Mass Movements Can Beat Back Racist Vigilantes Like the El Paso Shooter

The El Paso shooter is the vigilante extension of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Lacking a physical barrier — a wall — he takes matters into his own hands and enforces a barrier on his own. He’s hardly the first. From the anti-immigrant pogroms of the Gold Rush to today’s border militias, vigilantism has long been deployed against perceived threats to white political power. In a terrifying feedback loop, vigilantism both pressured politicians to pass oppressive federal policy, and then, once the discrimination was law, even more violent vigilantism followed. But the racist violence of white vigilantes has been successfully challenged before by movements confronting both the vigilantes and the politicians that pander to them.

In his book, Urban Vigilantes in the New South, Robert Ingalls writes, “Vigilantes take the law into their own hands to reinforce the existing power relationships, not to subvert them.” Vigilantism has taken many forms in the United States. Vigilantism was a key part of the genocide of Native people in the United States. In the 1850s, the state of California passed three bills to literally funded militias to run “anti-Indian” campaigns. As a result, vigilantes killed at least 6,460 Native Californians from 1846-1873. Then there were the campaigns of lynching and other Jim Crow-era murders in the South, aimed at maintaining a racial caste system: from 1889 to 1929 a Black person was lynched every four days. And there was the private company police of the Pinkertons in the heartland in the late 1800s, who violently cracked down on workers and who outnumbered the US Army. But it is perhaps Western vigilantism that most closely tracks the anti-immigrant mass violence of the El Paso shooter.

In his manifesto, the El Paso shooter wrote that Latinos will leave the United States if given “the right incentive,” and that he and “many other patriotic Americans” will provide that incentive, with brutal violence. This type of violent intimidation is as old as the frontier, and is thoroughly documented in the book No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis, who argue that “the genocidal violence that Jacksonian Democracy unleashed on the South West” was in fact the very first “border.” It began with Manifest Destiny and was enacted against Native peoples, but found new targets all the time. As Chacón and Davis note, “California history often seems like a relentless conveyor belt delivering one immigrant group after another to the same cauldron of exploitation.”

During the California gold rush, the state’s 1850 Foreign Miner’s Tax Act imposed a monthly fee on non-citizens for the right to mine, but it was only enforced against Chinese and Latino miners. Violence followed, including the lashing, mutilation and lynching of 16 Chilean miners who had resisted efforts by whites to expel them from the mines. In the 1870s, Denis Kearney, a racist demagogue who led the Workingmen’s Party of California, scapegoated the Chinese population for economic problems, and warned, “either we must drive out the Chinese slave or we shall soon be slaves ourselves.” In 1871, a vigilante mob of 500 whites in Los Angeles killed 18 Chinese people who comprised 10 percent of the entire Chinese population in the city. Chacón and Davis write that “the Chinese became the scapegoats for a disintegrating California dream” — just as Trump and the El Paso shooter alike blame immigration for a decline in the United States. By 1879, the California constitution, influenced by Kearney, banned the employment of Chinese or Mongolian immigrants. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal ban on all Chinese immigration (not lifted until 1943). Once more, vigilantism followed the enshrinement of discriminatory policy into law. In 1885, at least 28 Chinese miners were murdered in Wyoming by white members of the Knights of Labor.

The political theater of vigilantism translating into policy was repeated from 1922-23, in a Los Angeles-based campaign against Japanese people organized by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Native Sons and local homeowners’ associations. Part propaganda and part vigilantism, the campaign printed “Japanese hunting licenses” and “swat the jap” buttons, and encouraged public humiliation: spitting on Japanese pedestrians, and threatening violence if Japanese people moved into white neighborhoods. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act banned all immigration from Asia.

Vigilantes also partnered with business owners to attack the labor movement. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were particularly targeted as they tried to organize marginalized groups rejected by other unions. In June 1924, the IWW hall in San Pedro, California, was attacked by 150 vigilantes and KKK members who scalded children present at the meeting by dipping them in boiling coffee, and kidnapped several men, beat them, and tar-and-feathered them.

