Triggered: How America's social unrest and weakened institutions have incited vigilantes

Triggered: How America's social unrest and weakened institutions have incited vigilantes
Young Kwak photo
Men who only identified themselves as militia walk through downtown Spokane on June 7. They said that businesses had called them for protection.

They're trapped. They're under siege from all sides, their attackers screaming at them, hitting their car, pulling at the doors and blocking their escape from a parking lot near the Spokane Valley Walmart. Lee Allen, who is Black, tells his son to call 911 and his 14-year-old daughter to keep recording everything on her phone.

It unfolds like a horror movie, and the camera whips between the faces closing in on them:

A woman with a cross around her neck and a T-shirt that says "LOVE" yells over and over again: "Get out of the f—-ing car. Get out of the f—-ing car."

A man stands in front of the car, with his hand tucked inside his leather jacket like he has a weapon, and stares straight ahead with a half-smile.

A biker with a long white goatee hops off his Harley, yanks open up the car door, leans in and tells Allen: "Let me explain something: This is her car!"

Allen slams the door on the biker's fingers, but that just makes him angrier: "Mother—-er!" he screams. "Get out of the f—-ing car!"

Another figure attacks from the passenger side, slamming his bicycle against the car. Allen drives forward, but the guy in the jacket just clings to his hood. It's a frenzy: The driver's side door won't latch, Allen's daughter is crying and the biker is now chasing them on his motorcycle.

"Dad, he's behind you!" Allen's daughter screams.

Somehow, nobody got seriously hurt. The Spokane County Sheriff's Office chalks the late February incident up to a horrifying misunderstanding: A woman heard her '94 Chevy Camaro, which had been missing for four years, was in the Walmart parking lot. But instead of calling the cops, she and her boyfriend decided to confront the driver themselves. But Allen's Camaro — same year, make and model — wasn't hers. And it kept escalating as bystanders jumped in.

The biker, 69-year-old Lawton Miller, says he saw what was happening and decided to "eliminate the situation" by taking matters into his own hands.

He denies that he used racial slurs in the confrontation, saying he didn't know Allen was Black when he opened the door. He claims he was only chasing Allen's car because he was worried about the man clinging to the front of it.

But Miller didn't call the cops, either. He didn't have his phone on him. Besides, in the world of outlaw bikers that Miller is from, dialing 911 isn't something he prefers to do.

"I'm not a cop-caller," Miller tells the Inlander. "I handle my own shit."

Video of the Lee Allen incident/ViralHog video

You could brush off what happened to Allen's family as just an isolated example — except in the next few months, other terrifying scenes play out.

A Spokane woman is held at gunpoint in broad daylight as a stranger tells her he could shoot her and get away with it. Three teenage girls are photographed by armed men and then followed when they start to drive away. A 13-year-old finds herself besieged by a harassment campaign meant for someone she's never met. A multigenerational family visits a small town only to be terrorized in the woods by gunshots and chainsaws.

Each time, like those who laid siege to Allen's car, the perpetrators seemed to believe they were on the side of justice — that they were intervening to stop a crime, protecting a town or punishing people who deserved it. They could all be considered forms of vigilantism.

Vigilantism is tricky to define and hard to measure. But Jonathan Obert, who researches the topic at Amherst College, says he's seeing more and more examples of it.

"It must have to do with the collective crisis we're undergoing," he says.

We're facing chaos and insecurity. We've lost faith in our institutions — in the media, in the police, in the government, in each other. We're driven to fury by YouTube clips, by social media hoaxes, by a mounting sense of injustice. We're both the terrified family trapped inside the car and we're the angry mob outside — screaming, chasing, sometimes falsely accusing the innocent.

If there's any comfort, it's this: America has been like this before. Vigilantism tends to rise and fall in cycles.

"We're in the middle of one of those cycles," Obert says. "We're definitely in an upswing."

Triggered: How America's social unrest and weakened institutions have incited vigilantes (2)
Young Kwak photo
The Spokane Valley Walmart where Lee Allen and his children were confronted by an angry mob who wrongly believed Allen's car was stolen.

