California’s Vigilante Tradition

By Kevin WaiteJuly 23, 2021

California’s Vigilante Tradition
WELL BEFORE HE stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, Christian Secor was a pariah at UCLA. Those who valued their safety steered clear of the 22-year-old self-described fascist, who named his online avatar for a mass shooter. Numerous students had reported him to university administrators for violent and extremist commentary. Now he faces multiple criminal charges — including assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers — in connection with the Capitol riot.

Yet Secor is also an archetype. His anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-integrationist views are resurging in Southern California. A group of white suburban radicals in Orange County have been protesting government lockdown measures and amplifying conspiracies about perceived enemies with racist undertones and overtones. Some joined Secor for the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, where they called for a “biblical war” and the “shedding of blood.” One protestor bellowed that the only solution to “traitors” in Washington — that is, those who would certify the decisive electoral victory of President Joe Biden — was to “take them out back and shoot or hang them.”

Such characters are more representative of California than we care to admit. They belong to a white supremacist vigilante tradition as old as Anglo settlement of the state itself. The ethnic and racial diversity that makes California desirable to many residents today also made it a breeding ground for vigilante violence for nearly a century. Some scholars have dedicated themselves to uncovering the long career of white supremacy in California, with a renewed sense of urgency. As their work shows, the state’s reputation for cultural pluralism and progressive policy-making has only come recently and not without a fight.

In the mid-19th century, Black residents constituted only one percent of the state’s total population, but they occupied an outsize space in the fevered imaginations of white Californians. The Chinese were considered an even greater threat. By 1870, immigrants from China amounted to 10 percent of the state’s population and a quarter of the total workforce. No group was more brutally targeted than California Natives. As Ben Madley has shown, the once flourishing population of Indigenous people endured decades of genocidal warfare and numbered no more than 30,000 by 1873.

Vigilantism thrived in Southern California’s frontier conditions. Sparse settlement, weak institutions, and male-heavy populations didn’t make bloodshed inevitable but certainly more likely. Much of this violence hinged on a common belief that law enforcement was ill-equipped to meet the people’s needs. There’s a kernel of truth to the Wild West depictions of lawlessness in places like frontier California. As John Mack Faragher has shown, mid-19th century Los Angeles was plagued by extralegal violence, with a murder rate matching those in Mexican border towns at the height of the cartel wars in the early 2000s.

White Americans in early California were, of course, immigrants. But that didn’t stop them from violently opposing the migration of others. Roughly 15,000 emigrants from Mexico entered California in 1849, the first year of the Gold Rush. Within a year, a majority of them had been driven out through a combination of discriminatory taxation and intimidation. Meanwhile, a race war erupted in Los Angeles, according to historian William Deverell, pitting white newcomers against the region’s old-line Mexican residents. Between 1854 and 1870, Los Angeles vigilantes lynched 37 people, mostly Mexican men.

Some of the first organized hate groups in California formed in response to Chinese immigration. In the post–Civil War period, white workers flocked to “anti-coolie clubs,” which gave them cover for the violence they perpetuated against Chinese laborers. When a mob drove Chinese workers from a construction site in San Francisco in 1867, injuring 12 and killing one, the Central Pacific Anti-Coolie Association rallied to the perpetrators’ legal defense, winning their release from criminal prosecution. California vigilantes, although occasionally tried, rarely faced prison time for assaults on people of color.

In the Reconstruction-era South, members of the Ku Klux Klan targeted Black freedpeople and their white allies; in the West, the Klan assaulted Chinese immigrants. My new book uncovers the previously unknown origins of the KKK in California, whose members were responsible for a series of brutal attacks on Chinese workers between 1868 and 1870. Although there’s no evidence that Western vigilantes coordinated with Klansmen in the South, the two groups were complementary forces. Both sowed terror in communities of color and asserted white supremacy at gunpoint.

Western vigilantes adopted the banner of the KKK because they knew the name inspired terror. They made anonymous threats to intimidate political opponents. “Cease your obscene and slanderous conversations at once,” demanded a letter from California Klansmen, “or the excrements will be ripped out of you.” Another threatening message was signed “Chief Owl in the Hidden Den,” probably a play on some of the fanciful titles adopted by Southern vigilantes.

