Bad Takes: Beware 'Good Samaritans' who deal in violence and vigilantism

Ours is plainly neither a culture that prioritizes mercy, nor one that treats violence as a last resort.

click to enlarge Insurrection supporters at a "Justice for J6" rally in Washington D.C. in 2021. - Shutterstock / Johnny Silvercloud
Shutterstock / Johnny Silvercloud
Insurrection supporters at a "Justice for J6" rally in Washington D.C. in 2021.

Editor's Note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

Three years ago, a Minnesota cop murdered George Floyd in broad daylight. The officer knelt on the back of the Black man's neck for more than nine minutes as bystanders pleaded with him to stop.

Early this month, a former Marine killed another Black man, Jordan Neely, on a New York subway. The veteran put the man in a chokehold for more than nine minutes.

Their crimes? Floyd allegedly bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Neely, who was homeless and had a history of mental illness, allegedly shouted and threw garbage at commuters.

Neither deserved to die.

Information about the most recent tragedy is still developing. But are the facts in the two cases sufficient to explain the gaping difference in the public reaction?

Save for a few extremists on the margins, Floyd's murder was met with near-universal revulsion and condemnation. Fast-forward three years, and the legal defense fund of Neely's killer has received some $2 million in donations, while Republican presidential candidates fall over one another to praise the former Marine as a "Good Samaritan"

Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered Neely's eulogy, noted that the homeless 30-year-old spoke about being hungry. "A Good Samaritan helps those in trouble, they don't choke them out," Sharpton said.

When a 60 Minutes correspondent asked Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison what motivated the murderer of George Floyd, he zeroed in on the power dynamic wielded by the police officer.

"What we saw was the crowd demanding that he get up," Ellison said, "and he was staring right back at them, defiantly, 'You don't tell me what to do. I do what I want to do. You people have no control over me. I am going to show you.'"

We've witnessed the deadly consequences of similarly defiant stances over and over ever since — from the refusal to mask up during a pandemic to the refusal to pass common-sense gun control or refrain from storming the Capitol. 

Ours is plainly neither a culture that prioritizes mercy, nor one that treats violence as a last resort. Hollywood revenge porn from Dirty Harry to Jack Reacher can attest to our sick romance with vigilante figures.

"We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!" President Trump exclaimed on Twitter in 2019 before pardoning several convicted war criminals and Iraqi civilian-massacring Blackwater mercenaries.

In April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised to pardon an Army sergeant who's now serving 25 years in prison for shooting and killing a Black Lives Matter protester in Austin. This legislative session, Texas Democrats warned that proposals to deputize ordinary citizens as border protection units would create "vigilante death squads."

Perhaps we ought to count our blessings that Texas' state leaders didn't praise the El Paso shooter, who killed 23 Walmart patrons with a legal version of an AK-47, as a "Good Samaritan" for trying his best to repel — in the words of his online manifesto — "the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

Vigilantism finds less bloody expressions as well. A viral video viewed more than 12 million times this month caught a Dollar General employee ramming her car into an alleged shoplifter on a bicycle.

"Who the fuck you think you are stealing shit from my store?" the Dollar General worker asked, retrieving spilled merchandise from the pavement.

"You don't live the fucking life I live," replied the bicyclist. "If it was your people, you wouldn't be trippin'."

Need we add the shoplifter was Black? Consider how many on the Right responded when a Black police officer killed an encroaching Jan. 6 rioter named Ashli Babbitt. Trump labeled him a "thug" and called Babbitt, who was breaking into the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives as members were evacuated, an "innocent, wonderful, incredible woman." Other Republicans mourned her as a martyr.

Evidently, a pale complexion can help one spot a Good Samaritan.

Many on social media cheered the Dollar General employee's reckless endangerment of another human being over a bag of cheap crap, with the original poster of the clip writing she "deserves a raise."

That much is true.

"Dollar General made $2.4 billion in profits last year and paid its CEO over $183 million since 2015," tweeted Warren Gunnels, staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. "Half of its workforce makes less than $18,000 a year. Over 7,000 of its workers make wages so low they're forced to rely on food stamps and Medicaid."

In fact, the ram-happy employee later admitted she'd been living out of her car. Even the homeless can appoint themselves public avengers against the poor and desperate, while the fat cats fart through silk.

Homelessness may prove a relatively easy problem to solve compared to the ethical challenge of becoming a good neighbor. But the illusion of safety offered by vigilante violence is no substitute for genuine social security.

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