When Black Lives Matter marchers chant "say their names," they aren't just talking about the names of Black men killed by police. They want you to say the name of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black jogger who was chased down and killed by three White men in Georgia who suspected him of committing recent burglaries.

They want you to say the name of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed in 2014 by George Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer, profiling the teen by his hoodie and upset that "these assholes, they always get away."

Vigilantism has stained American history from the beginning. And it wasn't just against Black people lynched in the South. It was a weapon wielded in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, argues Eastern Washington University history professor Larry Cebula.

In 1884, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, accused of raping a White woman, was dragged out of the county jail by a group of locals and hanged. He was innocent, it turned out. But the local administrator of Indian Affairs appeared to shrug it off as little more than a public relations problem, writing that the innocent lynched Indian "no doubt deserved his fate."

Vigilantism isn't necessarily about weak law enforcement, experts say. Vigilantism doesn't seem to rise or fall with crime rates or incarceration rates. Obert suggests it's more about perception — about the sense that the rules are changing and the public doesn't trust the government to go far enough to enforce those rules.

"It's more common in situations where you have lots of social changes happen," Obert says.

Look at 1919, he says. Take the influx of demobilized soldiers after World War I and combine it with the stress of a global pandemic and the interracial tensions accompanied by a wave of Black migration.

The result? A big surge in vigilantism.

It became known as Red Summer. Over two-dozen cities erupted into riots as White mobs — often incensed over false rumors of Blacks assaulting White women — roved the streets, destroying Black businesses, burning down Black churches and massacring Black veterans. By September, 43 Blacks had been lynched — including eight burned at the stake.

Today, we're in another pandemic, another race-relations crisis, experiencing a mounting dread that things are falling apart and nobody's able to fix them. History has a nasty habit of repeating.

"People are more likely to turn to themselves if they feel their institutions are not really working for them," Obert says.

For proof, just talk to your neighborhood gun store.

"Toilet paper was what started this," says Jeremy Ball, general manager of Sharp Shooting, a local shooting range and gun shop.

From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Sharp Shooting, like gun stores across the country, has seen record sales, driven by both longtime and first-time gun owners. There were 71 percent more firearm-related background checks conducted in June nationally than in the same month last year.

"You go into Costco and you couldn't buy toilet paper," Ball says. "That sunk in to people. If you can't buy toilet paper, what else can't you buy?"

It triggered people, he says, to start thinking about self-protection and self-reliance. And to that, add the emotional impact of the governor-imposed stay-home orders and the news broadcasts showing shattered shop windows and police precincts on fire.

"Your life can be turned upside down really, really quickly," Ball says. "The looting and the rioting stuff was another way that gas was thrown on a fire that was already raging."

But Ball stresses the importance of knowing the law. In Washington state, you can use your gun to intervene to save a life or prevent serious injury. But unlike in Idaho, you can't legally use it to defend property.

"It's a really, really crisp delineation," Ball says. "That's not legal in any way, shape or form."

You see someone stealing a car, he says, and even if you have a gun, all you can do is wave. That rich couple in Missouri who were waving their guns around at Black Lives Matter protesters in June? That wouldn't be legal in Washington, he says.

But the law gets a lot blurrier when it moves from the page to the parking lot. In a video recorded in late June, an accused shoplifter outside the Manito Shopping Center pleads with the couple who has her at gunpoint that it's illegal for them to point their guns at her. They don't care. So is stealing, they say.

"Get your ass in there and sit down," says the armed man. He gestures with his silver handgun for emphasis as he holds open the accused woman's car door.

"I am not a cop," he says. "I'll f—-ing shoot. I'm a Democrat. I can shoot you. Democrats get away with everything."

But when the cops arrive, they only charge the woman who'd been held at gunpoint for shoplifting. It's her name that shows up in the paper, not the duo who confronted her with guns. The police still haven't released their names.

“Your life can be turned upside down really, really quickly. The looting and the rioting stuff was another way that gas was thrown on a fire that was already raging.”

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The armed man may or may not have been a Democrat, but he was correct about one thing: He got away with it.

