggs in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, but this was New York State… We heard about 150 people standing around the gate shout things like ‘Go back to Russia! Kikes! Nigger-lovers!’ It was a typical KKK crowd, without bedsheets. [61]

One journalist describes how authorities reacted to the Peekskill attacks:

Gov. Dewey ordered an investigation, but put it in the hands of Fanelli, the man he had charged with the responsibility of seeing that what happened didn’t happen. Fanelli presented his information to a county grand jury. Its report absolved the police from blame in the first riot, ignored concert-goers’ charges that police stood by or even joined in the second riot, and devoted a great deal of space to pointing out the dangers of communism in Westchester. The concert organizers had provoked the riot for propaganda purposes, according to the report.

Episcopal Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, charged by HUAC with dozens of offenses, testified in July 1953 that the committee’s witch hunt had given rise “to a new and vicious expression of Ku-Kluxism, in which an innocent person may be beaten by unknown assailants, who are cloaked in anonymity and at times immunity.” [62] Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools, there was a membership rise in both the Klan and newer white supremacist “citizen’s councils” (many rightist groups also took up the cause of impeaching Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren after Brown). When one Wisconsin teacher was accused of discussing Communism too even-handedly, “The reaction was immediate and unequivocal: The teacher’s tires were slashed, his telephone rang at odd hours with anonymous calls and, inevitably, the school board decided not to renew his contract.” [63]

While the American Legion did not play exactly the same role as Wall Street’s Freikorps that it had before, it nonetheless played a part during the Red Scare. The Legion could be relied upon to provide boots-on-the-ground manpower in any anti-subversive crusade. Enjoying a boost in membership numbers following the Korean War, the Legion opposed progress wherever it threatened the status quo, including picketing the release of Charlie Chaplin films, meeting with 8 studio heads in 1952 to start their own Hollywood blacklist, and organizing a highly publicized mock Soviet takeover of the town of Mosinee, Wisconsin in 1950 — a stunt which only ended up killing two people. [64] The Legion publicized a blacklist in its magazine Firing Line, a title which is unsettling when one considers how many “subversives” met their ends on the Legion’s literal firing line. As an example of the Legion’s tone in dealing with its enemies, members hanged an effigy of UCSD professor Herbert Marcuse (bearing a placard reading “Marxist Marcuse”) in front of city hall in San Diego in 1968.

The Second Red Scare was successful at both hobbling the CPUSA and enlisting the leadership of groups like trade unions and universities in purging their membership rosters. Thus, the state could afford to scale back its repressive measures and re-institute the civil liberties it had rescinded. However, McCarthyism could not change the nature of American society, so forces of America’s right-wing funded an explosion of reactionary groups to maintain the racial and class hierarchy. Journalist Edmund Lambeth observed in 1961 that “The anti-Communists, as most call themselves, are better-organized and more active than ever before. For concerned action they eclipse even the grassroots effort made in the era of the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.” [65]

This ultra-right milieu birthed groups like the Minutemen, an organization which in the ’60s boasted as many as 2,400 members organized into 23 guerrilla groups. [66] The Minutemen were started in either 1960 or 1961 by business owner Robert DePugh as a stay-behind militia force that would be mobilized in response to a Soviet invasion. In 1959, a proto-Red Dawn was published in the form of a novel titled The John Franklin Letters, which would inspire the formation of groups like DePugh’s Minutemen, as well as inspiring William Pierce to write The Turner Diaries (note the similarity in their titles).

