Vigilantism is likely to occur when communities feel that they are under threat. Discuss.
This essay begins by examining the conceptualisation of vigilantism and illustrates Johnston’s (1996, p220) vigilantism definition. A series of vigilantism case studies revolving around Johnston’s (1996, p220) definition will then be discussed. As these case studies will show, vigilantism arises when communities feel threatened by any mixture of crime, social, religious and political factors. Afterwards, this essay will conclude.
Although this essay focuses on fear inducing acts of vigilantism it must be stressed that anger, not fear, is the most common emotional response to crime (Silke 2001, p120). For example, a victim of car theft does not immediately fear for their personal safety but rather feels rage and desires a severe punishment for the thief (Silke 2001, p120). However, for organised vigilantism, the theme which this essay will focus most on, vigilantism mostly arises from a policing vacuum where an atmosphere of fear is created because it is perceived that the police are unable or unwilling to deter deviant behaviour (Silke 2001, p129).
As Johnston (1996, p220) highlights, “there has been little serious attempt to conceptualize vigilantism” mainly because accessing vigilantes and their victims is “almost impossible to achieve in any systematic manner” (Silke and Taylor 2000, p253). Media reports sensationalise vigilantism whilst academics gloss over conceptualising vigilantism (Johnston 1996, p221). Rosenbaum and Sederberg (1976 cited in Johnston 1996, p221) are the only academics to conceptualise vigilantism but, as political scientists, define vigilantism as a sub-category of establishment violence. Rosenbaum and Sederberg (1974, p542) state that vigilantism consists of “acts or threats of coercion in violation of the formal boundaries of an established socio-political order which, however, are intended by the violators to defend that order from some form of subversion”. There are latent groups (private or public) in every society that are interested in altering the status-quo through violence, reform or revolution (Rosenbaum and Sederberg 1974, pp545-548). For example, Brazil’s ‘Death Squads’, consisting of off-duty policemen dissatisfied with inefficient judicial institutions, took the law into their own hands by executing between 500-1,200 suspected habitual criminals (Rosenbaum and Sederberg 1974, p549). However, Rosenbaum and Sederberg’s (1976 cited in Johnston 1996, p224) analysis of off-duty police officers cannot represent vigilantism because police officers’ off-duty actions cannot be analysed separately from their public responsibilities since they enjoy full police powers whilst off-duty (Johnston 1996, p224).
Johnston (1996, p220) attempts to build a criminological definition of vigilantism. Johnston (1996, p220) defines vigilantism as an activity requiring the following features: (i) minimal planning and premeditation; (ii) private voluntary agency; (iii) autonomous citizenship constituting a social movement; (iv) the use or threatened use of force; (v) a reaction to an established order under threat from the real, potential or imputed transgression of institutionalized norms; (vi) and, finally, assurances of security to participants and others.
Brown (1975, pp95-96), alternatively to Johnston (1996, p220), defines ‘classic’ vigilantism as “organized, extra-legal movements, the members of which take the law into their own hands”. American vigilantism in 18th Century frontier regions arose due to an absence of effective law and order (Brown 1975, p96). Horse thieves, outlaws and counter-fitters thrived as frontier areas were underdeveloped, outlaws intimidated witnesses and outlaws could easily avoid law enforces’ horses and railway lines (Brown 1975, pp96-113). Vigilantes reacted to establish order, broke the law to uphold it and beat, expelled and/or killed criminals (Johnston 1992, p13; Brown 1975, p96). More importantly, this highlights the diversity of vigilantism as it may involve crime control and/or social control to maintain communal, ethnic or sectarian orders/values (Johnston 1992, p15; Johnston 1996, p228). The greatest American vigilante band, the San Francisco committee of 1856, was run by large businessmen aiming to maintain their dominant position in the social system and to protect life/property (Brown 1975, pp96-112). The San Francisco committee actually left most crimes to the regular police and focused on fiscal and political reform to establish a business-oriented local government (Brown 1975, p124).
Although the San Francisco committee involved planning, the use of force and the transgression of institutionalised norms, Brown (1975, p124) notes that they colluded with sheriffs so it is not an example of ‘autonomous citizenship’ and violates Johnston’s (1996, p220) vigilantism definition. From this point this essay follows Johnston (1996, p220) by assuming vigilantism to not be extra-legal.