Former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who urged voters to support funding for additional police officers last year, was deeply disturbed by the incident. He'd been in that same shopping center an hour earlier.

"If that was OK behavior, I didn't want to shop there anymore," Stuckart says.

Stuckart filed a complaint with the police ombudsman, arguing that the armed couple should have been charged.

"If that's going to happen more and more, I don't know if I'm comfortable living in a place where people are brandishing guns on each other," he says.

Spokane Police Department spokesman Sgt. Terry Preuninger says the matter is now part of an Internal Affairs investigation, so he can't comment about it, but he suggests there's more to the story.

Both Preuninger and Spokane County Sheriff's Office spokesman Mark Gregory are wary of using the term "vigilante" at all, arguing the term is too vague and negative.

Say someone chases down a thief and takes back an old lady's purse.

"Is that being a 'Good Samaritan'? Or is that being a 'vigilante'?" Gregory asks. "When they turn around and try to punish that criminal and beat the crud out of them, that's where I would start to look at more 'vigilantism.'"

Preuninger says it's actually perfectly legal to, say, track down a person who stole your car or phone and ask them firmly for it back.

"There's no law that says you must involve the police," he says.

You can legally exercise a citizen's arrest if you watch a person commit a crime, but how that arrest takes place can get into murky territory. Preuninger says there was a recent case in Spokane where a couple tracked down a burglar, stole the burglar's girlfriend's purse and called the police — but only after taking him to their house and zip-tying him to a chair.

"They ended up going to jail for a more serious crime than the burglary committed against them," Preuninger says.

And there's one more wild card: the jury.

Defense attorney Rob Cossey says a lot of people were shocked in 2017 when a Spokane jury acquitted his client, former National Guard soldier William Bushnell. Bushnell had been knocked out while trying to stop a man assaulting a woman on the street. But when he came to, Bushnell pulled out his handgun and fired twice into his assailant's back, killing him.

But even though Bushnell had been the one intervening, and even though his assailant was walking away, Cossey successfully convinced the jury it was self-defense.

"He felt threatened," Cossey says. "He thought he was protecting the woman as well."

The "self-defense" argument is why the killer of Trayvon Martin was acquitted, and why Ahmaud Arbery's killers might be acquitted, too. You can't shoot someone for stealing your bike. But if you confront someone stealing your bike, and he, say, reaches for a baseball bat, then the case gets a lot messier.

At times, even Cossey has been surprised by how juries rule in these cases. In 2013, when an SUV was being stolen in Spokane, the car owner shot and killed the fleeing car thief. But the shooter claimed "self-defense" and a jury ruled, 10-2, it was a justifiable homicide.

"If you talk to 10 lawyers, nine of them are going to say that's not self-defense," says Cossey, who wasn't involved in that particular case. "But the jury disagreed."

Cossey saw it as jury nullification — where a jury believes a defendant broke the law but acquits them anyway.

If a vigilante doesn't have the support of the law, in other words, it might not matter as long as he has the support of the public.

Triggered: How America's social unrest and weakened institutions have incited vigilantes (3)
Young Kwak photo
In June, on Spokane's South Hill, an accused shoplifter is confronted by an armed couple who hold her at gunpoint.

By the time Spokane resident Shannon Lowe — on a Twilight-themed camping trip with her family — pulled into the Forks Outfitters-Thriftway parking lot on June 3 in her big white school bus, her family had already been marked as the enemy.

They were greeted in the parking lot by a welcoming party armed with accusations and semi-automatics. One member of the crowd stepped onto their bus.

"He said he thought we were a part of this terrorist group and we had come to town and were going to burn and destroy it, and he had come to protect it," Lowe later told the Peninsula Daily News.

When they set out for their campsite, they were followed by multiple vehicles. As they tried to set up camp, they could hear gunshots, whooping and chainsaws. They were frightened. But when they tried to flee, they found that locals had intentionally chopped down trees, blocking the road.

“If you talk to 10 lawyers, nine of them are going to say that’s not self-defense. But the jury disagreed.”

