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Congress passed an important anti-lynching bill. But the U.S. is still fertile ground for vigilantes.

Despite popular fascination with figures from the Lone Ranger to Batman, vigilantes are never simply trying to protect public safety

- March 11, 2022

Earlier this week, the Senate passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act — roughly two weeks after the vigilante killers of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted of a hate crime.

Yet at the same time, Americans continue to take the law into their own hands. Militia activity is surging, and “stand your ground” laws are increasingly common. Some states are even delegating the prosecution of alleged crimes to private citizens, in a unique new form of law enforcement with a vigilante twist.

A comparative, global perspective on vigilantism can help us understand these trends.

What is vigilantism?

In a recent academic journal article, I define vigilantism as the extralegal prevention, investigation or punishment of offenses. Vigilantism goes beyond the law, and it addresses crimes and norms violations that may be real or perceived.

Despite popular fascination with figures from the Lone Ranger to Batman, vigilantism is neither an identity nor an ideology. Vigilantism is a behavior or a practice, something people do. And the United States offers fertile ground for more of it.

Here are three takeaways from my research.

1. Vigilantism is never just about security.

Vigilantes invariably claim to be providing security. Either they’re concerned about crime, or they say the government is so weak or illegitimate that it cannot be trusted with policing.

And to be sure, many incidents of vigilantism are precipitated by crime or a lack of state-provided policing. But that’s not the whole story.

For instance, in my research in Guatemala, I’ve found that the most spectacular forms of vigilantism are concentrated in the lowest crime areas of the country.

In addition, the government often plays a role in vigilantism, ranging from toleration to encouragement to active participation. In Brazil, for example, Graham Denyer Willis has documented police collaboration in extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals.

With surprising frequency, vigilantes even target government figures like police or judges. That’s because vigilantism is more than just a functional response to insecurity or state failure; it is about power.

As Eduardo Moncada and I have both argued, vigilantism allows individuals to set the agenda, to flex their muscles and to exert control over others. Vigilantism is also a means of making claims within and against the government, often through dramatic public displays of violence.

Vigilantes typically say they are carrying out the people’s will, asserting legitimacy through popular sovereignty. And researchers often study public support for vigilantism, perhaps because it seems reasonable to assume that widespread support for vigilantism leads to vigilantism.

But popular support is neither necessary nor sufficient for vigilantes to strike.

Researchers in Europe have documented high levels of support for vigilantism even in places where vigilantism is rare, like the Netherlands.

Similarly, in 2014, the AmericasBarometer survey asked nationally representative samples from 25 countries whether they approved of people taking the law into their own hands. In several low-vigilantism countries like Canada and Costa Rica, the public supported vigilantism at about the same rates as in countries where it’s much more common, like Guatemala and Mexico.

On the flip side, Brazil is a hotbed of lynching. Yet Brazil recorded the second-lowest level of support for vigilantism in Latin America, with fewer than 25 percent of Brazilians approving of the practice.

It helps to remember that vigilantism is inherently undemocratic. Vigilantism violates the rights of its targets, and vigilantes’ actions are not decided by majority vote. Rather, vigilantism advances the interests of certain individuals or groups at the expense of others.

So when vigilantes claim to be acting on behalf of “the people,” they really mean some people, not everyone. Or alternatively, vigilantes may think that most people agree with them, even if that’s not the case.

After all, bystanders can turn up at lynchings for reasons ranging from curiosity and boredom to fear and coercion. When the instigators of vigilantism include violent and powerful people, it’s hard to distinguish between true enthusiasm and mere compliance.

3. Vigilantism is not easy.

Around the world, conditions that would seem to favor vigilantism are common, yet vigilantism is not.

In part, that’s because being a vigilante is hard. Either individuals have to take risky, decisive action alone, or they have to band together with others — which can be even more difficult.

So why do some aspiring vigilantes manage to move forward, while others flounder and fail?

Emerging research points to two factors. First, do people have prior experience with similar types of violence? Or can historical memory provide a template for vigilantism? If so, then as Lee Ann Fujii has observed, would-be vigilantes have some idea what to do, and how to do it.

The second factor is institutional. Preexisting structures and relationships can help would-be vigilantes find collaborators and get organized. Illustrating the dark side of social capital, these repurposed institutions and networks can range from business associations to the remnants of long-ago rebellions.

In Guatemala, I’ve documented how wartime militias — called civil patrols — have morphed into extralegal vigilante groups. The patrol I studied most intensively still walks the same routes as during the Guatemalan civil war, using old strategies, structures, and relationships to hunt gang members instead of guerrillas.

A vigilante nation

Unfortunately, comparative research suggests that the United States offers a favorable climate for vigilantism.

Most Americans disapprove of vigilantism, but majority opinion is unlikely to constrain a determined minority. A more promising avenue for accountability lies in the courts, though even there, the record is decidedly mixed: While Ahmaud Arbery’s killers were convicted, Kyle Rittenhouse was not.

Meanwhile, Americans are well-equipped to engage in vigilantism. From racial terror lynchings to the Minuteman Project, U.S. history provides multiple frameworks for what vigilantism looks like, and how to execute it.

And do Americans have the networks and leadership necessary to coordinate vigilantism? Yes, they do, thanks to militias and extremist groups plus encouragement from elected officials and media figures. Throw in access to weapons, recent experience with violent collective action and intense race-based grievances, and it’s a dangerous mix.

Regina Bateson is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. She is currently finishing a book called “Beyond Security: Vigilantism in Postwar Guatemala.”