Like Roger McGrath (“Treat Them to a Good Dose of Lead,” January 1994), I “grew up in a Los Angeles that had very little crime.” We, too, “locked the door to our house with a skeleton key, when we remembered”—until we lost the key.
Professor McGrath does not attempt to account for the absence of crime in Los Angeles between the wars. Nor, beyond brief references to “badly deteriorated [morale] on the LAPD” and a national “malaise . . . weakening . . . the personal and national will,” does he attempt to account for the present crisis. His prescription for confronting that crisis, however, is clear—the armed citizenry and vigilantism that, he argues, kept 19th-century Aurora, Nevada, and Bodie, California, crime-free. That a solution to the crime problem in late 20th-century Los Angeles can be found in 19th-century mining camps is unlikely (a more promising place to seek such a solution is inter-bellum Los Angeles), and that the solution when found will be an armed citizenry and vigilantism is less likely still.
The Los Angeles that I grew up in was a city without an armed citizenry; it was not, however, a city without vigilantes. But one would never say of Los Angeles vigilantes, as Professor McGrath does of those of Aurora and Bodie, that they “displayed military-like organization and discipline and proceeded in a quiet, orderly, and deliberate fashion.” Los Angeles vigilantes were ill-organized, ad hoc gangs that proceeded in a criminally violent fashion to break strikes and disrupt other lawful union activities. From the orange groves of Covina to the docks of San Pedro, vigilantes employed kidnapping, beating, “the Mussolini treatment,” and tar-and-feathering—as frequently against women and children as against adult males—to “deport” and otherwise terrorize “foreigners,” “radicals,” and “outside agitators.” This vigilante criminal violence, sufficiently extreme to precipitate the formation of the Southern California Branch of the ACLU, went unprosecuted by the authorities and unprotested—indeed, it was applauded—by the media. Simply put, in light of this heritage, a return to vigilantism in Los Angeles is unthinkable.
In a xenophobic parting shot that one cannot but suspect reveals much of the basis of his unease with current developments in Los Angeles, Professor McGrath asserts that “we” are failing to defend not just “our persons, our homes” but also “our culture, our borders, our language”; “we hand the barbarians the keys to the gates.” In New Mexico during the last half millennium and more, “we” have been the object of a series of entradas by successive waves of newcomers. Each wave in turn quickly proclaimed itself “we” and sought—albeit, unsuccessfully—to repel the next wave of “barbarians.” Today, New Mexican culture is richer for their failure.
Currently, “we”—Pueblo, Athabascan (Apache and Dine), Hispanic, and Anglo (in New Mexico, “Anglo” may still embrace black)—are under invasion by a new wave of “barbarians”—Angelenos. Though much tempted, “we” have not yet “treated them to a good dose of lead”; rather, like the city from which they flee, “we hand the barbarians the keys to the gates”—trusting, improbable though it now seems, that Angelenos, too, will in time enrich our lives.
For clues as to what to do—and what not to do—in order to recreate a crimefree city, Los Angeles must look not to 19th-century mining camps but to its own recent past and especially to the longer past of New Mexico.
—Nelson Van Valen
Professor McGrath Replies:
Nelson Van Valen spends most of his time with issues I did not discuss or mentioned only tangentially, and he entirely misunderstands my “barbarian” reference. First, he criticizes me for writing an article about when I grew up in Los Angeles instead of when he did. I could have made the very same points by comparing crime in Los Angeles in 1932 (instead of 1952) with that in 1992, but that’s not the article I wrote. Mr. Van Valen claims that the inter-bellum Los Angeles he knew was “a city without an armed citizenry.” Really? I would certainly like to see him document such a claim. Just a brief survey of the gun clubs and hunting clubs that existed in the 20’s and 30’s would suggest that the citizenry was well armed. Until a law was finally passed prohibiting it, one of the favorite pastimes of Angelenos was shooting jackrabbits from the rear platform of the passenger cars (the “big red cars”) of the Pacific Electric Railway. Quail and dove were shot in fields in West Los Angeles. Before I was born my older brother and an uncle hunted deer in the canyon behind our house. Bear and mountain lion were occasionally taken, too.
Nearly every household in our neighborhood in those days (and still in my day) had a shotgun, a .30-06 and a .22. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Army had trouble getting enough soldiers to guard the ports, harbors, and beaches of Southern California against an anticipated attack. My brother recalls all of the men in the neighborhood taking turns patrolling the nearby cliffs overlooking the Pacific. With their bolt action aught sixes they were ready to give the Japanese imperial navy what for! (Actually, considering what a few Marines and construction workers did in defense of Wake Island, our cliff-top militia just might have made the Japanese pay a dear price for an invasion.)
Second, Mr. Van Valen refers to “ill-organized, ad hoc gangs that proceeded in a criminally violent fashion to break strikes and disrupt other lawful union activities” as vigilantes. They sound more like hired thugs to me. Certainly such actions have nothing in common with the vigilantes of Aurora and Bodie or of most other mining camps. Mr. Van Valen has confused lynch mobs and hired thugs with frontier vigilantism.
A careful analysis of the committees of vigilance of the Old West suggests that the great majority were, in the words of historian Richard Maxwell Brown, “socially constructive movements”; the majority of townsfolk either participated in the movement or approved of it; the vigilantes were well regulated; they dealt quickly and effectively with a specific criminal problem; they left the town in a stable and orderly condition; they disbanded before substantial opposition developed.
Moreover, a typical committee of vigilance formed an executive committee, adopted a constitution, organized itself into companies and squads, and had a chain of command. Although impassioned and violent, vigilantes were usually highly disciplined, orderly, and deliberate. This was not accidental. Many of them had military experience and some were combat veterans, having served in the Mexican War, the Civil War, or one or more of the Indian wars.
Vigilantes regularly gave those suspected of wrongdoing some kind of trial, and not all tried were found guilty and executed. Of 90 men taken into custody by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851, 41 were exonerated and released, 15 were remanded to the established authorities, one was whipped, and 28 were banished. Only four were executed.
Finally, Mr. Van Valen’s closing remarks indicate that he has missed the entire point of my article. The barbarians I refer to are not illegal immigrants but the homegrown variety: good old native-born American criminals. I merely mentioned in passing that we, as a people, as a society, as individuals, not only do not do much to defend our persons or property but also do little to defend our culture, borders, and language. Further, Mr. Van Valen calls me “xenophobic” for having mentioned it. Expecting a sovereign nation to control its own borders and regulate immigration does not mean one “hates foreigners.” Illegal immigration is a topic for another article, I’m afraid, but I might note that it costs the city and county of Los Angeles and the state of California billions of dollars a year and has made English a second language in most of the public elementary schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
It really comes down to a very simple law of nature: an organism that does not defend itself, dies.