Like so many other immigrants in our proud history, Jean-Joseph Kalonji, 61, and his wife Angelica Kalonji, 57, came here seeking the American Dream -- that wonderful, immutable idea that anyone can succeed in the United States through hard work; that anyone can be welcome into this great melting pot and live a happy, successful life.
That idea was violated on April 19, 2012, when the Kalonjis found themselves staring down the barrels of AR-15 assault rifles wielded by Robert Canoles, 45, and his son Brandon, 18.
The Kalonjis had come that day to the property their son Bruno had just purchased for them in Newton County, Georgia -- a modest home sitting on an 11-acre spread. At just $55,000, it was a dream come true for Jean, an electrician, and Angelica, who cooks and works the cash register at the Kalonji's Café & Bakery in Stone Mountain. Following the advice of the family's real estate agent, Jean was changing the locks on the front door that evening after the home's closing.
That's when they met their new neighbors, the Canoles. Robert and Brandon snuck up behind them with their semiautomatic rifles and, confronting the couple, told them to shut up and get their hands in the air, or else they'd be shot. Robert Canoles demanded to see the couples' paperwork for the home closing, but the Kalonjis did not have it with them. The Canoles called 911 and when deputies arrived, told them they had detained the couple on suspicion of burglary. The Kalonjis pleaded with the deputies to call their son to verify their ownership of the home. They refused to. The Kalonjis were handcuffed, arrested for loitering and prowling, and jailed. The Canoles were told "good job" and never so much as questioned.
It must have been a terrifying and shocking experience for the Kalonjis. Jean grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Angelica is originally from Romania. They moved to the U.S. in the late 1990s to escape persecution by the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. During one traumatic experience there, armed men accosted Jean. Jean and Angelica thought they were forever free from such wanton violence. But as Jean told the media, "There, they put me down with the gun to my head, and come here, the same." [Interesting side note: In 1995, NRA Board Member Grover Norquist and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff worked to obtain a U.S. visa for Mobutu, who had been banned from entering the country because of massive corruption and human rights abuses in Zaire.]
Thankfully for the Kalonjis, they had something that most Americans do not: Access to a high-profile, experienced lawyer. Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel knows the Kalonjis through their son Bruno, who coaches his children in soccer. He quickly learned about what happened to Bruno's parents and agreed to represent them in the case.
The tide turned quickly. Two days after the incident, the Kalonjis and Samuel met with the Newton County Sheriff's Office and District Attorney. The charges against them were dropped. On the same day, the Canoles were summoned for an interview with Newton County officials and told to bring their guns. They are now being charged with aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal trespass, and have been released from jail on bond of $8,450 each.
Robert Canoles was aghast at the turn of events. "This is my Second Amendment right," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Look, this is the country out here, and we protect our own." Apparently the Kalonjis -- an interracial couple -- weren't "his own." And apparently, in his view, the Second Amendment grants him the right to detain other Americans against their will, deny them the use of their own property, and put them in the fear of their lives, all while denying their presumption of innocence.
Even with charges pending against the Canoles, the Kalonji's son told the media, "We're waiting to move. We're still afraid of what the guy next door might do." And Bruno isn't under any illusions as to why the Canoles are facing charges. "I have to think if we didn't have Don Samuel and the media reporting the story, nothing would've been done," he said.
What about the rest of Americans who don't have Don Samuels as a family friend? What about the 12- and 13-year-old boys in North Carolina who had a 9mm handgun pointed at them by a concealed handgun permit holder after they took a few balloons from a sign in front of his open house? What about the man and his son in Florida who had a handgun pointed at them by yet another "neighborhood watch captain" after enjoying a day of jet-skiing with a friend? What about the two women nearly killed by a gun-toting liquor store clerk chasing an unarmed shoplifter down a Tennessee street? What about the 5-year-old girl in Utah who was executed along with her mother by a suicidal NRA Life Member?
What about their rights?
In his seminal analysis of good government, "Dismantling Democratic States," Ezra Suleiman warned us that vigilantism is a harbinger of democracy in decline. "When citizens assume that all that matters is 'personal' responsibility, the result may be private militias, gated communities, private security forces, and so on," he wrote. "Developing a sense of responsibility for oneself is one thing; developing it to the exclusion of all else is a danger to the society in which we live." That the forced detention of the Kolanjis happened just weeks after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin is telling. We have reached a point where many of the rights and privileges we take for granted are being threatened not by a "tyrannical" government, but by overbearing individuals with guns.
Vigilantism, by its very nature, infringes on rights that are central to the American system of justice; such as property rights, the presumption of innocence, and the right to redress of grievances through courts. Moreover, vigilantism strips individuals of their most basic right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It's a sad statement about contemporary America when a teenager can no longer safely venture outside to buy a bag of Skittles.
Unfortunately, after decades of taking their marching orders from the National Rifle Association, that is the society that our legislators at the federal and state level are now well on their way to building. Zimmerman's slaying of Trayvon was no isolated incident, no aberration that happened despite the presence of robust laws to ensure our safety. Just the opposite. Unarmed Americans nationwide are now finding themselves in the line of fire because of a pro-gun movement that is predicated on devaluing the role of government and the rule of law. When you facilitate the access that criminals, domestic abusers and the dangerous mentally ill have to guns; when you erode centuries of common law to the point where people can legally take the life of other human beings even when it is totally unnecessary to do so; when you seed the political climate with exaggerated fears of violence and catastrophe; you create an environment in which vigilantism can flourish. In such an environment, might makes right and no one's rights are inviolate.
Jill Lepore said something that stuck with me in her terrific piece for the New Yorker, "Battleground America." "When carrying a... weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted," she noted, "there is little civilian life left."
It's a warning the rest of should heed if we intend to keep what is left of our rights.