Alliance Between Vigilantes and Law Enforcement: A US Tradition

Alliance Between Vigilantes and Law Enforcement: A US Tradition

Alliance Between Vigilantes and Law Enforcement: A US Tradition

On the continuity between the early-20th-century American Protective League and today’s violent “patriots.”


In 1938, Seth Wheeler Jr. wrote a brief article about the American Protective League (APL)—a short-lived organization of citizen volunteers who helped federal agencies root out radicals—for The Military Engineer magazine. By then, the violent, nativist wave that crested with the first Red Scare and the US entrance into World War I had broken and receded. The APL itself had dissolved. But Wheeler, the former chief of the league’s Albany division, wanted to remind the public of the organization’s historic importance.

“The initials A.P.L mean little or nothing to the great majority of the people of this country,” he lamented, but without it, the Department of Justice’s newly founded Bureau of Investigation (BOI)—which we know today as the Federal Bureau of Investigation—would have been unable to operate at the scale necessary to “combat the activities of over a quarter of a million members of various secret enemy organizations.” It was only a matter of time, he predicted, before Uncle Sam would once again find himself imperiled by foreign wars and seditious citizens. When such a time arrived, he reassured his readers, patriotic citizens would be ready “to jump in and do their bit” to protect the American way of life.

When pro-Trump protesters breached security and stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in order to disrupt the certification of an election they baselessly deemed fraudulent, Americans were shocked. Pundits, news anchors, and politicians from both sides of the aisle repeatedly stated that this turn of events was un-American, something that doesn’t happen here, not how our democracy works. “We’ve never seen anything like this” was the refrain.

As the late, great Gil Scott-Heron observed, amnesia is a function of being shocked—a state that Americans seem to be particularly fond of. Just last September, for example, protesters armed with AR-15s and kitted out in MAGA hats and Proud Boys paraphernalia stormed the state capitol in Lansing, Mich. Groups of armed white people with far-right political sympathies are neither anamolous nor actively discouraged by law enforcement agencies, who are not only reluctant to use force against them but frequently collude with them as well.

January 6 was upsetting, infuriating, disorienting, and perhaps even frightening, but to characterize it as “shocking” requires a willful failure of recent and historical memory. It’s precisely these sorts of organizations—now exemplified by the Proud Boys, National Alliance, National Anarchist Movement, European Heritage Association—that helped to consolidate the very notion of true Americanism, establish the boundaries of democratic expression and participation, and build the law enforcement agencies that are now so hesitant to interfere with their activities. In other words, both Americanism and law enforcement have right-wing vigilantism baked into them.

The early 20th century alliance between respectable-sounding extralegal organizations with members acting on their own recognizance and law enforcement arose from a combination of necessity and convention. Enforcing military conscription while stemming the tide of socialism and radicalism would have been impossible without this volunteer army of patriots, and ad hoc community policing was a well-established practice.

Before World War I, the United States national security apparatus barely existed by today’s standards, and while it grew considerably during the war, it remained skeletal well into the next decade. The APL, along with a number of similar organizations, provided personnel and administrative support for the War Department. By swelling the ranks of the BOI, these patriotic organizations played a crucial role in the repression of political dissent (often conflated with ethnic difference) during and following World War I. By policing the boundaries of acceptable speech and behavior, volunteer organizations for the maintenance of “law and order” not only supplemented the repressive apparatus that was being established at the federal level but also deployed the language of patriotism for the purpose of expanding a national security state and eliminating challenges to the economic order.

Many patriotic organizations sprang up across the country as preparedness for (and, later, active participation in) the war became the central preoccupation of both the public and the government. The committee for Defense, the Boy Spies of America, the American Legion, the resurrected Ku Klux Klan, and various defense committees formed by sheriffs’ departments and local chambers of commerce were just some of the mechanisms that placed the defense of America, its superior morals, and its system of government in the hands of zealous citizens. The APL was not unique, but it was the largest, and unlike many of its extralegal counterparts, it enjoyed the explicit endorsement of the attorney general and a quasi-official status as a functional branch of the BOI.