Like the Minutemen’s more official European Gladio counterparts, the group contented itself with targeting domestic progressives while waiting for the Red Army. By the admissions of both DePugh and American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, there was membership overlap between the two groups. The group made headlines after a police raid on a training camp in 1961, and grew more controversial from there. CIO leader Walter Reuther called upon Attorney General Robert Kennedy to crack down on the Minutemen. Kennedy declined, as he had in 1961 when he chose not to list the American Nazi Party as a subversive organization. DePugh told Kansas City Star correspondent J. Harry Jones that his group had 1,500 Americans under surveillance, and had singled out 25 or 30 “members of the Communist ‘hidden government’” for assassination, including Senator William Fulbright. The Justice Department continued to treat the Minutemen’s activity as Constitutionally protected speech until 1965, when Virginia police discovered a training camp and arsenal outside of Washington, D.C., soon after which DePugh and some followers were arrested on weapons charges. [67]

Although the South had erected a complex legal framework for enforcing de jure white supremacy, vigilante terror remained the backbone of America’s racial caste system. To choose but one example, there is that of Autherine Lucy, the first black student to enroll at the University of Alabama. Lucy had enlisted the help of the NAACP, which secured a court ruling allowing her to enroll after 3 years of legal struggle. Lucy began classes in 1956, but her presence was protested by mobs of hundreds of racist thugs. The university expelled her on the grounds that neither it nor the police could guarantee her safety — a position it argued successfully in court.

In 1960, the New York Times published an article on Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama, and author Harrison Salisbury wrote that the system was “reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police, and many branches of the state’s apparatus.” Most of these means of racist terror are extra-judicial in nature. Birmingham embodied the worst of segregation in the public eye, particularly under the brutal reign of Police Commissioner “Bull” Connor. Birmingham earned the ignominious nickname “Bombingham” because of the ubiquity of bombings against black homes, black churches, and Jewish synagogues, few of which were investigated with any vigor (in the one case where accused bombers were arrested, they were acquitted by an all-white jury). Birmingham also became famous for the semi-public romance between the local police and the Ku Klux Klan.

In summer 1961, when the Birmingham PD got word that a busload of Freedom Riders were due in their city, police instructed the Klan to beat the activists, “make them look like a bulldog got hold of them,” and leave them naked in the restroom to be arrested. Connor assured the Klan that they would receive lenient sentences on the off chance any of them were apprehended. The Birmingham PD assigned two officers, Gary Thomas Rowe and Tom Cook, as liaison agents to work with the Klan; Rowe was also a longtime FBI informant. Cook recounted that the Klan was told “I don’t give a damn if you beat them, bomb them, murder or kill them. I don’t give a shit. I don’t want them in Alabama when you’re through with them.”

The day of, Cook and Rowe pinpointed the station at which the Riders were due to arrive, and the Klansmen were ready. “Most of them were young — in their twenties,” recounted victim James Peck, “Some were carrying ill-concealed iron bars. A few were older men. All had hate showing on their faces.” The attack went on for 15 minutes; by the time police arrived, most Klansmen had escaped. Rowe was still on the attack when police arrived, and one officer ran over to him and shouted “Goddammit, get out of here. Get ‘em out of here. Your 15 minutes are up and we’re sending the crew.”

Rowe later testified to the Church Committee that he had informed the FBI about the attack on the Freedom Rider bus, but the bureau took no effort to prevent it. [68] In 1965, Rowe played a part in the assassination of civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo. “When he had first come to the FBI’s attention,” wrote a reporter for the Baltimore Times, “Rowe was a barroom brawler in Birmingham with a police record, a man unburdened by either principle or self-control and virtually indistinguishable in character or outlook from those already in the KKK.” [69] Calling Rowe “horrifyingly brutal” and “the FBI’s man on the inside of the Klan,” the Times explained that “Rowe had a knack for being in the vicinity of just about every conflagration of racial violence in the virulently segregated Alabama of the early 1960s. He was around for beatings, bombings, ultimately even murder.” In fact, though it is the label generally applied to right-wing killers working with authorities, “informer” is something of a misnomer. “What the FBI accomplished,” one author suggests, was mostly “to immunize Rowe and some of his closest Klan friends.”