In the fall of 1933, farmers, cotton ginners and businessmen intent on suppressing workers fought 12,000 striking Mexican farm workers with violence. Following a rally in Pixley, California, a group of vigilantes pulled up in cars and opened fire on the crowd of strikers, killing three. When grape workers from the United Farm Workers went on strike in the summer of 1973, strikers were beaten, shot, and in two cases, murdered — one by a Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy, and another by a non-union strike breaker.

Vigilantism saw a new resurgence in 2005 with the extra-legal “Minutemen” who patrolled the border in Arizona, detaining migrants and calling the Border Patrol. The group earned the accolades of California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said the group did a “terrific job.” One of the founders of the Minuteman Project, Jim Gilchrist, ran as a third-party candidate for California’s 48th district in 2005 with the endorsement of the Border Patrol union. While he ultimately lost to Republican John Campbell, he earned more votes in the primary than the top Democrat. In 2009, Shawna Forde, a leader in the Minutemen American Defense border vigilante group, invaded the home of Raul Junior Flores, murdering him and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores. She was sentenced to death in 2011.

Border militia groups continue their campaigns of harassment and vigilantism today. In April 2019, a group called the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) kidnapped a group of migrants and illegally detained them, broadcasting it live on Facebook. And while the leader of the UCP was later arrested by the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 216 active militia groups during 2018. The El Paso shooting on August 3 was the largest massacre of Latinos in history — killing more Latinos in a single attack than most all of the deadly anti-immigrant mobs detailed above.

Dehumanization has always been crucial to the effort of extralegal violence in service of maintaining a racist status quo. A deputy sheriff appearing before the Senate’s La Follette Committee hearings (which investigated anti-union tactics by employers from 1936-1941) said: “We protect our farmers here in Kern County … they are our best people … but the Mexicans are trash. They have no standard for living. We herd them like pigs.”

There is no daylight between this anti-immigrant rhetoric from some 80 years ago and that of Tucker Carlson proclaiming immigrants make the United States “dirtier,” or Trump calling undocumented immigrants “animals.” In the 1940s, when Japanese people were attacked in the streets and rocks were thrown at Japanese stores, these vigilante acts were invoked by California Attorney General Earl Warren as an argument for internment of Japanese people. Trump used that same tactic in the wake of the El Paso shooting, tweeting that in order to not let the victims “die in vain,” he’d support background checks if they were married with immigration reform — using vigilante violence to call for further repression of its victims.

But vigilantism can be fractured and challenged by broad coalitions working together. Throughout 2005, immigrant rights activists confronted the Minutemen with numbers far greater than the vigilantes — aiming both to disempower the vigilantes and to take the media spotlight away from them, focusing instead on the resistance. In the spring of 2005, there was a protest at the gated community where Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist lived. Two weeks later, when the anti-immigrant group Save Our State (SOS) tried to remove a sculpture by a Chicana artist from a Los Angeles park, activists outnumbered them by about 10-to-1, with one of the SOS members complaining it was like “going into the lion’s den.”

In 2007, the Minutemen were again outnumbered as they protested at the Mexican consulate over Mexico’s involvement in the case against Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who shot an unarmed, fleeing immigrant in the back. (Ramos and Compean had their 11- and 12-year sentences commuted by George W. Bush). The confrontations led to fracturing within the vigilante groups, and the need for backup, with Gilchrist, clearly shaken, putting out a cry for help, writing “reinforcements needed in Campo” following the confrontations.

The success of the confrontation of the Minutemen mirrors the broad coalition that organized against the white supremacist Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington D.C. in 2018. Hundreds of protesters from groups ranging from Black Lives Matter to the ANSWER Coalition, as well as unaffiliated individuals, vastly outnumbered the 20 or so white supremacists, and led Vox to declare the rally “a pathetic failure.”

The same kind of mass mobilization has been successful politically: The 2006 opposition to the racist Sensenbrenner bill, which would have changed border crossings from a misdemeanor to a felony, and which would have criminalized immigrants seeking public benefits, led to 100,000 people on the streets in Chicago and 500,000 in Los Angeles for a “day without immigrants.” The highly successful Bazta Arpaio campaign ended the career of the violent Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, with 500 organizers knocking on 13,000 doors in the weekend before the 2016 election. Mass movements grounded in solidarity are the key to fighting the vigilantism that works hand-in-glove with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.