Before discussing our next case study it is useful to highlight where Neighbourhood Watch schemes and bystander interventionism fits in with vigilantism. Neighbourhood Watch schemes are not vigilantes because they are ‘responsible citizens’ and not ‘autonomous citizens’ (Johnston 1996, pp220-226). However, Johnston (1996, p227) allows for Neighbourhood Watch groups to become vigilantes as they may ‘slip’ from ’responsible citizens’ into ‘autonomous citizens’ by undertaking actions unauthorised by the Police. This was the case for a Neighbourhood Watch group in the West Midlands (Williams 2005, p530). The group matched most of Johnston’s (1996, p220) vigilantism definition as they engaged in planning, were private agents, reacted to the transgressions of social norms (in this case it was prostitution in a predominantly Muslim area) and offered assurances of security (Williams 2005, p528). But they only became vigilantes when they crossed from being ‘responsible citizens’ to ‘active citizens’ by acting without the state’s authority to use force to assault prostitutes and use a car to trap one prostitute in a public phone box (Williams 2005, p531).
Bystander intervention occurs when a bystander or witness directly intervenes to disrupt a crime and significantly, as Silke (2001, p123) explains, “the forces which motivate direct [bystander] intervention are the same forces at work for vigilantes”. However, bystander intervention is ultimately a form of spontaneous self-defence and this is not classed as vigilantism because it involves no initial planning (Johnston 1996, p222).
Batman, the DC comics superhero, matches all of Johnston’s (1996, p220) features of vigilantism: Batman’s actions are premeditated as, before he fights crime, Batman puts on his Batsuit in the Batcave and may use the Batmobile or Batwing (Greenberger 2008, pp26-48); Batman has voluntary agency as he chose to fight crime after witnessing his parents’ murder during a mugging (Greenberger 2008, p26); when Batman began fighting crime he was wanted by the police, although eventually Batman became a deputised member of the police force (Greenberger 2008, p39); Batman is an expert in the 127 recognised forms of hand-to-hand combat (Greenberger 2008, p30); and, lastly, Batman reacted to the transgression of institutionalised norms as he wanted to fight injustice and provide assurances of security to Gotham’s citizens (Greenberger 2008, p26).
Batman turned to vigilantism because his fictional city, Gotham, became corrupt and bureaucratic and the judicial system was failing the individual (Greenberger 2008, p26). As Lamberti (1989, p100) illustrates, a democratic state may evolve into an authoritarian state because, by “agreeing to be ruled by the many, the individual is lost”. The individual then fears that he has no protection from his state (Blackmore 1991, p37). Additionally, when authority is centralised, elected officials usurp local powers, the judiciary begins to slip, and while juries convict, the individual feels that justice or retribution is not served (Tucker 1985, p30). As institutions fail to respond to the individual, institutional decay may provoke the defenders of the establishment to turn to vigilantism (Rosenbaum and Sederberg 1976, p273). Most importantly, the Batman example highlights how a system that centralises authority can eventually make communities fear a corrupt or bureaucratic judicial system which breeds a vigilante group, and this leads us on to our next case study.
A parallel to Batman can be drawn with the Gulabi gang in Uttar Pradesh, India, as this group of poor women turned to vigilantism because the decline of the democratic function of governmental political processes meant that the moral community and belief in state institutions to provide poor people justice also declined (White and Ragosti 2009, pp318-323). The Gulabi gang, a several hundred strong vigilante group of women, wear pink saris and take the law into their own hands to ensure justice for poor women (White and Rastogi 2009, pp313-318). Poor women in Uttar Pradesh are excluded from the local state’s judiciary system where village society is anti-poor and social norms and corruption means men’s rights supersede the rights of lower-caste women (White and Rastogi 2009, p318). The Gulabi gang’s actions include using axes, rolling pins and cricket bats to beat-up immoral husbands who abuse their wives, attacking corrupt officials and forcing police officers to report crimes filed by poor women (Dhillon 2007 cited in White and Rastogi 2009, p313).
White and Rastogi (2009, pp313-315) state that the Gulabi gang satisfies Johnston’s (1996, p220) definition of vigilantism as the gang plan, use violence, are autonomous agents and react to the transgression of institutionalised norms, but they also seek to adapt Johnston’s (1996, p220) definition to adopt a feminist definition of violence to distinguish ‘ethical’ violence (proportionate punishment in the context of failed judiciaries denying due process) from ‘unethical’ violence involving murder (which the Gulabi gang did not commit).
