A vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts their own form of justice in response to a perception of insufficient response by the authorities. Several groups and individuals have been labeled as vigilantes by various historians and media. Vigilantes have been central to several creative fictional works and are often depicted as being heroes and retaliatory against wrongdoers.
The term vigilante
for "watchman" or "watcher, ultimately from Latin
"vigilantem"- the present participle of "vigilare" (to watch). Its etymology is closely related to (though its meaning very different from) that of the term vigilance
. Note that the term vigilantism
is a derivative of vigilante
, not of vigilant
. The term vigilante
was introduced into English
from the northeast United States
. Vigilantism is generally frowned upon by official agencies
(who would otherwise encourage vigilance on the part of citizens), especially when it gives way to criminal behavior
on the part of the vigilante.
Often seen in rapidly growing western towns, citizens sometimes choose vigilantism, capturing suspected criminals and punishing them without a trial.
of vigilant behavior must exist to facilitate a subjective
definition of vigilantism.
"Vigilante justice" is sometimes spurred on by the perception that criminal punishment is insufficient or nonexistent to the crime. Some people see their governments as ineffective in enforcing the law; thus, such individuals fulfill the like-minded wishes of the community. In other instances, a person may choose a role of vigilante as a result of personal experience as opposed to a social demand. Most significantly, some vigilantes specifically target authoritarian entities such as government.
Persons seen as "escaping from the law" or "above the law" are sometimes the targets of vigilantism. It may target persons or organizations involved in illegal activities in general or it may be aimed against a specific group or type of activity, e.g. police corruption. Other times, governmental corruption is the prime target of vigilante freedom fighters.
Vigilante behavior may differ in degree of violence. In some cases vigilantes may assault targets verbally, terrorize victims, perform inhumane acts, or may exhibit no violence at all, choosing other means of pressuring the target. Anyone who defies government and institution to further justice can be considered a vigilante, and thus violence is not a necessary criterion.
Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante
was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual and psychological parallels between the Dark Age
and medieval aristocratic
custom of private war
and the modern vigilante philosophy. Recourse to personal vengeance and duelling
was considered a class privilege of the sword-bearing aristocracy before the formation of the modern centralized liberal-bureaucratic nation-state (see Marc Bloch
, trans. L. A. Manyon, Feudal Society
, Vol. I, 1965, p. 127). In addition, sociologists have also posited a close and complex relationship between vigilantism and the phenomena of tyrannicide
In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been noted in folkloric heroes and legendary outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood). Vigilantism in literature, folklore and legend is deeply connected to the fundamental issues of morality, the nature of justice, the limits of bureaucratic authority and the ethical function of legitimate governance.
During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm (cf. the medieval Sicilian Vendicatori and the Beati Paoli), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.
Formally-defined vigilantism arose in the early American colonies
. In these instances, the line between "taking the law into one's own hands," and rebellion
(to destroy an abusive corruption
of a legitimate government and vindicate moral ends) was not clear.
Later in America, vigilante groups established themselves in poorly governed frontier areas where criminals preyed upon the citizenry with impunity.
- In the 1850s, the San Francisco Vigilance Movement was an example of secretive groups of vigilantes who cleaned up city streets of crime with a segment focused against immigrants.
- In the aftermath of the Civil War and the South's defeat, vigilante secret societies, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which hid behind masks and robes, and the Knights of the White Camellia, emerged, using violence and intimidation to continue an insurgent war, enforce white supremacy against blacks, and to intimidate white Republicans and Freedmen's Bureau agents. With state and Federal enforcement, violent activity from these groups began to taper off until dissolution in 1871.
- In 1868 between 60 and 70 vigilantes broke into the New Albany, Indiana jail and lynched three Reno Brothers.
- Active in 1883–1889, the Bald Knobbers (or Baldknobbers) were masked men who retaliated against invading marauders and drove out outlaws in Taney County.
- In the 1920s, the Big Sword Society of China protected life and property in a state of anarchy.
- Formed in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been increasingly active against whaling and fishing vessels which they see as violating international laws, regulations and treaties, particularly where whaling is concerned. It endorses an active policy of scuttling fishing and whaling vessels while in harbor, and ramming and sinking vessels engaged in the killing of whales. A tally on the side of the Sea Shepherd vessel RV Farley Mowat displays the ten whaling vessels (referred to as "Pirates" by the society) sent to the bottom by Sea Shepherds:
- 1979 – the whaler Sierra rammed and sunk in Portugal;
- 1980 – the whalers Isba I and Isba II sunk in Vigo, Spain;
- 1980 – the whalers Susan and Theresa sunk in South Africa;
- 1981 – the whaling ships Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 sunk in Iceland;
- 1992 – the whaler Nybraena sunk in Norway;
- 1994 – the whaler Senet sunk in Norway;
- 1998 – the whaler Morild sunk in Norway.
- Founded in 1979 in New York City, the Guardian Angels is a recognized crime fighting organization that now has chapters in many other cities. It has sometimes been incorrectly called a vigilante organization. Safety Patrol members are instructed to call police, are trained in basic first aid, CPR, law, conflict resolution, communication, and basic martial arts, and are prohibited from carrying weapons.
- Recognized since the 1980s, Sombra Negra or "Black Shadow" of El Salvador is a group of mostly retired police officers and military personnel whose sole duty is to cleanse the country of "impure" social elements. Along with several other organizations, Sombra Negra are a remnant of the death squads from the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.
