What will you do if rioting sweeps US cities as it did British ones last week?
Vigilantism is defined as "Taking the law into one's own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one's own understanding of right and wrong." Typically, it occurs when traditional law enforcement is absent, ineffective, or corrupt. When exercised in defense of person and property, vigilantism is the direct expression of an individual's right to protect himself or innocent others against aggression. It is also defined as "action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest."
If an individual has this right, then, so too does a group acting in tandem. When such a group acts over time, it not only protects people and property but also tends to stabilize an entire community. Indeed, in his thesis "Pax Vigilanticus: Vigilantism, Order, and Law in the Nineteenth Century American West," Jared Kelley wrote, "I believe that vigilantism represents more than simply a reaction to crime and corruption, but an instinctual, psychological push to restore the status quo of a society disrupted by some crisis or exigency."
Vigilantism has deep roots in American history and culture. From tales of the Wild West to the caped-crusading Batman, the act of standing up to thugs is part of the national ethos. And the assumption of personal responsibility for self-defense is what drives the uniquely American pro-gun movement. But will the increasingly despotic police force allow citizens to arm and organize in self-defense against a marauding horde?
The UK's response to last week's riots may offer insight.
The Precedent of Britain
When plundering mobs descended on several British neighborhoods, they were met by residents who had formed protective barriers around their businesses and homes. They were met by vigilantes.
Officials in the UK, as everywhere, pronounce the word vigilante with intonations of horror and disgust. To them, a vigilante represents "society gone askew" every bit as much as the looter who smashes open windows, because both men constitute a basic denial of the officials' authority. No wonder the police are eager to portray those who protect their own persons and property as "lynch mobs" or otherwise threats to civil society. If a trend toward self-defense were encouraged, after all, then the police might be out of a job; the authorities might be out of power. And so, vigilante is a good word that has "gone bad," largely because the authorities fear its virtues.
Both the antagonism and fear of authorities were evident in Britain last week. In the wake of riots, the police attacked not merely the rioters but also those who patrolled their own neighborhoods and averted violence. But they did so surreptitiously.
Clearly, the police were upset with the vigilantes. While their official impotence was displayed on TV screens around the world, average people banded together to perform the work the police could not. According to the UK Telegraph, "as many as 1,500 Sikhs, some in their eighties," patrolled West London neighborhoods and chased off rioters. In East London, "Turkish shopkeepers" armed with baseball bats and pool cues fended off looters; "Turkish and Kurdish men lined the key street of Kingsland High to seal off their community. As one shopkeeper stated, "There were no police so we came out to defend ourselves. I don't know if it's breaking the law but what can we do?"
But the police need to walk a fine line in criticizing vigilantes. Many of the scofflaws are heroes within their own communities — and even beyond. The Independent noted, "In the more affluent neighbourhood of Stoke Newington further north — an area filled with boutique shops and independent retailers — there was widespread praise for Turkish people who stopped rioters." Meanwhile, those same communities are united in disapproval of the police performance.
While decrying vigilantism in general, therefore, the authorities have focused their ire upon one group in particular: the English Defence League (EDL) with whom the public is less likely to have sympathy. The EDL is a far-right-wing group known for violent street protests against Sharia Law and Islamic extremism. Clive Efford, the MP for Eltham, where rioting was severe, stated, "A group of the English Defence League turned up in the high street and have been drinking all day, and although they say they're here to assist the police, they [the police] have now diverted all these resources here."
Accounts from those who patrolled the streets deny that the EDL were prevalent. Whichever account is true, however, the authorities and the press clearly wish to paint these unsympathetic drunkards as the vigilantes. For example, the Morning Star stated, "In Enfield a mob of white men, again believed to have included members of the EDL, swarmed through the streets chanting 'England.'"
Meanwhile, the authorities are treating the respectable vigilantes with kid gloves. On the one hand, the police are expressing concern about their safety. CNN reported, "the Metropolitan Police has warned against vigilantism, calling on members of the public not to put themselves in harm's way."
On the other hand, the police are diverting people from vigilantism into other tasks that make them feel valuable. A borough commander of an embattled neighborhood announced, "I urge the public to remain vigilant and report any information you have to police"; potential vigilantes have been asked to work instead on identifying the looters for future prosecution.