A case of vigilantism involving Muslim children in a communally volatile slum Hyderabad, India, reveals the diversity of pre-conditions generating vigilantes. Hyderabad has suffered volatility since it was invaded by the Indian army in 1948 where Hindu nationalist groups infiltrated into Muslim-owned neighbourhoods and pitched themselves against local Islamic groups, encouraging Hindu migrants to follow (Khalidi 1988 cited in Sen 2012, p74). Between 1978-1992, Hyderabad suffered communal riots over a Muslim woman being raped in a police station and Hindu nationalists attempting to tear down a Mosque (Sen 2012, p74). As Sen (2012, pp72-73) describes, urban alienation, poverty, attacks on poor children, disintegration of the family and loss of community pride against a back-drop of religious-political communal discord generated an aggressive child identity politics resulting in vigilantism.
Muslim male children in Hyderabad patrolled the borders of riot-affected Muslim localities, guarded Mosques, pelted stones at Hindus and escorted each other to school (Sen 2012, pp71-77). Planning and organisation was evident as Sen (2012, pp76-77) observed roughly 15 squads consisting of 10-12 children coordinating their activities and, as described above, the children used force to attack people and property. Regarding crime control, the boys responded to their fear of death as many children died during riots (Sen 2012, p76). Referring to social control, the vigilantes emerged as retribution armies and attempted to re-establish Islamic principles in an area that had suffered decades of religious, political and social conflict with Hindus (Sen 2012, p72). The boys’ retributive justice included attacking ‘deviant’ Muslim women flirting with Hindu men and Muslim businesses trading with Hindus (Sen 2012, p72). In accordance with Johnston’s (1996, pp230-232) notion of personal and collective security, the boys instilled fear into opposing groups by drawing out crude weapons in crowded places to shock people into recognising their presence (Sen 2012, pp76-77). One caveat with regards to Jonston’s (1996, p226) definition of vigilantism is that, although the boys did not have formal police support, they sometimes acted as police informants in exchange for unrestricted street mobility (Sen 2012, p81).
Altering Johnston’s (1996, pp224-225) definition allows us to look at a case of vigilantism involving a private security firm to further illuminate our discussion. Johnston (1996, pp224-225) states that vigilantism must be voluntarily initiated by private agents and not state agents or private security firms as they act within state laws. But Johnston (1996, pp224-225) did not reveal how his definition would alter if a private security firm’s activities were not authorised by the state (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p114). Sharp and Wilson (2000, p130) modify Johnston’s (1996, pp224-225) vigilantism definition to include private security firms acting without state authorisation.
Let us now turn to the case of the private security firm ‘Household Security’ which, apart from voluntary agency, matches Johnston’s (1996, pp220-231) vigilantism definition. At its height in 1996, ‘Household Security’, operating in Doncaster, possessed eleven members and six vans and served 3,000 houses, evidently requiring planning and organisation (Sharp and Wilson 2000, pp113-121). ‘Household Security’ responded to Doncaster residents who began to increasingly fear crime and the Police’s ineffectiveness controlling crime (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p121). Houses paying ‘Household Security’ received a sticker to place in their window and a nightly check up on their house by two guards in a van (Sharp and Wilson 2000, pp119-120). Residents wanted ‘peace of mind’ that their house was safe and ‘Household Security’ provided this with nightly patrols where they would shine their torches into their members’ window to indicate their presence. This can be linked to Johnston’s (1996, p231) personal and collective security. Although ‘Household Security’ officially did not use or threaten the use of violence, customers signed up because they perceived the firm as working outside the law and expected the firm to use or threaten the use of violence (Sharp and Wilson 2000, pp120-122). Acting as a ‘scarecrow’, ‘Household Security’ deterred criminals from breaking into homes with ‘Household Security’ stickers (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p120). Malcolm Tetley, a former street fighter turned boxer who served multiple years in jail and eventually became a Jehovah’s Witness, founded and ran ‘Household Security’ (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p114). Tetley’s reputation as a former criminal acted to frighten potential criminals off of houses revealing the ‘Household Security’ sticker because the criminals knew that Tetley and his staff would respond with violence, thus Tetley’s ‘reputation’ served as a threat of violence (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p120).
A case of paramilitary vigilantism in Northern Ireland involving the Irish Republican Army (IRA) reveals another spectrum of vigilantism, that is, political motives. The IRA responded to ‘civil crimes’ like rape, muggings, littering, joy-riding and drug-dealing and their ‘punishments’ included warnings, curfews, fines, public humiliation, punishment beatings, punishment shootings, expulsions and assassinations (Silke 1998, pp124-137). The IRA’s arsenal encompassed baseball bats (some with nails driven through to cause extra damage), sledgehammers, knives, breeze blocks, shotguns, assault rifles and electric Black and Decker drills that achieved ‘near-legendary status’ (Silke 1998, pp128-129). The IRA’s attacks ranged from beating youths with hammers to 50-50 shootings (shooting a victim in the spine to leave them with a 50% chance of dying) (Silke 1998, pp126-130).
