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The Immorality of Vigilante Injustice in Georgia

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery is one of the most despicably unjust and inhumane examples of community violence and aggression I've ever witnessed. From home security video, we see the last minutes of Arbery's life as he visits a home construction site during one of his routine daily jogs. Minutes later, a phone camera records him running for his life, confronted by and engaged in a tussle with one of his pursuers, and then fired upon and maliciously killed.

This all happened back in February in Brunswick Georgia, when Gregory and Travis McMichael (father and son) apparently fed up over recent burglaries and break-ins in their neighborhood, suspected Arbery of criminal behavior and decided to make a "citizen's arrest", or at least until they resorted to handguns and shotguns that ultimately stopped Arbery cold in his tracks. Again, this was a brutal, cold-blooded, and savage killing, and from all that we now know, the ends don't justify the means whatsoever. The McMichaels are now in police custody, albeit three months later and after fierce public outcry over the graphic video-footage that caused so much controversy and pressure. So intense was the protest, both locally and nationally, that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation decided to take over the case and arrest the McMichaels. So far, the circumstances proffered offer a very flimsy defense, one that speaks little to the realities captured in the lethal video that's gone viral.

From the local attorney general to local law enforcement, the reported police conflicts of interest, administrative incompetence, procedural injustice, and outright shenanigans combined to implode the case thus necessitating immediate state and federal intervention. Complicating matters even more, Arbery is African American, the McMichaels are white, and Glynn County, GA is notorious for cover-ups and various levels of police misconduct, thus making the civil rights implications obvious and indefensible. The handling of the Arbery case by local officials is unjust on its face. I, however, want to weigh in on the issue of vigilante justice, or as the title suggest, "vigilante injustice".

In the article Vigilante Justice in America that appeared in the Claremont Journal of Law and Policy (Nov. 7, 2018), the author, Daisy Ni, rightly points out the following:

Vigilante justice, as defined by the Legal Information Institute, is the “actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so.” Vigilantism itself is not illegal under U.S. law but involves actions that are oftentimes illegal. It is notably associated with Ku Klux Klan lynching, which clearly demonstrates its dangers. Differences in perceptions of justice—often based on preconceived world views—can lead to horrific abuses and widespread discrimination, promoting a system based on revenge and retaliation and the rise of anarchy. Even when vigilantes are well-intentioned, vigilantism can undermine or disrupt actual law enforcement operations to maintain order

Ni goes on to highlight the numerous benefits of vigilantism on a community level that are rooted in the Constitution, which allows for revolution when rogue regimes become despotic. Even in government systems today, you can easily find examples of state codes that authorize private citizens to make arrests when known crimes are committed. The famed Guardian Angels in New York are probably the most popular example of a modern-day neighborhood watch organization that exists to preserve public safety and apply citizen arrest powers when called upon. Ni's article then proceeds to make an important qualification to reasonable and justifiable vigilantism.

Citizen’s arrest seems to speak to the validity of vigilantism, suggesting that individual involvement within law enforcement could be necessary or even desirable at times. However, a legitimate citizen’s arrest must adhere to a stringent set of qualifications, limiting it in the scope of application. Citizen’s arrest commonly permits only reasonable, or not more than necessary, use of force, used only in the process of subduing the other person. Additionally, its validity is contingent upon the actual occurrence of a crime. Individuals invoking citizen’s arrest have less leniency for mistake and are held to a higher standard of accuracy when compared to law enforcement. Those who exceed the permitted limit of force, or those who arrest someone who has not actually committed a crime, risk criminal and civil liability.

The quote above is an excellent cautionary statement against "vigilante injustice". As such, "Actual occurrence of a crime" is a crucial qualification that should be emphasized by public officials to deter vigilante abuse. Unfortunately, it is the primary or necessary condition that's sorely lacking in the Ahmaud Arbery's case, one that the McMichaels failed to consider. This absence renders the Arbery case criminal and immoral. Whether ignorant, fearful, or overzealous, the McMichaels did not witness nor were the victims of a crime. Consequently, they, more than likely, will face the full weight of the criminal justice system and the ire of public opinion for many, many years to come. The fact that this occurred in a sleepy Georgia town where the "system" undermined procedural justice and suppressed fairness is an American travesty and outrage irrespective of race or region.

Now that this case has seemingly regained propriety and due process, as outsiders looking in, we have a duty to now allow the legal process to proceed without imposing cynicism or hostile judgement given our limited knowledge of the truth and facts from the ongoing investigations. Yes, we all have a profound sense of righteous indignation over what took place, and we must continue to follow the story and hold local leaders accountable in our remote and isolated way, but we must not resort to our own form of "vigilante injustice" by unlawfully arresting the truth out of fear, ignorance, or, even worse, racial or political bias. When justice has finally run its course, the pathway to reconciliation must begin without compromise so that community and civility, in both spirit and practice, are restored.

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