In many cases, vigilantes do little informing, and “informer” is a euphemism for “assassin.” Consider brothers George and Larry Stiner, tasked by their FBI handler with murdering LA Black Panthers Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins — FBI agent Wesley Swearingen said “another agent on the squad had arranged for [his] informers in the United Slaves to assassinate Alprentice Carter and John Huggins. Following [the agent’s] instructions, informants George Stiner and Larry Stiner shot them to death on the UCLA campus on January 17, 1969.” [70]

Outside the South, the radical movements of the era encountered a response that was little less brutal, particularly in the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles. As one of America’s major industrial centers, Chicago had a long radical history and a complementary history of police and vigilante brutality. In the ’60s and ’70s, Chicago police waged “a literal shooting war with black militants,” in the words of one author; another dubbed it “the national capital of police repression.” [71] Chicago PD, the FBI, and even the military afforded unique leeway to local vigilantes, a bond that dated back to the post-WWI heyday of the local American Vigilant Federation.

In 1968, Chicago businessman S. Thomas Sutton formed a vigilante group called the Legion of Justice with college Republicans from the local Young Americans for Freedom outfit. By the next year, the Legion boasted 5 or 6 chapters of 40-60 members each, and additional affiliates in Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin. As recounted by Frank Donner, the Legion worked with police to carry out “terrorist-style raids” against left-wing groups, burglarizing offices with undercover cops, harassing and spying on activists, and engaging in other criminal behavior under a police aegis. The US Army’s 113th Military Intelligence Group, based in Evanston, IL, contributed money and equipment to the Legion, including tear gas bombs, mace, and electronic surveillance equipment. The police never touched the Legion, even when Sutton would hold press conferences showing off material stolen from progressive groups. The Legion of Justice was just one of many local vigilante groups who enjoyed such treatment, including groups like the Lincoln Park Conservation Association and the Vietnam Veterans’ Association. [72]

Los Angeles, for its part, was experiencing a population boom due to the explosive growth of the military/aerospace industry spurred by the Cold War. The presence of the military industry also made Southern California one of the central nodes in the American “new right” which would be a major force in US politics from that point onward. Walter Knott, the farmer who started the Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Orange County, was a major donor to the John Birch Society, so sales of Boysenberry jam went into John Birch coffers. In 1961, there was a week-long anti-communist youth camp in Orange County. The Catholic Cardinal of Orange County, Francis McIntyre, told his flock to read John Birch publications. [73] Beginning in the 1950s, Los Angeles was a hotbed of terrorist bombings directed against progressive activists of all stripes, which meant everything from offices of the LA CPUSA to the homes of anti-war ministers.

One such case was that of Frank Wilkinson, the public relations officer for LA’s Housing Authority, a group that promoted housing programs for low-income Angelenos. Wilkinson’s work earned him the enmity of Police Chief Robert Parker, a fervent ultra-rightist who was the J. Edgar Hoover of SoCal. When Mayor Fletcher Bowron rebuffed Parker’s plan to smear and discredit Wilkinson, Parker read Wilkinson’s classified police file out during a televised state legislative committee hearing. Shortly thereafter, Wilkinson’s home and office were both bombed. Police interrogated Wilkinson in order to build the case that he had perpetrated the bombings himself in order to garner public sympathy. Accusing the victim of conducting false-flag attacks, while expending little effort to investigate other suspects, was the default state response to such incidents (such was the response to the attempted COINTELPRO assassination of environmentalist Judi Bari in 1990, via a carbomb most likely planted by the FBI). [74] Bombings perpetrated by the far-right were so common that “In the spring of 1975,” according to Frank Donner, “official data revealed that in the previous year Los Angeles continued, as it had in the past, to lead the nation in bombings:”

a total of 152 — almost 3 a week. In the first five months of 1975, no fewer than 18 terrorist-style bombings took place in the Los Angeles area, for which groups such as the American National Socialist Party, the Nazi Liberation Front, the anti-Castro Cuban Action Commandos, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Jewish Defense League were responsible. [75]