- In 1981, a resident of the rural town Skidmore, Missouri fatally shot town bully Ken McElroy in broad daylight after years of crimes without any punishment. Forty five people witnessed the shooting, but everybody kept quiet when it came time to identify the shooter.
- In 1984, Bernhard Goetz entered a subway train in New York and was surrounded by a group. He shot all four, fled the scene, and was called "the subway vigilante" by some media.
- Formed since 1996, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs of Cape Town, South Africa fights drugs and gangsterism in their region. They have been linked to terrorism since they bombed some American targets in Cape Town.
- Formed since 1998, the Bakassi Boys of Nigeria were viewed as the frontmen in lowering the region's high crime when police were ineffective.
- Formed in 1996, Mapogo a Mathamaga of South Africa provides protection for paying members of this group. Leaders have been charged with murder, etc.
21st century (present day)
- Formed since 2000, Ranch Rescue is a still functioning organization in the southwest United States ranchers call upon to forcibly remove illegal aliens and squatters off their property.
- In the early decade of 2000, after the September 11 attacks, Jonathan Idema, a self-proclaimed vigilante, entered Afghanistan and captured many people he claimed to be terrorists. Idema claimed he was collaborating with, and supported by, the United States Government. He even sold news-media outlets tapes that he claimed showed an Al Qaeda training camp in action. His operations ended abruptly when he was arrested with his partners in 2004 and sentenced to 10 years in a notorious Afghan prison, before being pardoned in 2007.
- Operated since 2002, perverted-justice.com opponents have accused the website of being modern day cyber vigilantes.
- In Hampshire, England, during 2006, a vigilante slashed the tires of more than twenty cars, leaving a note made from cut-out newsprint stating "Warning: you have been seen while using your mobile phone". Driving whilst using a mobile is a criminal offence in the UK, but the law is little observed or enforced.
- In Northern Ireland, vigilantism has been observed against drug dealers and pedophiles. In one such case, a known pedophile had been released from prison early, kidnapped by a group of men dressed in black clothing and balaclavas, much like the Provisional Irish Republican Army or Ulster Volunteer Force. He was stabbed twice, then put in the back of a Ford Transit van where four Bull Mastiff dogs were waiting for him. He was then driven around Belfast and Derry for two hours. After the dogs mauled him, he was dumped in the verges of a dual carriageway. He survived.
- In 2007, religious vigilantes in the southern Iraqi city of Basrain warning against "violating Islamic teachings" killed at least 40 women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves.
- The internet-based group Anonymous has brought down websites of the Church of Scientology in response to their attempts at Internet censorship, a form of Internet vigilantism.
- The Minuteman Project, a group created to deter illegal aliens and drug smugglers from entering the United States, was criticized for making citizen arrests.
Works of fiction
vigilante had its development in the 1960s and 1970sat a time when the cop or detective story was popular
and replacing the Western (genre)
in popularity where vigilantism often occurred. There was a change in the film industry
, change in self regulation
in the industry, and change in American values
all which opened up production to violent content without completely banning it or censoring
it to viewers making way for a "vigilante cop." These cops are said to express unrelenting and uncompromising violence towards anyone who got in between both the vigilante cop and criminal that broke laws to accomplish their objectives.
In comic books
Vigilantism in the comic book arena has its basic concepts in several fictional genres, including stories published in dime novels
and comic books
. Many of the heroes of pulp fiction
and comic book superheroes
are vigilantes because they operate outside the law in order to combat lawlessness. In fact, virtually any superhero can be considered a vigilante if he is not acting under the direct authority of a law enforcement agency or other government body.
A key example is Watchmen, a DC Comics limited series of the late 1980s written by Alan Moore, in which the superheroes that remained active after the series' Keane Act are portrayed by society and government as illegal vigilantes. Also of note is the DC comic book character of the 1940s and revived in the 1980s, the Vigilante.
In video games
In the Grand Theft Auto series, the player has the opportunity to steal a police vehicle and play as a vigilante.
- From Border Stories, a profile of a Minuteman Project volunteer in Campo, CA
- From Border Stories, a video on the American Border Patrol
- Lyrics to Vigilante Man by Woody Guthrie.
- Historical Deadwood Newspaper accounts of George Keating and O. B. Davis hung by vigilantes for stealing horses 1878
- Comfort Ero, “Vigilantes, Civil Defence Forces and Militia Groups: The other side of the privatization of security in Africa,” Conflict Trends (June 2000): 25-29.
- Martha K. Huggins, editor, Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America: Essays on Extralegal Violence, Praeger/Greenwood, 1991.
- Bill Ong Hing, “Vigilante Racism: The De-Americanization of Immigrant America”, Donkeyphant, Vol. 9 (Summer 2002).
- Tom O’Connor, “Vigilantism, Vigilante Justice, and Victim Self-help”
- Stephen Faris, “Nigeria’s Vigilante Justice,” Mother Jones (April 25, 2002)
- EyeWitness to History, “Vigilante Justice, 1851”
- Steven F. Messner, Eric P. Baumer, and Richard Rosenfeld, “Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment,” Law & Society Review (September 2006)
- Vincent Moss, “The Paedo Vigilante”, Sunday Mirror (June 25 2006)
- Joe Horn - A vigilante emboldened by the on-going "racist anti-immigrant" rhetoric