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A picture of Lowe's bus stopped by the trees on the road began circulating on Facebook, with locals celebrating that they'd thwarted potential terrorists.

"That's when I realize, 'Holy shit something really stupid has happened,'" says Matthew Randazzo, the former investigative journalist who broke the story.

In late May, social media platforms and internal law enforcement communications were abuzz with the false rumor that radical activists from "antifa" — an umbrella term for an assortment of individuals and loosely organized groups dedicated to the militant opposition to far-right groups — were coming in white vans and buses to wreak destruction upon their communities.

Randazzo, who used to lead the local Democratic Party in Clallam County, says a lot of people in the Forks area were positively excited for the excuse to "fight back."

"Forks, let's get ready to lock and load," one local declared on Facebook.

Lowe's multigenerational, multiracial family had unwittingly driven their big school bus directly into a viral right-wing urban legend.

Lowe's bus was white. Her partner's skin was Black.

And even though Lowe didn't believe race had anything to do with the harassment she received, Randazzo argued that factor can't be discounted. He's a known White liberal in the area. Nothing like that had ever happened to him.

This wasn't just a phenomenon in Clallam County on the Olympic Peninsula. Heavily armed right-wing activists showed up in Spokane, too. They marched through the streets of Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, proclaiming their show of force would deter the rioting and vandalism experienced by other communities.

Not everyone was thankful for their presence. Spokane elected officials — including conservative Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward — signed a letter condemning the presence of "armed vigilantes." Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad wrote an op-ed in a local newspaper condemning the "rise of vigilantism."

At one Black Lives Matter rally, Rognstad says, three teenage girls at the rally were terrified after armed men photographed them, took pictures of their license plate and one of them began tailing them when they were driving away.

"They turned around and came back and came to me because they were scared shitless," Rognstad says.

But Brett Surplus, an Idaho state senate write-in candidate who helped organize some of the armed patrols in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Coeur d'Alene, argues that citizens taking up arms didn't represent vigilantism at all.

"Patriotism is what it is," Surplus says. He's a former cop and sheriff's deputy himself and argues most businesses were grateful.

In other cities, he says, agitators "want to try to push and press the police because they know that the police have their hands tied under legalities and whatnot.

"Citizens and patriots are saying, 'We're not going to let it get to that level,'" he continues. "We're not going to let you press our police."

Nicholas Rush Smith, an assistant professor who studies vigilantism at the City College of New York, says that sort of mentality is actually a common feature of vigilantism.

"Vigilantism exists on this blurry periphery: Upholding the law, trying to help the state do its job, but can end up violating it," Smith says. "Vigilantes often think they're in some sense helping the state."

Often, the vigilantes have the implicit support of a tight-knit community. To this day, nobody has been arrested for chopping down the trees in Forks. The local sheriff has struggled to get the locals to cooperate.

"Not a single person actually informed on the perpetrators," Randazzo says. "To this day."

Randazzo worries that, in many similar towns, right-wing vigilantes have been effectively handed the power to harass and threaten anyone with impunity.

That's not to say vigilantism is always right-wing: After Seattle activists declared what was initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — six police-free blocks around Seattle's abandoned East Precinct — volunteer "sentinels" formed a sort of vigilante police force. Some of them were armed. The radical experiment in self-governance ended when a 16-year-old boy was killed in a hail of gunfire after apparently stealing a Jeep. It was the fourth shooting in the zone in the span of only a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the images of violence and destruction in left-wing havens like Seattle and Portland have dominated right-wing media circles, inspiring militants on the right. Some predict — or even relish — the prospect of a second civil war.

Surplus doesn't go that far, but he also says we may be "edging closer and closer and closer" to a potential "breaking point."

Randazzo predicts that things are going to get a lot uglier.

"I think we're going into an era where we're going to see more paramilitary reaction, more street violence, more radicalism," he says. "We're entering an extremely dangerous phase of American politics."

It would be easy to blame President Donald Trump. He spreads online conspiracy theories, accusing even an elderly victim of police brutality of being an antifa saboteur. He revels in extrajudicial violence, urging a rally crowd in 2016 to "knock the crap out" of anyone getting ready to throw a tomato, promising he would "pay for the legal fees."

