Police Face Complaints of Tolerating Vigilantes

Fireworks explode as demonstrators protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake outside the Kenosha County, Wis., Courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo for The Washington Post by Joshua Lott).
Fireworks explode as demonstrators protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake outside the Kenosha County, Wis., Courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo for The Washington Post by Joshua Lott).

In a video recorded shortly before two people were fatally shot last week in Kenosha, Wis., the accused gunman – Kyle Rittenhouse, 17 – circulates among a group of gun-wielding men who claim to be guarding a service station amid protests against police brutality.

Although it is well past curfew, police passing in an armored vehicle offer the group bottles of water and some friendly encouragement, saying over a loudspeaker: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”

As protesters march against racism and police violence in cities and towns across the nation, they are being confronted by groups of armed civilians who claim to be assisting and showing support for police battered and overwhelmed by the protests. The confrontations have left at least three people dead in recent days: In addition to the two protesters killed Tuesday in Kenosha, a man thought to be associated with a far-right group called Patriot Prayer was fatally shot late Saturday in Portland, Ore.

Both incidents have drawn complaints that local authorities abetted the violence by tolerating the presence of these self-appointed gunmen with no uniforms, varied training and limited accountability. The stated motives of these vigilante actors, who are virtually indistinguishable from one another once massed on the streets, range from protecting storefronts and free speech to furthering white supremacy and fomenting civil war.

Many sheriffs and police chiefs, including in Kenosha, have disavowed these armed civilians, saying police do not want their help. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, a Republican, said he responded “hell no” when asked to deputize civilians. And Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, a Democrat, said this week, “I don’t need more guns on the streets in this city when we are trying to keep people safe.”

But elsewhere, local authorities have at times appeared to support people who took up arms against protests that have occasionally turned violent and provided cover for vandals and looters. In Snohomish, Wash., the police chief was ousted in June after welcoming dozens of armed men, including one waving a Confederate flag, who responded to false Internet rumors that “antifa” looters planned to ransack the town.

In Hood County, Texas, a constable in May encouraged the Oath Keepers – an armed group that claims to have thousands of members of current and former law enforcement and military agencies – to defend a Dallas hair salon after rumors of possible looting. And in Salem, Ore., a police officer was captured on video in June advising armed men to “discreetly” stay inside while police began arresting protesters for violating curfew.

On other occasions, police officers have been photographed smiling or fist-bumping with members of far-right armed groups. Even in Kenosha, individual police officers seemed to welcome the help of armed civilians, including Rittenhouse, a member of police and fire cadet training programs who said on video before the shooting that it was “our job” to help people and protect property.

“We were welcomed very warmly,” said Kenosha Guard leader Kevin Mathewson, 36, a former city alderman who summoned armed men in Kenosha on the night of the shooting. “I was at the entrance to my neighborhood. [Police] rolled down their windows and said, ‘Thanks for being here. We can’t be everywhere.’ “

Mathewson has said he does not know Rittenhouse. The teen, from the nearby town of Antioch, Ill., has been charged with homicide. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense after being “accosted by multiple rioters.”

In a letter last week to Kenosha officials, Mary McCord, legal director at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said “the bloodshed . . . throws into sharp relief the danger posed when private and unaccountable militia groups take the law into their own hands.”

McCord has called on police and prosecutors to enforce laws that prohibit private groups from usurping law enforcement functions. In her letter, she noted that “several provisions of Wisconsin law prohibit private paramilitary and unauthorized law enforcement activity.”

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Source: Seattle Times