Analysis: Vigilante Justice and Its Fundamental Connection to the Rittenhouse and Arbery Trials

Despite disparate proceedings, citizen vigilantism lies at the heart of the Rittenhouse and Arbery trials.

Demonstrators protest at Kyle Rittenhouse's trial outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 15, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Credit: Getty Images
Demonstrators protest at Kyle Rittenhouse's trial outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 15, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Credit: Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, the world has watched as Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial and the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery unfold concurrently — with each trial offering striking lessons.

Judge Bruce Schroeder’s antics and apparent bias in favor of the defense have continued to raise questions, while an unequal racial makeup of jurors in Georgia ignited much controversy — an imbalance that speaks to “long and ugly history of excluding Black people from juries, particularly in the South,” as Drexel University professor Adam Benofardo writes.

“In a case that seems to have so much to do with race, how can it be acceptable to have a jury with only one Black person on it, particularly in a county with a large African-American population?” Benofardo said

With two high-profile trials happening at the same time, many individuals have observed a common thread that undercuts the cases: vigilante justice, which squares discontent and violent individual action as a means of righting a political or systemic wrong.

In recent years, particularly, and under Trump-era influence, many Americans have adopted a mindset in which the vigilante actions are not only acceptable but encouraged, and are implemented inappropriately.

A survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that nearly 3 in 10 Americans, including 39% of Republicans, felt that, “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”


Race relations and instances of vigilantism are both prevalent and, at times, seemingly inextricable from each other. The far-right, neo-fascist, all-male group of self-identified “Western chauvinists,” known as the “Proud Boys,” have repeatedly clashed with organizations like Black Lives Matter, for example.

Some experts have cited a strong correlation between policing, self-defense, and vigilantism, noting the racialization that is entrenched in each: In each instance, Black people are more likely to be interpreted as a threat while white people are more likely to be believed or given a chance to explain themselves.

This finding is particularly salient, given that the perpetrators in each trial — Kyle Rittenhouse, Greg and Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan — are all white men. And, though the three men shot by Rittenhouse shot, two of whom ultimately succumbed to their wounds, were white, the four individuals had converged in Kenosha as the result of a protest over the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

These cases find resonance with the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, FL, after Zimmerman called police to report a “suspicious person.” Zimmerman was ultimately cleared of all charges by a jury, a decision that created significant unrest.


Furthermore, the “self-defense” argument employed by many vigilantes feels hardly viable when considering that it is being used, in effect, as a pass for deadly response to an action that is unaccompanied by the threat of imminent danger. In each scenario—Rittenhouse, Arbery, and Martin—none of the shooters were purportedly at risk of being killed or otherwise seriously harmed. The “self-defense” claim has been one of the most polarizing aspects of each trial, creating deep division amongst those following them. Mark O’Mara, one of Zimmerman’s self-defense attorneys, observed the difficulty in arguing self-defense cases: the death of a person is inherently imbued with a fair amount of emotion and is difficult to justify to a jury pool.


The Jan 6 Capitol insurrection can perhaps be understood as a culmination of 21st century citizen vigilantism mentality: The large-scale demonstration of citizens, emboldened by self-interpreted justification for the use of violence, was prompted by political restlessness, albeit generated by former president Donald Trump’s election falsehoods.

Nearly a year has passed since the insurrection took place in Washington D.C.— and yet, the effects of it, ever-apparent in the theme of vigilante justice that underpins the Rittenhouse and Arbery trials, remain as calcified as ever.