A Community Organizer Takes on White Vigilantism
When armed men attacked Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia, a local activist recognized his neighbor among the mob and decided to confront him.
September 2, 2020
Julius Rivera had held discussions about a controversial mural and the use of a local park, but he has recently given up on hosting dialogues in Fishtown about race and police violence.Photograph by Marcus Maddox for The New Yorker
t 5 p.m. on Monday, June 1st, in Fishtown, a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia, several dozen men—most of them white—began to cluster outside the Twenty-sixth District’s police station. They were carrying baseball bats, hammers, pipes, and golf clubs. The police killing of George Floyd
in Minneapolis, one week earlier, had sparked Black Lives Matter protests all over Philadelphia; unfounded rumors were circulating among residents of Fishtown, mostly via Facebook, that looters and members of Antifa were coming to the neighborhood to break store windows and wreak havoc. Justin Haskell, a neighborhood football coach and amateur mixed-martial-arts fighter who goes by the nickname Homicidal, had rallied the men outside the station, ostensibly to help the police and defend nearby business owners. The group came to be known as the Bat Boys because of the baseball bats some of them carried.
Late that afternoon, at a large rally downtown, police shot rubber bullets and cannisters of tear gas into a crowd of protesters who were kneeling with their arms above their heads, causing them to scatter. The police forced them onto an embankment, trapping them there, and continued tear-gassing them. Among those trapped were Kara Khan, a photographer, and her boyfriend, Matt Williams, both thirty-one. They eventually escaped and began biking to their home in Fishtown, trying to beat a 6 p.m. curfew, their skin still burning from the tear gas. As they rode down Girard Avenue, they saw a protester arguing with an officer outside the Twenty-sixth District station and raised their fists
in support. The Bat Boys threw water bottles at them and jeered. When Khan dismounted to ask officers standing nearby for help, one of the Bat Boys pushed Williams off of his bike. Others beat and kicked him. The mob taunted Khan (whose mother is white and whose father is Burmese and Afghan), repeatedly shouting the N-word and asking her, in graphic terms, if she liked to engage in sexual acts with Black men. “They seem to be framing this story as if they were protecting the neighborhood, and they say it has nothing to do with race, when it has everything
to do with race,” she told me. Khan asked the officers why they weren’t intervening. “They said, ‘Well, now you know how we feel.’ Like, ‘We’ve been dealing with protesters all week.’ ” She asked the officers to escort her home. “I live right over fucking there,” she said. But the officers refused, she told me, and said that, since she “cussed,” she needed to learn some manners.
The Bat Boys on Girard Avenue, in Fishtown, on June 1st.Photograph by David Maialetti / The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Bat Boys grew rowdier and more violent. As images of the men began to appear on “Fishtown Is AWESOME OLD/NEW/EVERYONE!,” a public Facebook group for locals, people went down to the precinct to see them firsthand. Thirty-six people called 911 to report “a person with a weapon.” Katherine Scholle, a social worker who lives in Fishtown, called twice. According to Scholle, a police dispatcher asked if she had a problem with the men protecting the area, and then another told her that officers didn’t have time to deal with the mob. (Several days later, after Scholle posted a video of the men, she was inundated with vitriolic comments on social media. One message read, “We here in Philly back the blue, not pieces of shit like you. May you die a slow painful death you police-hating cunt!”)
, Philadelphia’s D.A., told me that he was troubled by what he saw as a double standard in the treatment of protesters by police. At the protest downtown, a cop pulled down a participant’s mask and pepper-sprayed her in the face. The Bat Boys, in contrast, were treated in a friendly manner. “How come a whole lot of people, many Black, with nothing in their hands, were arrested, while aggressive white men out after curfew endured none of that?” he asked. (Krasner’s office and the city’s Department of Internal Affairs are investigating how police handled the incident in Fishtown. A spokesperson for the police declined to comment.)
Around 6:30 p.m., Jon Ehrens, a producer for WHYY, the local public-radio station, went out to document the chaos. He was nervous to record the men, but, at first, the Bat Boys didn’t seem to care. “I’m ready to fuck shit up,” one man said. “You know, I’ve been looking for a fight for the past six months.” Around eight-thirty, Haskell, the ringleader, announced that the men had made their point. As the group walked away, about two dozen men gathered to listen to Haskell speak. Ehrens began to record the speech, and Haskell shouted at him, telling him to leave. When Ehrens turned to leave, four of the men followed and jumped him, beating him and breaking his nose. Ehrens later tweeted a photograph of his bloody face. Soon after, he began to receive death threats.
