History of vigilantism
Vigilantism occurs when people take the law into their hands and try to enforce justice in the way that they feel is best or according to their comprehension of what is wrong or right. Such an action could be taken by an association of individuals who organize themselves to protect a common interest that they have. Such as personal security or property; action carried out by a person(s) to protest a law that is implemented, or action taken by individuals to enforce a law other than what the lawmakers have implemented.
In the United States, the phenomenon is just as old as the nation itself and in more than one way; the history of this country began with vigilantism. For instance, on December 16th, 1773, the American colonists who were tired of the direct taxation system organized what came to be called Boston Tea Party later on. As a way of showing how disappointed they were with the Britons, they tossed 342 chests of tea into the harbor in Boston.
Although, vigilantism in America initially arose as a way to respond to threats and the reality of the crimes that were taking place. For example, the first settlers who settled in the Old West and the Deep South; the law did not protect them at all. Additionally, there were no law enforcers, no prisons that were within the vicinity, no regular court proceedings, and there a lot of open spaces which enabled the perpetrators to run to after they had assaulted their victim (Smith, 2015). Therefore, living in the face of crime with no available criminal system or law enforcement institutions to rectify this situation, the settlers felt compelled to “take the law into their hands, ” and they would round up these outlaws and punish them themselves.
Additionally, in the 1830s, a time when people had formed “vigilance committees” in the Southern side to shield the slavery institutions from infringement by the abolitionists, who were assaulted by these committees from time to time with the consent of the law enforcement agencies. Even after the slave trade was abolished, some vigilance groups from the south, continued to practice white dominance over the freed blacks by using many forms of intimidation that the law prohibited (Wilson & Kelling, 2012). Besides in the second half of the 20th century, black vigilantes eradicated the signs of the white authority and property that belonged to the white community for the pain and indignities that they subjected the blacks to due to discrimination and racial segregation.
Neo-vigilantism entails many types of vigilantism like neighborhood crime patrols, border security groups, subway patrols, or even bounty hunters who are paid to catch fugitives or wanted criminals (Levi & Abrahams, 2013). Vigilantism, just like all elements in life has its cons and pros; in that one can view it as a crime or they can see it as a way to save the world. For examples, many vigilantes rescue people from murderers, rapists, kidnappers, or even looters who are down the streets and rob people (Levi & Abrahams, 2013). Therefore, vigilantism can be somehow justified as a good thing since it helps make the world safer. Even so, one cannot overlook the dangers that are attributed to vigilantism.
A good example of a neo-vigilance group is Guardian Angels, which was formed in February 1979 in the Bronx. The vigilantes looked after people and ensured their safety in the subway carts of the New York City. When they sensed trouble or saw that anyone was in danger, they came in to intervene and resolve the problem. The group operates up to date, and it is a recognized vigilance group which has been acknowledged by the president many times over the years (Wilson & Kelling, 2012). Therefore, one would admit that vigilant groups are right only they do not cause any fatality; they just intercede the situation and stop any harm till the law enforcers reach the scene.
Vigilantism in Latin America
State weakness is one of the factors that fuel vigilance especially in Latin American countries, whereby the people lack faith in the law enforcement institutions because they are corrupt and opt to take the law into their hands. Also, social and cultural factors are another element that contributes to the increase of vigilantism in these countries (Davis, 2014). The Dominican Republic, Paraguay, and Peru are the leading three countries to the greatest extent of support for vigilantism, and they have the highest rates of homicide than other nations in the Latin America (Davis, 2015). These nations have excessively corrupt and ineffectual judicial systems. Thus, the people decide to enforce the law themselves, and they approve to the same.
Moreover, this phenomenon is common in countries that have the presence of powerful gangs like El Salvador and Honduras. In other countries like Jamaica and Haiti, the widespread support for vigilance is because the state enforcement agencies are barely present to protect the people. For example, in the Jamaican slums, criminal gangs are the ones that are left to enforce the law, whereas, in Haiti, the rule of law is absent or placed in the hands of the unaccountable militias (Davis, 2015). On the contrary, in other countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, their strong indigenous cultures, whereby some population in these countries have deep-rooted cultures that encourage the people to uphold their traditional judicial systems that are outside the jurisdiction of the national law enforcement.