With Chicago and LA on one end of the spectrum, New York City evinced the most measured response. New York was the most constrained in its use of vigilante violence and extrajudicial police terror, sparing no expense to pursue activists through legal means (the Panther 21 trial became the most expensive in state history). [76] However, Donner explains, “sources within the department have claimed that the prosecutions were part of a trade-off to appease elements in the police that threatened self-help and vigilantism unless punitive courtroom measures were taken against the ghetto militants.” [77]

While these cities were the outliers, tolerance of right-wing vigilantism was a constant in any American locale where the status quo was threatened in a substantial way. Major demonstrations against US involvement in Vietnam occurred as early as 1966, and anti-war activists were harassed, hassled, or attacked with impunity in at least New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; Boston; and Oklahoma City by nationalist mobs or organized groups like the American Nazi Party. Sociologist Jerry Lembcke points out that while it’s extremely difficult to prove a negative, the historical record indicates that it is very unlikely that Vietnam veterans were ever spit on by any anti-war protestors. However, reporters covering these ‘66 protests recorded instances of anti-war veterans and their allies being spit on by pro-war agitators. [78] It was a common occurrence for anti-war protestors to have their tires slashed, and higher-profile organizers to be harassed endlessly with anonymous threats.

The doctrine of plausible deniability means that state fingerprints on the funding and directing of fascist terror squads will generally be denigrated as so much conspiracy-addled wingnuttery. However, the historical record points very strongly towards FBI involvement in the Secret Army Organization (SAO), begun in San Diego by two former members of the now-defunct Minutemen. One of those founders, Howard Berry Godfrey, also worked for the FBI. A San Diego Union exposé on the group claimed that it was started as a Hoover-approved vigilante arm of COINTELPRO, receiving between $10,000 and $20,000 worth of weapons from the FBI in order to wage “protracted guerilla warfare against antiwar protestors in San Diego.”

The group, whose members were heavily armed with automatic weapons and explosives, burglarized the homes and offices of Vietnam war protestors, bombed and ransacked activist offices, including a local underground newspaper, and firebombed cars… They also made death threats against local dissidents and political figures, plotted to kidnap certain radicals and shot a young San Diego woman. [79]

John Resperry, an FBI informant working for the SAO, claimed in a report compiled by the ACLU that the FBI had instructed him to kill Peter Bohmer, a Marxist professor at San Diego State University, as well as local Brown Beret Linco Bueno. [80] While Resperry declined, SAO member George Hoover fired into Bohmer’s home one night in an assassination attempt, wounding the woman mentioned in the Union report above. [81] FBI informant Howard Godfrey was driving the car, and the weapon was then given to the SAO’s FBI handler, agent Steve Christiansen.

By the mid-1970s, the success of counterrevolutionary violence enabled the state to exercise greater restraint. Nevertheless, the remnants of the era’s mass movements were to be dealt with as they had been before. One of the more famous examples is that of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s assassination at the hands of Dan White in 1978. Milk’s crime was not only being openly gay, but uniting poor, nonwhite, and radical anti-war voters into a politically significant bloc, and his murder helped pave the way for San Francisco’s transformation into a hyper-gentrified playground for the tech super-rich. [82] Despite the premeditated nature of the crime, including White’s circling around a wounded Moscone to finish him off execution-style, a jury found White guilty of only 2 counts of voluntary manslaughter, for which he served 5 years. One Washington Post reporter said that White’s jury “included no racial minorities, no homosexuals, no one from well-bred Pacific Heights or the shabbiest corners of the projects… They believed in God. They favored the death penalty. A few of them wept as they listened to White confess.” [83]

Another high-profile instance of right-wing vigilante impunity was the Greensboro massacre of 1979. Racists intercepted a North Carolina anti-Klan march, murdered 5 progressive activists, and were not arrested. A great deal of groundwork went into enabling Nazis and the Klan to murder 5 people in broad daylight and get away with it — planning which happened on both sides of the thin blue line. “The story begins with Klansman Edward Woodrow Dawson, who in the fall of 1979 became a paid informant for the Greensboro, North Carolina, Police Department,” writes Frank Donner.