That evening, Julius Rivera, a forty-three-year-old community organizer who lives in the Fishtown area, was in his back yard when his wife, Melissa, called him inside. She was panicked and asked him to help her close the curtains and lock the doors. Rivera is a dark-skinned Latino man, and Melissa is a Black, indigenous, Latina woman. A friend had just messaged her on Facebook, telling her to stay inside and warning her about a group of white men walking around Fishtown, threatening to assault Black people. A week later, Rivera was watching coverage of the attacks on the local news. Among the Bat Boys, Rivera recognized his next-door neighbor, a white man in his early thirties named Vinny Esposito. Esposito is a plumber who has done work in Rivera’s house. “I wanted him to know that I knew what he’d been up to and wanted to hear why he was there—if he hated brown people, I wanted to know,” Rivera told me. “Is this really who you are and how you roll?” He sent his neighbor a text. “Saw you in the video with the oldhead crew,” he wrote. “I would like to talk with you about it.”
n the months since George Floyd
’s death, as large-scale Black Lives Matter protests have materialized around the country, groups of white men—claiming to be defending law and order—have gathered to confront protesters. In Snohomish, Washington, the mayor lauded a group who waved a Confederate flag while drinking and “protecting” a stretch of shops downtown. In Minden, Nevada, a white “Blue Lives Matter” mob—clad in camouflage fatigues, carrying semi-automatic rifles, and claiming to defend the local sheriff’s office—clashed with a much smaller group of Black Lives Matter protesters. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week, Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old “Blue Lives Matter” supporter, stood among a group of armed men who claimed to be defending a service station, and shot three protesters, killing two of them.
Noel Cazenave, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the author of “Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism
,” sees such resistance as part of a long history of white vigilantism. “Racial oppression has always been maintained through violence,” he told me. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, white Americans posted signs in so-called sundown towns telling Black people that they would be met with violence if they were found outdoors after dark. Cazenave believes that today’s white mobs see Black Lives Matter activists as mounting a challenge to white dominance similar to the one mounted during the civil-rights era. “They’ve been told by Donald Trump
that these are the people who are coming to take away their basic value,” he said. “This is a literal invasion.” Although the white groups are extrajudicial, many have sought to align themselves with police. Cazenave finds this unsurprising. “Police and vigilante violence not only have common origins and functions, and not only do they often complement one another, but they are often comprised of the same people,” he said. “Racist neighborhood culture and racist police culture fuel one another in an intense cycle of hatred directed toward those deemed to be racial outsiders.”
Mark Pitcavage, who researches extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, told me that, although some white vigilantes are affiliated with groups that openly advance extremist agendas, others are more muddled in their ideology, motivated by cultural conservatism and class resentment in addition to race. Some of the anger of the mobs—which are usually composed of white, working-class, right-wing men—has been directed at the white, middle-class protesters who support Black Lives Matter. Pitcavage drew a historical analogy to the hard-hats—men who confronted people protesting the Vietnam War in the seventies. They had little sympathy for the Vietnamese people being killed in the war, and were outraged by the antiwar hippies, whom they saw as children of privilege.
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Racist resentments have been building in Fishtown for decades. Since the early twentieth century, the neighborhood has been largely populated by the descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants, who worked in local factories. In the early two-thousands, Kensington, a neighborhood with a large Black population next to Fishtown, became the center of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic. In Fishtown, young white men were already peddling OxyContin
; an MTV documentary from 2001 characterized the area as the national hub of the trade. Nevertheless, locals fixated on the heroin dealing in Kensington, which became the focus of intense anti-Black hostility. Mike Mulvenna, a white construction worker and one of the Bat Boys, told me that he and other men kept a close eye on the streets to keep dealers from Kensington, whom he referred to as “wolves,” out of their white neighborhood.
Around 2005, Fishtown began to gentrify, and a young, racially diverse, middle-class group of people moved in. Mulvenna claimed that local men had kept the streets safe, only to be pushed out. As in many right-wing circles, animosities toward racial minorities and toward so-called liberal élites coexist among longtime Fishtowners: in June, a small group of white residents picketed a hip, Black-owned café called Franny Lou’s Porch, which offers items such as the Anti-Capitalist, an egg dish topped with wild greens, and Songs for the People, a mixture of herbal elixirs.