Other underlying factors and forces drive the growth of vigilante groups as the informal providers of order in the society within sidelined urban settings in the Latin American countries like Brazil (Leal, 2014). Looking closer into the issue, it is prudent that the evolution of vigilantism in these countries is not the inevitable result of certain situations, but rather the straightforward and circumlocutory product of deliberate choice of policies. Examining the issue in Brazil, the Brazilian community is polarized, in that; the black lower class is highly marginalized, the white upper class criminalizes poverty, and the lower class securitized crime (Leal, 2014). Consequently, the black lower class tend over rely on vigilantism as an informal way to obtain social dominance over the community. Furthermore, it is prudent that vigilante groups are brought about by and steered by the government; most of the time, these groups develop their political agenda and mutate into uncontrollable organizations who go ahead to terrorize the state and its citizens.
In fact, when people have doubts about the justice system and feel that it is incapacitated to protect them from crime, that sense of fear forces them to support vigilance – the only option that looks viable and capable of safeguarding their personal safety. Besides, state weakness has brought about problems, in that the administrators are incapable of fixing the issues affecting the citizens, a factor that forces the people to take the initiative to protect themselves; thus facilitating vigilantism.
Across the entire Latin America, the number of individuals that support vigilantism are increasing at an alarming rate, a clear indication that they do not trust their judicial and law enforcement institutions. Citizen self-defense groups have joined hands to fight the rising incidents of organized crimes that are taking place every day, and they believe that the governments are unwilling to take control of the situation; a phenomenon that has bred immeasurable instability in South America. Latin America boasts of sufficient examples of how vigilantism leads to more crimes and violence in the region; ranging from the paramilitary in Colombia, urban militias in the Venezuela, Mexican ‘auto defense’ ideology, Brazil’s police militias, and police death squads in Honduras and El Salvador. Analysts agree that vigilantism is just not only standing to fill in the absence of- law-and-order-gap brought about by either insufficient or nonexistent work by the police. Rather, vigilantes have come into play in areas where people have no faith in their civic institutions.
Vigilantism with particular focus on Brazil
Incidents of lynching ‘mob justice’ are raising in Brazil as the years go by and (Leal 2014) states that between February and the first week of May in 2014, there were 37 occurrences of lynching. The Order of the Attorneys in Brazil, indicate that the attempted lynchings have escalated over the past three years from three incidents in a week to almost two each two. The integration of Brazil’s brand of vigilante violence is deep-seated in certain stigmas that flourish in the discourse of crime (Leal, 2014). Social and racial prejudice liberally interact since they are vital in proving to show banditry in Brazil; where the bandit tag transitions a small-time thief into a serial criminal (Leal, 2014). Additionally, the Brazilians indoctrinate a straightforward and binary way of categorizing crime as an inborn phenomenon which unravels how the low-class societies have been deserted. Such communities suffer from poor healthcare, basic infrastructure, sanitation provisions, and public sector and the independent existence of the state in a slum in Brazil; more often than not, there underlies policy brutality (Leal, 2014). Such a ground is a viable place where parallel states and vigilante militias can co-exist to affirm law and order; a duty that the police have failed or just too poor at their job.
Davis, D. E. (2015). The political and economic origins of violence and insecurity in contemporary Latin America: Past trajectories and prospects. Violent Democracies in Latin America, 35-62.
Leal, P. (2014). Brazil’s vigilante violence. openDemocracy.
Levi, R., & Abrahams, R. (2013). Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State.
Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (2012). Broken windows. Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings, 395-407.
Smith, M. (2015). Dissecting the dark defender: approaching vigilantism in American history, society, and culture through Dexter (Doctoral dissertation, University of Hull).
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