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Recent events spotlight vigilantism and self-defense nationwide and in Colorado

Experts cite Arvada case in June as most tragic
Posted at 7:49 PM, Dec 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-03 02:39:16-05

DENVER — The verdicts in favor of Kyle Rittenhouse and against the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery have shone a renewed spotlight on vigilantism and self-defense in America.

Then, the Arvada Good Samaritan case earlier this year and last week a former Greenwood Village police officer shooting a teenager in Aurora brought the issue closer to home.

"People who are second amendment advocates feel strongly about this,” said Dr. Prabha Unnithan, a sociology and criminology professor at Colorado State University.

“Vigilante justice is not what you see on TV," said Dr. Vern L. Howard, chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission.

All of the aforementioned cases center around people who were armed, putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations, asserting they did so in self-defense or to stop a threat.

"The idea that when somebody punches you, you punch back," Unnithan said. “This business of turning the other cheek has never been a big theme in American culture."

Unnithan says the landscape of self-defense and vigilantism has shifted in recent decades to a more expansive notion that includes the right to not retreat from danger.

"Somewhere in the back of our mind we have this idea: Stand your ground, you don't have to retreat," Unnithan said.

Howard said he learned his lesson back in the 90s after a drive-by shooting in his neighborhood.

“I told my wife to call the police while I ran outside with my rifle," Howard said. “And the police came and they said,‘drop it,’ and I dropped it."

Howard says this kind of vigilante justice has been more prevalent ever since the Trayvon Martin case back in 2012.

"Here’s a young man, minding his own business walking home from the store," Howard said. “When somebody assumed he was doing something wrong — come to find out, nothing to it — a life was lost and a person got off."

Both Howard and Unnithan say the Arvada case is perhaps one of the most tragic in recent history because a Good Samaritan, Johnny Hurley, did take down an active shooter only to be shot and killed by police.

“Police are told that there's somebody shooting and they come around the corner and there's an innocent bystander trying to help the police, who's a vigilante, and the police don't know him from anyone else," Howard said.

“This is the ultimate nightmare in these types of situations,” Unnithan said. “Authorities show up. It’s difficult for them to distinguish who's the good guy and who's the bad guy."

Since the early 90s, at least 27 states have passed controversial 'stand your ground' laws, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Howard says it's contrary to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about decades ago.

"He says an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth will make us end up an eyeless and toothless nation," Howard said.

Unnithan says these cases move us further away from biblical and traditional obligations of de-escalating confrontations.

"This Gandhian idea of resistance, but not necessarily aggressive resistance," Unnithan said.

“You just don't know the outcomes,” Howard said. “There's too many lives that will be disrupted. Too many outcomes you can't control. Let's let justice be the security that we look for in those situations. Let's not take the law into our own hands."

Of course, vigilantism or demonstrating to influence behaviors doesn't have to be violent.

Take PETA, for example. In 1994, they commandeered the offices of Calvin Klein with signs and spray paint. Klein dropped out of the fur business a few months later.

“What is very persuasive to one person isn’t to another,” said Ashley Byrne, director of outreach and communications for PETA. “So, you need a diversity of tactics. But what we've seen over the years is that now, almost every major designer has dropped fur.”

Regardless of how anyone feels about PETA's tactics, there's no denying they've been effective. As the New York Times noted last year, PETA still protests, but it no longer has to raid offices because often it already has a seat at the table.