Having worked in that capacity for the FBI from 1969 to 1976, Dawson began attending meeting of the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP) in Greensboro and gathering literature and “intelligence” on that group. It soon became clear that Dawson and his Greensboro Police Department (GPD) control agents, Detective Jerry “Rooster” Cooper and Lieutenant Robert Talbott, were focusing on a communist-sponsored anti-Klan march and conference to be held in Greensboro on November 3, 1979.

The day of the march, Dawson informed Det. Cooper that Nazis and the Klan had assembled, were armed with guns, and planned to “shoot up the place.” Cooper had earlier instructed Dawson to obtain a map of the march and pass it to the Klan, which he did. “Cooper told the officers present” that the Klan was on its way to intercept the marchers “and the tactical squad leaders declared a lunch break,” writes Donner. “While Cooper reported from behind the caravan (‘shots fired’ and then ‘heavy gunfire’), most of the tactical squads’ police officers were still at lunch.” Two officers who had not received the orders to take a break “responded to the call because the area was mysteriously without its normally assigned patrol cars or officers at the time.” The police communications center instructed them to not investigate and rather “clear the area as soon as possible.”

Twenty minutes later, five demonstrators lay dead or dying on the streets, assassinated in broad daylight by avowed members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party, without a uniformed police officer in sight. [84]

Greensboro was not the only racist massacre of the post-Civil Rights period, nor was it the bloodiest. That dishonor probably goes to the Atlanta child murders, for which the largest police task force in US history was assembled. Between 1979 and 1981, 29 black boys were murdered in Georgia. Extensive evidence implicated the Sanders family, a group of white supremacists with multiple felony convictions who headed a Georgia klavern. Evidence implicating the KKK included an eyewitness who saw Carlton Sanders abducting one of the victims, as well as police wiretaps and informant testimonies which revealed multiple members of the Sanders family discussing the murders and stockpiling an arsenal in anticipation of a race war. However, under the pretense that implicating Klansmen would unduly inflame the black community, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation “discovered and covered up the fact that a Ku Klux Klan family may have been responsible,” in the words of the two journalists who covered the story. [85] Despite an almost-total lack of evidence, the murders were blamed on a black man, Wayne Williams, though he was not charged with the child murders and was sentenced to double-life on unrelated and similarly dubious charges.

The Reagan Counterrevolution and the End of History

Following the work of the Church Committee, the FBI claimed to have destroyed those documents compiled through the Counter-intelligence Program. Instead, the Bureau covertly turned over its COINTELPRO documents to the Western Goals Foundation, as did the LAPD (and possibly other police departments) with its illegally obtained data. In the foundation’s own words, its purpose was to “fill the critical gap left by the crippling of the FBI, the disabling of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the destruction of crucial government files [on dissidents and subversives].” [86]

Western Goals was a nominally private, very well-funded, tax-exempt group incorporated in 1979 and conveniently headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. It was founded by many familiar faces of the American ultra-right, including Roy Cohn, leaders of the fascist World Anti-Communist League like John Singlaub, and the billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt. Its chairman, Rep. Larry McDonald, did double-duty as the chairman of the John Birch Society after the death of founder Robert Welch. During Iran-Contra, Western Goals became a private conduit for funneling money to Latin American death squads. While Western Goals was the most high-profile private spying and counter-subversive foundation of the era, there have been many others like it. Some were private groups made up of law enforcement, like the Law Enforcement Intelligence Units or the Regional Organized Crime Information Center. Some have claimed religious auspices, like the Church League of America or the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (the ADL has operated as an anti-radical blacklist and private surveillance outfit since at least the Great Depression era). Regardless, all of them have augmented state counter-subversive efforts when political pressure constrains the government.