Rivera, the community organizer, bought a house in the Fishtown area twenty years ago. A few days after he and his wife moved in, someone spray-painted an ethnic slur on their front steps. Since then, he has earnestly tried to foster a sense of community in the neighborhood. Rivera spends his days working with special-needs kids awaiting trial in a youth-detention facility, and runs a community garden and a local playground association. He has hosted public dialogues between groups in Fishtown, including a discussion about how to use a public park where longtime Fishtowners often worked on their cars and where newer arrivals wanted an open green space. He initiated a tense conversation about whether to preserve a mural of the Irish flag at a public playground in an increasingly racially diverse part of town. He has also worked to persuade white parents not to call the police on poor children, especially Black and brown kids, when they see them misbehaving, because of the potentially dire consequences. In all instances, he has tried to reduce racism among white residents. When he saw footage of the Bat Boys, their use of the N-word didn’t surprise him—“that’s socially acceptable in that group,” he said—but the beatings did. “The violence is disturbing,” he told me.
On June 5th, Rivera, wearing a neon-green bandanna as a mask, took me to a community garden that he runs, and we sat at a picnic table. At 4:30 p.m., Esposito’s gray pickup truck pulled up across the street. He got out sweating, with a red face and a bushy beard, and took a seat near a raised bed of flowering arugula. He launched into a stream of nervous explanations. “I know I was there, and I know, I mean, like, it’s kind of messed up, the whole situation,” he said. “We shouldn’t have had weapons.” But he said that he had heard that looters were breaking windows and setting cars alight, and had seen a Facebook post claiming that Antifa was on its way to “fuck up the white racists of Fishtown.” He emphasized his allegiance to the neighborhood. “My grandmother came off the boat from Poland, and this is where she ended up,” he said. He attempted to claim that the Bat Boys were not motivated by race, discounting their use of racial slurs and violence.
Rivera told Esposito that, after the rally, he felt a responsibility to talk to him. “I think, in the future, if that occurs, and people find out you’re my neighbor, then they’re gonna be, like, ‘What the fuck did you do?’ You know what I mean?” he said. “Like, ‘You have this guy who’s right next to you, you know, who was there. You’re having these conversations about how fucked up it was. And you just did nothing?’ ” He urged Esposito not to commit further violence with the group. Then he broached the possibility of hosting future discussions between some of the Bat Boys and other Fishtowners, and Esposito seemed open to the idea. “It’s almost like having rival gangs all living around each other, but nobody knows who the heads of the different gangs are,” Rivera said. “So now there has to be a call, ‘Hey, if you’re a leader of a gang, we need you at this table.’ ”
Dialogues of this kind have limits. “We’re talking about political violence, which is driven by ideology,” Cazenave, the sociologist, told me. “That doesn’t tend to change even after people have had civil conversations.” Cross-racial conversations have occasionally been useful in instances when groups are trying to solve a specific problem in good faith or when there is the political will or social pressure to do so. Cazenave pointed to a recent incident in Somers, Connecticut, where a restaurant owner displayed an “All Lives Matter” sign in his window, and called in white motorcyclists to defend his business against Black Lives Matter activists. After speaking with the protesters, however, he took the sign down. But such conversations can also backfire by surfacing and legitimizing racist beliefs. Cazenave pointed to studies indicating that, for example, anti-racism trainings among police officers can reinforce racist views. “The cops might go through classes where they’re told the right things to say,” he said. “But, afterwards, when they go out to the bar, they make fun of whatever they learned.”
Since the talk in the garden, Rivera’s hope of a broad reconciliation in Fishtown has fizzled. At a closed community discussion about the rally, held via Zoom on June 30th, the police captain of the Twenty-sixth District, William Fisher, said that the Bat Boys had done nothing wrong and responded to a question about whether Black lives matter by saying, “Of course, they do. . . . White lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. Asian lives matter. Native American lives matter.” An investigation of how his officers handled the June 1st incident is ongoing.
Many of the Bat Boys are unrepentant. “We ain’t scared of the D.A.,” Mulvenna told me. “If I want to put a well-regulated militia together right now, I can. We are constitutionalists. A lot of our guys have been in jail, and we know attorney stuff. We know the laws.” Haskell has joked about running for mayor, and there are T-shirts for sale that say “Fishtown Bat Club.” (Haskell sent me a Facebook message saying, of the rally, “This wasn’t about black or white it was more for the neighborhood,” and adding, “It’s more Mother Nature’s fault for not raining to break up any of the drama in Philly.”) Other members are lying low. (Esposito stopped responding to my texts.) After the dismal community Zoom meeting, Rivera abandoned further attempts to talk to the Bat Boys. The police have continued to defend the men, and Rivera fears that they are emboldened and that any further conversation will only serve to legitimize them. If there is no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, he believes, there is no chance of meaningful conversation. “We’re talking about a long-standing pattern of injustice toward people of color,” he said. “If you don’t care about me, I can’t build anything with you.”
A previous version of this post misidentified William Fisher’s current jurisdiction.
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