Albert M. Briggs, vice president of the Chicago firm Outdoor Advertising, founded the APL in March of 1917 as an association of volunteers, organized into local branches under the control of a national board of directors. Briggs approached the head of an overwhelmed Chicago BOI office with an offer of 75 cars and assistance in identifying German aliens and spies, then traveled to Washington, D.C., and made a similar offer to bureau chief Bruce Bielaski, who readily accepted. In 1917, the BOI had 122 agents, the Secret Service 50, and the Military and Naval Intelligence offices a few dozen between them. By contrast, the APL had 100,000 members within months of its formation, and in 1918 the organization had recruited 250,000 volunteers.

The APL’s best known and most widely organized action occurred over the course of three days in September 1918. Thirty-five BOI agents, 2,000 members of the APL, several hundred police officers, and 2,350 military personnel arrested somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 “slackers”—men suspected of dodging the draft mandated by the Selective Services Act. After the dragnets known as “slacker raids” met with widespread opprobrium, the BOI tried to distance itself from the APL and deny its active endorsement of the more egregious violations of its members. But this was disingenuous in the extreme: Members of the APL were permitted to carry badges identifying them as agents of the Secret Service, and in several cities they handled the bulk of BOI cases. In 1918, Bielaski ordered all bureau agents to fully cooperate with league members. These members were also routinely invited to participate in BOI raids.

While the Department of Justice had not empowered the APL to make arrests, operatives assumed that they had been authorized to act as official agents with all the powers of officers of the BOI. In the absence of supervision, let alone consequences, the organization proceeded to systematically violate the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. APL agents reported suspect activity, demanded proof of registration, made arrests, confiscated the assets of German Americans, broke up legal political meetings, forced people to purchase Liberty Bonds, helped to crush the occasional strike and—depending on the temperament and priorities of the operative—worked to keep alcohol and prostitutes out of military camps. According to historian Nick Fisher, they broke into buildings and stole documents, obtained personal information from post offices, illegally wire-tapped phones, forced symbolic acts of patriotism on pain of death, and monitored the activities of Germans who were all assumed to be “enemy aliens.”

The imprimatur enjoyed by the APL and its many cousins was disastrous for socialists, pacifists, union members, the many new and largely Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, African Americans, and anyone with even a glancing relationship to Germany.

At the time, Germans made up a significant portion of the 13 million foreign-born Americans counted in the 1910 census. These immigrants and their naturalized descendants were likely to speak German, read German-language newspapers, attend religious services delivered in German, and send their children to German-language schools. 9.2 million people identified German as their first language. During the war, Germans and the German language became the focus of generalized anxiety about immigration, political dissent, and economic order. Merely speaking German could result in physical violence or arrest. The official publication of the APL, Spy Glass, published lists of suspicious Germans complete with mug shots.

The violence of anti-German hysteria was not limited to persons of German heritage. Any perceived enemies of the state, usually labor radicals or political socialists, could be and were accused of working for the kaiser. The war against Germany provided a vehicle for making dissent of any kind literally un-American.

After German immigrant Robert Prager was wrapped in an American flag, beaten, and then lynched in Collinsville, Ill., in April 1918, President Wilson publicly condemned “mob violence,” but his condemnation of a single act of violence hardly countered the onslaught of propaganda encouraging citizen violence for the sake of the nation. Forced flag kissing and tarring-and-feathering were among the treatments reserved for undesirable citizens.

It may seem unbelievable today that the federal government would rely on patriotic volunteers to carry out its police functions, but the APL would not have struck Americans as all that odd in 1917. While the National Guard had begun to supersede local and state militias and professional police forces were increasingly prominent in major cities, early 20th century America remained reliant on community policing and provisional, nonprofessional law enforcement.

Furthermore, the APL was of a piece with the Wilson administration’s official plan for organizing the draft. According to Fisher, in an effort to avoid the draft riots that punctuated recruitment efforts during the Civil War, conscription and registration devolved to local organizations made up of civic-minded volunteers. Turning the draft into a local affair would not only lessen the administrative and financial burden of the federal government; it would also put a friendly, local face on the war effort that would encourage cooperation through the leveraging of social obligations. In a world of patchy and uncoordinated record keeping—where the testimony of relatives might commonly function as a substitute for birth certificates—the intimate knowledge of a place and its inhabitants was a valuable asset.

As historian Christopher Capozzola has argued, the unstable but still operational distinction between vigilance and vigilantism is key to understanding the political culture of early 20th century America. This distinction, never a hard line in practice, nonetheless served to rhetorically differentiate between what would commonly be considered mob violence—spontaneous, illegal, and uncontrolled—and the long-standing equation of good citizenship with a political obligation to “vigilance.” While Wilson publicly and explicitly denounced “the action of the mob” as illegitimate and un-American, the difference between the actions of the mob and the activities of vigilant citizens was far from clear. At the time there was no consensus on the place of extralegal violence, the exact boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate political coercion, or even the legality of non-state actors performing policing activities.