Most revealingly, Silke (1998, p122) highlights that the IRA’s vigilante campaigns were at their most sustained levels since the 1994 cease-fires, indicating that paramilitary vigilantism concerns more than ‘civil crimes’. A link can be made between the IRA and social control as the IRA are concerned “with punishing those who question their local authority” (Silke 1998, p142). Vigilantism acts to exercise control over local areas by creating and developing an atmosphere where communities are reluctant to openly defy or disapprove of the IRA (Silke 1998, p142). The IRA’s vigilantism may thus be linked to them regaining authority from other members in society.
Most significantly in the case of the IRA, paramilitary vigilantism is partly driven by political motives (Silke 1998, p145). Many IRA attacks were deployed to drum-up public support and to punish people who did not co-operate with the IRA’s political agendas (Silke 1998, pp138-145). During the Night of the Long Rifles on Halloween in 1992, the IRA used assault rifles to inflict punishment shootings on more than 20 members of the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (Silke 1998, pp130-147). ‘Civil crimes’ like robberies are indirectly dangerous to the IRA as they may undermine the IRA’s community support if they fail to react adequately whereas ‘political crimes’ such as informing are directly dangerous to the IRA (Silke 1998, p134). The IRA set up the Provisionals specifically to detect and punish informers both within the IRA and amongst the nationalist community with the ultimate punishments, executions, reserved only for informers (Silke 1998, pp133-142). It must be noted that since authority and control are key themes regarding the IRA it could be concluded that paramilitary vigilantism revolves around punishment. However, vigilantism can coexist without punishments (Johnston 1996, p233).
Let us now consider vigilantism in Uganda’s Bugisu district. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, districts lost their autonomy which was replaced by an alien formal legal authority that disrupted established patterns of authority and accentuated the lack of police groups to enforce the law (Heald 1986, pp447-450). Resultantly, the real and perceived threat of witchcraft, theft, violence and murder escalated (Heald 1986, p450). A vigilante group known as the ‘banalukoosi’ then arose as a response to anarchy and lawlessness to act as a self-appointed police force to reconstitute behavioural sanctions, provide community security by patrolling areas at night and catching and punishing witches and thieves (Heald 1986, pp446-460).
African vigilantes have more in common with mafia organisations than ‘classic’ vigilantes and this seems to be the case with the ‘banalukoosi’ (Heald 1986, p461). In Italy, the Sicilian Mafia’s emergence is traced to a power vacuum resulting from the abolition of feudalism and ineffectiveness of a foreign state where the Mafia responded to the needs of all rural classes such that central government, landlords and peasants rearranged themselves in conflict and accommodation (Hobsbawm 1959, p41; Blok 1974, pp10-11). In politically backward and powerless communities the opportunistic Mafiosi mascaraed as a social movement protecting traditional ways of life whilst, actually, serving the idiosyncratic interests of their leaders (Hobsbawm 1959, pp30-43). Bugisu vigilantism became a form of social control exerted by ‘respectables’ like village chiefs and landlords over the ‘disreputable’ like the landless (Johnston 1992, p161; Heald 1986, p456). The ‘banalukoosi’ engaged in armed robbery, operated protection rackets and posed a direct threat to public order which the police acted to suppress (Heald 1986, pp450-455).
As this essay discussed, vigilantism arises when communities feel threatened by any mixture of crime, social, religious and political factors. It must be emphasised that “vigilantism is a subject awaiting criminological analysis” to decode prevalent vigilante activities, its participants, motives and relation to the police (Johnston 1996, pp223-234). Thus, this essay has aided the analysis in this field. The Batman and Gulabi gang examples emphasise how, in democracies, the judicial system may fail individuals or groups and force them to take the law into their own hands (Greenberger 2008, p26; White and Ragosti 2009, pp318-323). ‘Household Security’ reveals how local communities may turn to vigilantes for a sense of security when they fear crime and police powers/presence dwindling (Sharp and Wilson 2000, p121). Hyderabad’s Muslim children vigilantes shows that the diversity of threats to a community could include religious infringements (Sen 2012, pp72-73). Uganda’s ‘banalukoosi’ illustrates how vigilantism may serve a more sinister purpose of violently rearranging society to re-establish social hierarchies following a shock to the social system (Heald 1986, pp447-461). Likewise, the IRA highlights that a ‘community’ could refer to a paramilitary group who, under the umbrella of vigilantism, may seek to deter political threats to themselves by establishing power and control in their locality (Silke 1998, pp124-145).
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