Authorities have flipped the "default" switch on self-defense: namely, leave it to the police. As the International Business Times stated, "Contrary to everyday people, the police have been trained to handle difficult situations, and the powers that have been given to them by the government should not be conferred to the rest of the population."
A Concept in Need of Redemption
This is an amazing statement: the right to defend against violence is a "power" that is given to the police "by government" and "should not be conferred to the rest of the population." The two main reasons for denying the right to self-defense seem to be
- without government training, people will get hurt; and
- people who rise in self-defense will turn into a lynch mob.
Regarding the first reason, when the police cannot or do not offer protection, people and property will be damaged. The best chance of preventing that damage is precisely for people to defend themselves. Moreover, denying the right of self-defense to a person because he might get hurt is like denying freedom of speech because he might misspeak or denying freedom of religion because he could join the wrong church. The denial is not an act of concern or protection; it is the imposition of social control.
Regarding the second reason: by invoking the image of drunken racist throngs, the British authorities are trying to make vigilantism into a synonym for lynch mobs. After rousing public fear and disgust, the government can "come to the rescue" and declare a monopoly on the use of defensive force. Because of images like that of a lynch mob, people reflexively turn away from the possibility of a private police force and private defense.
Return to the definition of vigilantism: "Taking the law into one's own hands … " The very definition draws a clear line between vigilantes and a lynch mob; the former takes the law into their own hands while the latter has nothing to do with the law except for breaking it. Indeed, as the London riots show, vigilantes are usually a defense against mobs, whether the ongoing thugs are looters or lynchers. Things can go badly wrong whenever there is a need for self-defense, but mistakes and missteps are aberrations that do not negate the essential nature of vigilantism. It is the opposite of a lynch mob.
The American Roots of Vigilantism
The first American "vigilance committee" of note was organized in San Francisco in 1851 to control the hooliganism that accompanied the gold rush. The population of the city had exploded from 812 in 1848 to approximately 25,000 in 1849, with more than half of the newcomers being foreigners. Crime surged along ethnic lines; for example, organized outlaws named the "Hounds" raped and brutalized the Mexican residents with impunity. Approximately 230 citizens formed the original committee, but it quickly grew to 700 members. An executive provided oversight and subcommittees policed the city.
Jared Kelley described the outcome:
The vigilantes incarcerated seventeen of "The Hounds" in the brig of a ship anchored in San Francisco's harbor … and drove the rest from town before the captured bandits were delivered to a legitimate court and the Committee of 1851 dispersed.
The vigilantism with which I am most familiar occurred during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. In the wake of the savage police beating of a black man named Rodney King, the city experienced the worst civil unrest in its history. Although I had relocated a few years before, I kept in close touch with a friend who lived in a "threatened" neighborhood. At one point she reported that her Korean neighbors were standing on rooftops with automatic rifles. The Koreatown area of Los Angeles was heavily targeted by looters and arsonists. By the second day, police and firemen did not even bother to show up. In a flash, the Koreans organized and armed themselves to protect their community both from physical attack and from the flames. After seeing news footage of a gunfight in Koreatown, I called my friend and urged her to leave the area. She convinced me it was safe by recounting how the Koreans had expanded their protective perimeter to include the public library.
A Concept Whose Time Has Come
The American police would probably react more quickly and violently against both rioters and vigilante groups in the United States. And yet if riots did occur in American streets, neighborhood committees would almost certainly be organized as they were in Koreatown. People will not stand passively by while their homes and businesses are looted. People will not wait for an absentee police force and fire department. They will shield their families from danger.
If riots come, it will not be the rich who suffer; they will be watching the violence on TV in their gated or high-rise communities. It will not be the media pundits who comment on "how terrible and senseless it is for them to destroy their own communities" while, at the same time, they excoriate anyone who picks up a gun to defend that community. It will be lower- and middle-class people who pick up a gun or a baseball bat, because, at its foundation, vigilantism is also a grassroots phenomenon. A vigilante is an average person who refuses to surrender to violence or authority. It is little wonder the elite look upon him and see a lynch mob.