In the 1980s, Western Goals provided dubious dossiers linking stateside organizations working for solidarity with the people of Latin America to various foreign governments and rebel groups, the pretext for “the FBI to launch the largest investigation of political dissenters since the 1960s.” [87] Though the era’s progressive struggles were of a lower profile than those of previous decades, the Reagan era saw a host of popular movements incur the wrath of the powers-that-be: Latin American solidarity groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES); anti-Apartheid activism; efforts against nuclear weapons and the deployment of cruise missiles, submarines, and new ICBMs; for LGBT rights and AIDS awareness; black liberation; and so on. As always, government suppression of progressive groups was augmented by a wave of vigilante terror.

In the 1980s, Central American solidarity activists experienced about 200 attacks, including burglaries and break-ins, threats, harassment, and outright attacks. One CISPES activist, a young Salvadoran woman named Yanira Corea, was kidnapped, tortured, raped, and interrogated about CISPES by several Central American men who knew a great number of personal details about her. In 1987, the LA Times described “a series of Central American death squad-style incidents in Los Angeles” in one month alone; the problem was so bad that Mayor Tom Bradlee condemned the violence and announced a $10,000 reward for information that would convict one of these terrorists. [88] Nevertheless, none were ever brought to justice. [89]

Activists for a free South Africa introduced an element of direct-action theater to the boycott/divestment/sanction struggle. By erecting a series of makeshift encampments on campus, anti-Apartheid students created stark demonstrations of the conditions in which black Africans were forced to live. Many were firebombed, endangering the lives of activists, leading student Patrick Bond from Johns Hopkins University to deliver the following testimony to the United Nations:

Like the Botha regime, the Hopkins administration and trustees had constructed an environment of intolerance and hostility that produced a right-wing firebombing attack… Like the Botha regime, they tried to cover-up, by attempting twice the day after the firebombing to remove the burned debris… Like the Botha regime, the Hopkins administration tried to blame the victim, by suggesting that our burned-down shanty would incite further violence. Thus, in this divestment struggle at Hopkins, we are better able to comprehend the difficulty in waging a campaign to end apartheid. While thankfully we do not camp at Crossroads, we are now realizing what it means to know the fear of death at the hands of vigilantes. [90]

Egregious examples of vigilante impunity abounded, even in the absence of a major, sustained challenge to the status quo:

Between 1991 and 1993 three Haitian talk-show hosts in Miami, who aired critical commentaries about CIA-supported military repression in Haiti, were shot dead. Individuals in the Cuban American community who advocated a conciliatory policy toward the Cuban communist government were subjected to threats and attacks. A right-wing Cuban exile terrorist group openly claimed credit for some twenty-one bombings between 1975 and 1980 and for the murder of a Cuban diplomat in New York, yet the group escaped arrest in all but two instances.

In the United States, between 1981 and 1987, there were eleven killings of Vietnamese publishers, journalists, and activists who had advocated relations with the communist government of Vietnam. In each instance, a U.S.-based right-wing Vietnamese organization, VOECRN, claimed responsibility. One of VOECRN’s victims, a publisher of a Vietnamese-language weekly, survived his shooting and identified the gunman. The assailant was convicted but the conviction was reversed at the prosecutor’s request because “he had no prior criminal record in this country.” The police and FBI claimed that such attacks were unrelated and devoid of a political motive — despite VOECRN’s politically inspired communiqués claiming responsibility.

There is the strange case of Professor Edward Cooperman who was shot in his office at California State University, Fullerton. As founder of an organization advocating scientific cooperation with Vietnam, Cooperman had received death threats. Lam Van Minh, a Vietnamese émigré and Cooperman’s former student, admitted witnessing the professor’s death and was arrested. As he tells it, Cooperman produced a gun that accidentally discharged and killed him. Minh left, taking the gun with him for some reason. He then took a female friend to a movie, after which he returned to the office and placed the gun in Cooperman’s hand. The office had the appearance of a struggle. The prosecution introduced little to challenge Minh’s improbable story. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to three years, and served only one. [91]

Trump’s America

Fast-forward to today. Billions of dollars have been spent and a greater number of words have been written to present today’s social ills as phenomena uniquely linked to the anomalous President Donald Trump. And the Trump era is certainly producing its own slew of stories about right-wing violence being tolerated by police or otherwise handled with suspicious leniency.