Private police forces had a well-established presence in the United States as the primary tool for breaking strikes and protecting company property. Communities relied on a variety of practices—and practitioners—to enforce both the law and local custom. The widespread, extralegal violence against African Americans was the most gruesome and consistent example of citizen enforcement of local community “order.” The patriotic voluntarism that became incorporated into federal police powers at the time was streaked with anti-immigrant, anti-labor, and anti-black violence.

The APL did not spring, sui generis, from a natural urge to repress speech and harass ethnic minorities. It was a reaction to real and viable social change and a response to a more general sense that the country’s traditionally Protestant elite was losing ground: Women were agitating for the vote; Catholic and Jewish immigrants were pouring in from Europe and they were organizing; labor shortages created by the war led to an empowered workforce with the freedom to quit bad jobs and go on strike; and while the end of Reconstruction had reestablished de facto slavery in many parts of the country, de jure racial equality prevailed. From the perspective of the ruling class, this was nothing less than apocalyptic.

The APL and similar organizations were important tools for the maintenance of a ruling class in crisis. This was not a happy coincidence of interests but a consciously cultivated and financially supported arrangement. Its founder, Briggs, was an advertiser from a city plagued by labor trouble, radical politics, and a large immigrant population. He encouraged division heads such as Wheeler to solicit donations from wealthy individuals who stood to benefit most from the property protection afforded by the organization. Corporations facing trouble from organized labor were eager to maintain APL branches whose members, while officially protecting America from German spies, were often principally occupied with intimidating and attacking labor organizers. Fisher notes that when railroads were temporarily nationalized in 1917, they applied for permission to continue donations to the APL. While it reflected long-standing notions of active citizenship and its membership was economically diverse, it was hardly a grassroots effort.

It was during World War I that this deeply embedded but still politically flexible notion of citizen responsibility became a state project. In self-reinforcing fashion, voluntarism was, as the war went on, increasingly motivated by nationalism. Nationalism, in turn, was defined by military preparedness. As one contemporary, Randolph Bourne, pointed out, “war is the health of the state.” The reactionary atmosphere that characterized the years surrounding World War I was not unidirectional. Rather the wartime needs of the Wilson administration and Americans’ desire to maintain the moral, economic, and racial status quo legitimated and strengthened one another.

Today, we know what “American” means. It means flags, fealty to government, militarism, xenophobia, individualism, sanctity of private property, belief in the sacred nature of the Constitution, and a deep attachment to the notion that America is the true home of democracy. Left and centrist efforts to correct this—American should mean immigrant—is only proof of this consensus. What is not generally recognized is that this consensus was born of conscious coercion at a specific moment in time. In his article “Two Concepts of Un-Americanism,” historian Alex Goodall points out that “systematic attempts to consider ‘Americanism’ as a distinctive political ideology were surprisingly rare.” During the 1880s, arguably a high point of labor unrest and anarchist activity that culminated in the infamous Haymarket massacre, “the New York Times had on average only one article or editorial per month mentioning the word ‘Americanism’; by the 1920s there was one every third day.”

And while the coordinated effort to secure a definition of American that was anti-labor, anti-immigrant, and deeply suspicious of dissenting speech drew on long-established custom and tradition, its outcome was in no way inevitable. It took enormous amounts of money, organization, and force to reach the current consensus. The decimation of radical political alternatives by the healthy wartime state, enthusiastically supported by hundreds of thousands of non-state actors, is a depressing story. But it is one that deserves, even requires, attention if we want to understand how political consensus is achieved: with enormous amounts of money, organization, and force.

Political consensus requires ongoing maintenance. The remarkable contrast between the excessive policing of the 2020 BLM protests and law enforcement’s seeming absence from the January 6 siege (to say nothing of the resurgence of reactionary “patriotic” organizations alongside the growing popularity of political socialism) indicates that official priorities have changed very little.

But it isn’t all bad news. This does give Americans something to be proud of: The scale of the effort that it takes to silence dissent is a measure of how robust and diverse our political imagination and capacity for organized resistance has always been.

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