But Randazzo says Trump is a symptom, not the cause of what's been happening to our country. He sees a multitude of factors, from our modern clusters of isolation, to the breakdown of the middle class, to the way the internet fosters "little bubbles of paranoia."

Every big democratic communication advancement comes with a price. Gutenberg's printing press stoked the fires of 17th century witch hunts. Sensationalist newspapers fanned the flames of racist lynch mobs a century ago. And today, with Facebook and Twitter, everyone is their own inquisitor, their own tabloid newspaper editor, able to publish anything — from rage-inducing cell phone footage to false antifa rumors to pizza shop sex-trafficking hoaxes before a global audience.

"If any time there's fake news that's promoted on social media, people react to it by taking up arms, we've got a real public safety problem here," Rognstad says.

Triggered: How America's social unrest and weakened institutions have incited vigilantes (4)
Young Kwak photo
Unidentified armed men roam the streets of downtown Spokane on June 7.

Miller, the biker, had no idea that pulling open the door of that Camaro would make him famous. But the footage spreads like wildfire. It's not just local TV that shares the video: So does the Daily Mail and the New York Post. ("This terrifying scene was straight out of a zombie movie," the Post declares.) So does actor Charlie Sheen and Perez Hilton. ("I'm gonna guess these were a bunch of crackheads on a meth binge," Hilton speculates.)

Miller publicly apologized for frightening Allen's family. He helped the Sheriff's Office identify one of the other suspects in the incident. And though the sheriff's investigators wrote that he had "placed himself and others at risk" by his actions, they cleared him of any criminal charges.

But Miller suggests the video made him a target. He claims he landed in the hospital after someone on the street recognized him, accused him of being a "racist piece of shit that terrorized that family" and attacked him. It's a hard claim to verify. Miller says he didn't call the cops.

"If more want to come, they can be my guest and come," Miller says, referring to anybody who wanted to attack him. "But I guarantee they're going to get the dirty end of the stick."

That's the old form of physical vigilantism — fists and blood, pavement and payback. He's used to it. A few years ago, when his van was stolen, he says, the cops were no help. So he got it back by tracking down the thief and threatening her inside a Walmart to stay put while a buddy found his vehicle in the parking lot.

But lately, he's become acquainted with vigilantism's more modern incarnation.

Miller lets the Inlander scroll through the torrent of messages in his Facebook inbox.

"All the way from Sweden we know you piece of shit, you racist, uneducated motherf—-er," one recent comment reads. "I hope people continue harassing you and your white trash family and I hope your whole family of hillbilly grandkids suffer from all the evil in this world, because they're growing up to be the same piece of shit you are."

On Miller's Facebook page, commenters revel in the idea that they were dishing out their own righteous retribution.

"So apparently there's no justice in Spokane. There will be next time I drive through Spokane," one commenter writes on Miller's Facebook page. Another writes that "you will face that video and your consequences forever in the Hell that is about to rain down on you."

Now, that is vigilantism, says Gregory with the Sheriff's Office.

"This internet mob mentality of 'we're going to already convict this person. We've decided he is guilty. We've decided we are going to punish him,''' Gregory says. "That's when it starts getting really scary and dangerous for the community."

Social media's great power is how it allows anyone, anywhere, to light a torch or grab a pitchfork. Suddenly, everyone can try to hold racists and rapists accountable when the cops or the HR departments won't. It's seductive. In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book exploring the damage done by mass online condemnation, British journalist Jon Ronson writes about the thrilling flash of satisfaction that comes from joining the crowd of outrage.

"Hierarchies were being leveled out," he says. "The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice."

But it also means that a bad joke, an insensitive Instagram photo, or a misread hand gesture can whip up a global fury that can destroy a person's life. Some get death threats. Some get fired. Others attempt suicide.

By their very nature, the targets of these shamings often come across as unsympathetic. Miller is no exception. He has a criminal record marked by drug use, meth dealing and domestic violence allegations. He shares Facebook posts arguing that immigrants need to learn English and embracing the Confederate battle flag.

“Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.”

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But he's not particularly rich or powerful or lucky. He's effectively homeless, living out of his van. He's recovered from a stroke. He says he has a Nike shoebox full of doctor-prescribed pills and is constantly in agony.

"They want to kill me, they can go ahead," Miller says about the people angry at him. "They're doing me a favor."

The trouble is, it's not just him. There's collateral damage. The mob finds the Facebook pages of Miller's daughter and sister and leaves messages demanding to know if they're a racist like Miller.

And on Twitter, the online vigilantes seem particularly elated to find what appears to be Miller's phone number in a three-year-old comment on his Facebook page. They screenshot it, share it across Twitter accounts in multiple languages. The implication is clear.

"Maybe we should give this guy a call," one tweet says.

And so they do. There's only one problem. It's not his number, at least not anymore.

By 2020, it had become the phone number of a 13-year-old girl.

Spokane resident Miya Monroe remembers her fiance's little sister coming to her terrified. Rage, intended for Lawton Miller, rained down on the girl from across the globe. She received threats, harassment and interracial pornography, all meant for Miller.

"She had people calling her at all hours of the night. I think she had something like 500 phone calls in one hour," Monroe says. "It freaked her out."

Monroe says the girl tried to explain to the callers that she had no relation to that Miller guy, but they didn't believe her, telling her things like "You're probably his granddaughter. Tell him to off himself."

Desperate, Monroe created her own Twitter account and pleaded with people who'd posted the girl's number to stop calling.

"She is terrified," she writes repeatedly. "We have no connection to this man! Please stop!"

It's a particularly dark side of vigilantism: The mob harasses the wrong number, confronts the wrong car, traps the wrong bus, lynches the wrong suspect.

The good news is we've beaten back vigilantism before: Vigilantism can decline when whatever panic is driving it loses steam. But it can also decline when more faith is restored in the criminal justice system.

"I think people have shown that as there was criminal justice reform, that led to a lot of decline in vigilantism," Obert says of the 1920s. "Giving people a sense that justice is being pursued by the government."

That can mean the police more actively crack down on vigilantism, driven in part by demands from activists. But that can also mean that the law adopts the demands of vigilantes — satiating their bloodlust. In some ways the racism and cruelty of the Red Summer was simply absorbed, transforming into the criminal justice system so many activists are protesting today.

Today, Allen, the driver of the Camaro, doesn't want to talk about the incident with the Inlander. He wants to move on. Talking to the press doesn't help his family, he says. While he earned some money by selling the rights of the video to a company called Viralhog, he writes on Facebook that it's a fraction of the cost it would take to repair the damage done to his car.

Everyone involved is left with more cynicism. To Miller, the lesson is to never help someone.

"There could be somebody on the side of the road bleeding to death and I would not stop," he says.

Allen isn't any happier.

"For all wondering what the outcome was... it disgusted me," Allen wrote in June on Facebook. "I gave up on justice."

He's aghast that the Sheriff's Office thought Miller was only helping and wouldn't charge him.

The stranger who joined in and started slamming his bicycle into his car was never found. The Sheriff's Office recommended the woman and her boyfriend who'd mistakenly accused Allen of stealing his own car face charges of disorderly conduct — but that's only a misdemeanor.

"What a slap on the wrist for a lifetime of trauma you caused my children," Allen writes. "My son is OK, but this really changed my daughter."

Of the thousands of others who've watched the video, some take away lessons about racism or drug addiction or homelessness. But there's one lesson from the confrontation that, at least judged by Facebook metrics, is by far the most popular on Allen's original post.

"Need a gun my dude," one commenter concludes.

The comment is liked or loved over 300 times.♦

Daniel Walters, born and raised in Spokane, has been writing for the Inlander since 2008. In that time, he’s written about conspiracy-theory-addled legislators, online disinformation and why Spokane’s property crime rates are so high. He once got a bicycle thief arrested by snapping photos of the theft and sharing them on social media. He can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...

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