A simple errand turned violent for Clarence Daniels this week when he went to Walmart for some coffee creamer and wound up in a chokehold.
Upon arriving at the Walmart in Florida’s Hillsborough County on Tuesday, the 62-year-old Daniels, who is black, grabbed his handgun from his car and slipped it into a hip holster underneath his coat. Watching this from inside the store was Michael Foster, a 43-year-old white man described by the Tampa Bay Times as “a well-intentioned vigilante.” As soon as Daniels walked into the store, Foster tackled him, shouting, “He’s got a gun!” Ignoring Daniels’ repeated yells of, “I have a permit!” Foster proceeded to put him into a chokehold. When sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene, they confirmed that Daniels was indeed a concealed carry permit holder and Foster was arrested and charged with battery.
Fortunately, no one was injured in the scuffle, which might explain why the incident was not widely covered and why the local coverage chalked it up to an honest misunderstanding. And maybe it was an honest misunderstanding. But Foster’s instinct to take matters into his own hands and attack a man he thought might pose a threat to his fellow Walmart shoppers pulls into focus the state of vigilantism in the U.S., and Florida in particular.
As long as the U.S. has existed, so too have vigilantes: civilians who, with no legal authority, take it upon themselves to enforce laws and punish wrongdoers, typically operating under the assumption that government or police cannot be trusted to do so. Vigilantism, by definition, is illegal. But throughout history, state and federal laws have blurred the lines between what is considered illegal vigilante behavior and what qualifies as justifiable self-defense. Perhaps nowhere else has that line become more blurred in recent years than in Florida, where Tuesday’s Walmart tackle took place.
A decade before the country broke into Civil War, the budding abolition movement prompted Congress to pass a collection of bills known as the Compromise of 1850. One of those bills was the Fugitive Slave Act, which, among its provisions, included the requirement that citizens help in catching fugitive slaves. The spread of abolition — and later desegregation—was met with the creation of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, that sought to restore “order” and intimidate civil rights-seeking African-Americans as well as their allies — often through violence.
Though much more loosely organized and existing further out along the societal fringe, racism is still at the heart of today’s larger vigilante groups. Only instead of free blacks and civil rights advocates, modern-day groups like the Minutemen militia target immigrants, sometimes even acting as volunteer Border Patrol agents in an unauthorized effort to crack down on illegal immigration.
Of course, not all vigilantes are motivated by race; nor are most of them affiliated with any sort of group. Benjamin John Francis Fodor, better known by his superhero name, “Phoenix Jones,” claimed to have been interested in breaking up brawls when he took to the streets of Seattle armed with a hooded mask, pepper spray and a stun gun before he was arrested in 2011 on four counts of suspected misdemeanor assault.
In attempting to enforce the law, vigilantes like Fodor often end up breaking the law themselves. This recent Walmart case is no exception. Because Florida is a “concealed carry” state, Foster had no legitimate reason to assume that Daniels was breaking the law before asking him to see his concealed carry permit.
Florida is also, however, a Stand Your Ground state, a wide-ranging self-defense statute best known to many for its arguable influence in the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. In the wake of the controversial Zimmerman verdict, Florida lawmakers met last year to clarify that Stand Your Ground does not permit vigilantism. Still, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department’s response to Tuesday’s Walmart incident suggests vigilantes aren’t necessarily discouraged as much as they are urged to patrol responsibly.
“Unfortunately, [Foster] tackled a guy that was a law-abiding citizen,” sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon said. “We understand it’s alarming for people to see other people with guns, but Florida has a large population of concealed weapons permit holders.”
“You better make sure there’s a good reason,” McKinnon said of taking matters into one’s own hands. “Otherwise you might be confronting a guy that is legally permitted to carry a gun.”