Those threats accompanied a string of attacks on Chinese workers, their employers, and the institutions that served them. In 1868 and 1869, vigilantes raided several ranches in Northern California, savagely beating the Chinese laborers employed there. Arsonists set fire to a San Jose church that operated a Sunday school for Chinese children, then threatened to murder the minister if he continued his missionary work.

There was a certain irony to this violence. Vigilantism is typically a response to perceived inaction from local government; yet California lawmakers openly supported many of the objectives of the state’s white vigilantes. In his inaugural address, Governor Henry Haight thundered against Chinese immigration, which would, he argued, “inflict a curse upon posterity for all time.”

California became the only free state to reject outright the 14th and 15th Amendments during the Reconstruction era. Lawmakers successfully argued that both measures would empower the state’s Chinese population, even though the amendments were primarily designed to benefit Black Americans. Not until 1959 and 1962, respectively, would California ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments.

The California Klan, like its Southern counterpart, collapsed within a few years. I’ve located no attacks publicly attributed to Western Klansmen after 1870. But hate found new modes of expression. In 1871, a frenzied mob of Angelenos stormed the city’s Chinese quarter, murdering 19 immigrants. The total death toll amounted to 10 percent of the Los Angeles Chinese population. The mixed-race mob — which included white people as well as Mexican Angelenos ­­— is a reminder that Anglo Americans didn’t have a monopoly on racist violence.

The 1880s witnessed some of the most damaging attacks on Chinese people in the West, as Beth Lew-Williams has illustrated. White mobs drove thousands of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the Pacific Coast and torched entire business districts, like the one in Pasadena. Vigilantes and lawmakers continued to work in tandem. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, followed by an 1888 measure that barred virtually all immigration from China. Chinese exclusion remained national policy until World War II.

California’s vigilante tradition continued well into the 20th century. As Lynn Hudson and others have argued, the national resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s found powerful expression in California, especially the Southern part of the state. The Klan established a Downtown Los Angeles office in the Haas building, on 7th and Broadway, and recruited widely.

This second iteration of the Klan expanded its hit list well beyond the Chinese. Southern California’s rapidly growing Black population and its large Latino communities became frequent targets of vigilante attacks. In 1922, Klansmen abducted a Catholic Spanish family living in Inglewood, a scheme that soon devolved into a shootout with local law enforcement. Although 37 men were indicted for the kidnapping and 150 subpoenaed, all perpetrators were eventually acquitted — a recurring theme in California’s vigilante tradition.

After World War II, white supremacy generally took on less overtly violent forms. Gone were the days of large Klan rallies in Southern California. Instead, right-wing conspiracy theorists channeled their energies through more outwardly respectable organizations like the John Birch Society, which flourished in Orange County. Prominent politicians stoked fears of racial outsiders, a tactic that played well with the lily-white voters in the Southland’s gated communities. In 1963, for instance, Representative James Utt warned about the United Nations training “a large contingent of barefooted Africans” in Georgia to seize control of the country.

Redlining and discriminatory policing kept Los Angeles starkly segregated. Walter Mosley’s writings are a catalog of brutal anti-Black discrimination in postwar Los Angeles. As he recalls, Olympic Boulevard was the dividing line between white and Black residents during the 1960s. “The police’s line was Olympic,” according to Mosley. “If you crossed Olympic, the police would stop you.” Even if some of the markers have shifted, the city’s racial geography still bears witness to these segregationist tactics.

Yet multiethnic California is now fighting back against white supremacy, with heartening results. Racist vigilantes, who once relied on overt support from lawmakers and law enforcement, have become increasingly marginalized. Even before he stormed the US Capitol, Christian Secor’s politics had alienated much of the UCLA campus, including a majority of the Bruin Republicans executive board. He now faces a raft of federal criminal charges — not to mention virtual exile from civil society. Hate continues to find a comfortable home in online forums and conspiracy-mongering countercultures within the state. But these radicals have generated more backlash than support, with damaging results for their political party.

At last, vigilantes and their enablers may face a reckoning.


Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in the United Kingdom and author of West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021).

LARB Contributor

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University and the author of West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021). With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a Collaborative Research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason, a Georgia slave turned Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, Los Angeles Times,Slate, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, among others.


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