What is American Vigilantism?

Seemingly endless examples of historical events, current affairs and cultural or on-screen vigilante portrayals indicate that the terms ‘vigilante’ and ‘vigilantism’ are predominantly associated with American-ness. However, the terms evolved from the Spanish word for ‘watchman’, denoting a person that watches over and guards the city, apart from it in honourable service (Barber, 2003: p.442). This description strongly aligns with the presentation and perception of the anti-hero figure in American popular culture. Nonetheless, one can still approach America’s own use of these terms as distinct in meaning and application. Indeed, as Madison points out, the two words were ‘both coined in the United States,’ making the topic appear distinctly American (1973: p.3). Supporting this claim, Brown states that vigilantism is a typically ‘American problem’ that, whilst acknowledging it is not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States, ‘appears to be native to America.’ (1975: p.22)

Even so, as a concept vigilantism is problematic to define for various reasons, and deserves more attention. Firstly, from an anthropological viewpoint, its employment and form can differ substantially from one society or culture to the next, whilst still embodying commonalities, as Ray Abrahams asserts (1998: p.5). Considerable debate has thus been given to the comparative study of vigilantism across cultures and countries. For example, Brown claims that vigilantism is an American phenomenon distinct from other models or influence, such as British workers’ riots during the 1750s, which he argues were profoundly controlled displays of urban violence by comparison (1975: pp.46-48). However, this separation has been much debated by writers like Abrahams, who argues that it is impossible to strictly differentiate between the various origins and inspiration behind such social movements. As the latter points out, ‘the emergence of vigilante action in particular places at specific times is not altogether easy to explain.’ (1998: p.10) This seemingly sporadic employment of vigilantism is further complicated by the fact that it shares features with other social movements such as anarchism and terrorism, which similarly signal disillusionment towards the state, social discord, and an active desire to either reassert the status quo or force change. Thus both the conservative and transformative potentials of vigilantism are highlighted here, which, in considering the contradictory and inconsistent nature of vigilante acts throughout American history, is problematic in its own right.

Second, and more specifically, debates about definition also surround what actually constitutes vigilantism to a given society or culture. In America, for instance, groups such as the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1857 and the Ku Klux Klan are well known and have set the mould in the American mind for what constitutes vigilantism, as Richard Neely asserts (1990: pp.13-26). As a result, other schemes and bodies such as Neighbourhood Watch programmes and Presidential executive orders are often excluded from discussions of vigilantism, due to their sanctioned and legitimised status as working alongside local police authorities, or as being carried out by executive bodies without due process. Indeed, Neely’s work draws attention to this exclusion and actively calls to reverse it (pp.13-14). Neighbourhood Watch programmes and associated bodies take instruction from the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA), which outlines a set conduct of practice that involved communities are expected to adhere to, such as to observe and report confrontation (Bartels, 2013: p.7). However, despite the ‘legal’ status of such organisations they are still cause for controversy, as seen by the recent killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who claimed to have been acting on behalf of a local Neighbourhood Watch (Gray, 2014: pp.i-ii). Zimmerman was confrontational with a deadly weapon rather than observing and reporting as required, which strongly implies that adherence to NSA practice expectations varies from one person or community to the next.

Similarly, and further highlighting the complexities of the issue, Real Life Super Heroes (RLSH’s), who dress in fictionally inspired costumes and patrol the cities in various vigilante and community help roles, also occasionally work alongside some law enforcement agencies (Krulos, 2013: p.3). They are by their own admission a vigilante faction inspired by costumed superheroes of comics and screen, and thus have no real agency over others (Ibid. p.5). Moreover, their actions are widely debated by the authorities and the public alike, as seen in the arrest of RLSH Phoenix Jones, who caused public outrage after attacking a group with pepper spray during a private altercation in Seattle, 2011 (Ronson, 2011: p.17).[1] From this, it is clear that vigilantism can appear in many forms and guises, even in ones that appear to be legitimate or operating within sanctioned boundaries. Both of these points on the nature of vigilantism are potentially problematic, because they suggest that there is no definition of vigilantism that can encompass all of its ambiguities. However, because of the controversial nature of institutions such as Neighbourhood Watch schemes, all forms of vigilantism, sanctioned or not, should be considered collectively as essential to understanding the significance of the topic -and of citizen-led ‘self-help’- within contemporary American society and culture.

Reducing any potential complexities that comparative studies of vigilante activity in different societies and cultures might produce, this book is focusing specifically on American representations of vigilantism. Whilst acknowledging the importance of vigilantism in and to other societies, it is not necessary to engage with them further herein. As Abrahams states, ‘There is ultimately no real conflict here. The range of conditions under which vigilantism emerges is relatively narrow, and the idea of self-help in the face of state ineffectiveness is commonsensical.’ (1998: p.15) With this in mind and for the purposes of this study, the forms of vigilantism discussed in this book can be legitimately considered as distinctly American cultural concepts.

Other controversies and ambiguities surrounding vigilantism include its conservative and anarchist elements, which require some further elaboration. In the former, vigilantism is largely used to reinforce the status quo and societal values. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan used vigilantism to attempt to reinstate white supremacy in the Reconstruction era, whilst the San Francisco Vigilance Committee employed it to eradicate crime and corruption from the city in 1851, both upholding conservative values, as Brown makes clear (1975: p. 19). More so, vigilantism’s employment of summary violence, and of extreme actions like lynching and torture, pushes the boundaries of the state by challenging its leniency and breaking its laws. In the latter instance of anarchism, state and societal laws are transgressed by political vigilantes critical of existing systems of law and order, which highlights the transformative potential of vigilantism. For example, the Black Panther Party used violent self-defence and militant action to challenge and draw attention to police brutality aimed at blacks, of which Bloom & Waldo discuss at length (2014). Both the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panther Party, in their extreme differences towards race and similarity of employment of violent methods, point to how a group’s actions and intentions can problematize the political and legal classifications of that group. To illustrate this point, the Ku Klux Klan primarily acted to restore the primacy of Southern white males over blacks, a wholly conservative drive with far right implications, as J. Michael Martinez asserts (2007: pp.7-30). Conversely, in ignoring the new laws that granted African-Americans more freedom, the Klan can also be viewed as criticising systems of law and order in their flouting of Federal laws and opposition to the state. Indeed, the government declared the Klan an anarchic and terrorist organisation in the 1870s so that the group could be made officially illegal, with the Ku Klux Klan Act (1871) effectively dissolving the first Klan (Ibid. p.243).

Vigilantism often claims to pursue the rights and freedoms of the wronged, but usually disregards the laws that have been put in place to protect the rights of all people, including suspected criminals. Abrahams writes: ‘Although vigilantism supports the rights of individuals to band together in the fight to maintain order, it very often involves repression of individual rights to due legal processes as laid down by the state.’ (1998: p.17) Thus, vigilantism clearly can infringe on the rights of suspected criminals, the wrongly accused, and the wider public, aligning vigilantism with the much more complex, controversial and highly personal realms of morality, ethics, and notions of justice. Both the Klan and Black Panther Party examples stress the illegal position of vigilantes, whilst making clear that each group’s standpoint on their own actions could be argued to be in the name of social order and justice.



[1] Jones was charged with assault after using pepper spray, whilst in his superhero costume, on a group of youths he had perceived to be committing a crime. He was forcibly unmasked in court, and charged with assault. Nonetheless, his story has garnered him immense popularity and even several biographies on his actions and the RLSH ‘movement’.

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