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Elijah Doughty and Trayvon Martin: Victims of Modern Vigilantism

how will Australians will respond to Elijah Doughty's killing?
It remains to be seen how Australians will respond to Elijah Doughty's killing and the deep historical violence that underpins it.

(Nathan Moris - ABC)

Ethan Blue ABC Religion and Ethics 7 Sep 2016

Vigilantism is a concept often - wrongly, it turns out - associated with the nineteenth century, before the development of a fully modern legal system.

But vigilantism, and especially in its ugly racial forms, is very much with us today.

In February 2012, a self-appointed neighborhood watch member named George Zimmerman chased Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student, through the streets of Sanford, Florida, and shot him dead.

Trayvon Martin's killing, and the courts failure to hold Zimmerman accountable, gave rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Last week, a 55-year-old man, whose name is not yet publically known, hounded 14-year-old Elijah Doughty through the streets of Kalgoorlie, and ran him down with his truck.

In each case, a vigilante suspected a young person of colour of wrongdoing, and pursued and killed him. In each case, the vigilante executed summary justice, believing that he was acting in the role of the police. In each case, he tried to replace the police who, as the family of West Australia's Miss Dhu and Missouri's Mike Brown know, have no great record of respecting the civil or human rights of young people of colour.

George Zimmerman and murdered Trayvon Martin
George Zimmerman, (left) and murdered Trayvon Martin

We only need to think about treatment of youngsters at the Don Dale detention centre, or the untold numbers killed by the U.S. police, to see how vigilante and legally sanctioned police violence treat these young people as an enemy to contain or destroy.

Zimmerman was armed and prowling the streets anticipating violence. He carried a firearm and pursued Martin, even after police told him not to. We know from Facebook posts that many in Kalgoorlie had fantasized about killing youngsters for stealing bikes. "Run the fuckers over," read one post; "I'll run them over for ya buddy if I see them," read another. A third: "if the cops won't do fun [sic] all then what's stopping any one of yas from tracking these assholes down and dealing with them 'old school'??"

The implication of "old school" is, of course, of a past of freewheeling white citizen violence, unencumbered by the rule of law, the rights of the accused, or due process.

When the police, the courts, politicians and media impugn the dead children and symbolically or legally exonerate the grown men who killed them, can anyone really be surprised that their communities take to the streets to demand justice? No more surprised than when commentators fixate on protestors' momentary violence - a shattered courthouse window, a cut on a policeman's cheek - but say nothing about centuries of structural violence and dispossession.

When West Australian Attorney-General Michael Mischin referred to Kalgoorlie's political uprising and protest as a "lynch mob" - the very phrase conjuring images of hooded Klansmen murdering black men accused of crimes - he revealed an astounding ignorance of who the historical perpetrators of racial violence have been. We deserve more from our politicians than this political sleight of hand, trying to claim victim status for the Kalgoorlie police, and portray Aboriginal protestors as the aggressor. As Doughty's cousin, Hayley Garlett explained:

Elijah's family and their supporters say they want justice
Elijah's family and their supporters say they want justice. (Picture: Bohdan Warchomij - news.com.au)

"Everything that happened took away the focus over what happened to Elijah ... We want everyone to unite because we can't keep going on like this ... It's sad we've lost him and just want justice now."

Aboriginal people, African Americans and Native Americans have reacted to generations of racist violence with understandable anger, but more so, with remarkable restraint. They have built new movements and revitalized older ones to cherish Aboriginal, Black and Native lives, and proclaim that their lives - like refugees' lives - matter. When they do, they hold Australia, and the United States, to the high ideals each country has long proclaimed but rarely met.

George Zimmerman was exonerated of wrongdoing in Trayvon Martin's killing. Many are sceptical that Kalgoorlie justice is any more likely to hold Elijah's killer to account, and see street protest, and uprising as a necessary means of expressing discontent. It remains to be seen how Australians will respond to Doughty's killing and the deep historical violence that underpins it.

Ethan Blue is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Western Australia, specialising in the history of punishment, immigration history and labour history. He is the author of Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons.
Aboriginal boys at a vigil held in Kalgoorlie after the death of Elijah Doughty
Aboriginal boys at a vigil held in Kalgoorlie after the death of Elijah Doughty. (Nathan Morris - ABC)