Like this headline:

Violent proto-fascists came to Portland. The police went after the anti-fascists. [92]

Or a story from earlier this week that a Louisiana police department was opening up criminal investigations based on a what they believed to be an AntiFa dossier compiled by the GamerGate-hub 8Chan. [93]

Or a story from the previous month, when the Berkeley, CA police department posted the names and photos of over a dozen recently arrested anti-fascist activists on their Twitter feed. The move was seen by many as an intimidation and blacklisting tactic as well as a chilling method of inviting violent neo-Nazi reprisals. “The controversy comes as police agencies in California and across the country have repeatedly faced scrutiny for working with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups,” wrote the Guardian, “by shielding leaders of those organizations and arresting and prosecuting anti-fascists participating in counter demonstrations.”

“They are making it really accessible for folks who might wish these people harm to locate them,” said one law professor at the University of California Berkeley: “It seems like a public-shaming exercise, which is not the role of the police department.” [94] But a look at the real history of US policing and vigilantism shows that this exact duty is one of the most important, if covert, roles that the police have served. Aiding and abetting reactionary vigilantes is a role that they will always serve in order to protect the status quo. It has occurred with such a reliable consistency in the face of progressive challenges that it’s enough to make you wonder what exactly a $300,000 Juris Doctorate from Cal really buys you.

No amount of pointing out the double-standards or hypocrisy of it all will change the privilege that ruling class emissaries afford fascist vigilantes, since the special relationship is not a mistake or oversight. Malcolm X, who was himself murdered by vigilantes aided and protected by the US government, warned that “you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam.” Tolerance of vigilantism in defense of the ruling class’ interests will exist as long as capitalism exists, but the good news is that it need not exist forever.



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[22] Du Bois, p. 691. 

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[28] Donner, pp. 35-36. 

[29] Donner, p. 43. 

[30] Donner, p. 307. 

[31] Gray, pp. 46-50. 

[32] Gray, pp. 53-54. 

[33] Gray, p. 67. 

[34] Gray, p. 77. 

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[36] Gray, p. 87. 

[37] Gray, pp. 134-36. 

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[40] Gray, pp. 138-39. 

[41] Gray, p. 143. 

[42] Gray, pp. 143-47. 

[43] Gray, p. 241; Gray, p. 66. 

[44] Gray, p. 131. 

[45] Gray, p. 148. 

[46] Gray, p. 216. 

[47] Villeneuve, p. 201. 

[48] Sayers & Kahn, pp. 175-76. 

[49] Carlson, p. 75. 

[50] Sayers & Kahn, pp. 211-12. 

[51] Ribuffo, p. 210. 

[52] Ribuffo, pp. 210-12. 

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[54] Gray, p. 151. 

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[68] Donner, pp. 308-10. 

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[72] Donner, pp. 146-51. 

[73] Farber, p. 103. 

[74] Donner, pp. 250-51. 

[75] Donner, p. 269. 

[76] Wikipedia. [web] 

[77] Donner, p. 194. 

[78] Lembcke, pp. 32-33. 

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[86] Grandin, p. 138. 

[87] Gelbspan, p. 45. 

[88] 1987-11-05. Salvadoran Victim of Terrorists Tells of New Threat. Los Angeles Times. [web] 

[89] Smith, pp. 307-9; Grandin, pp. 137-40. 

[90] Patrick Bond, 1986-09. Statements by Student Representatives in the United States of America Against Apartheid. United Nations Center Against Apartheid. [web] 

[91] Parenti, p. 126. 

[92] Christopher Mathias & Andy Campbell, 2018-08-05. Violent Proto-Fascists Came To Portland. The Police Went After The Anti-Fascists. The Huffington Post. [web] 

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