VIGILANTE! Throughout my writing, I’ve run into people anxious to duck the “V” word, the dreaded member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate); also : a self appointed doer of justice-vigilantism.
In fact, soon after starting work on this book, I had a team of “costumed activists” tell me in an official statement they wanted to have nothing to do with the book. Why? They didn’t want to be trapped in between the same two book covers with the vigilantes. Their exact words: “guilt by association.”
When I asked RLSH in an interview form what they felt the biggest misconceptions about RLSHs were, a study of the results revealed “that we are vigilantes” was the number one answer. Many people have gone out of their way to distance themselves from the word with the press and when meeting the public.
Even Vigilante Spider told me, in so many words, that he wasn’t a vigilante! (Rather that he was a formerly, but not a currently.)
There are some who have adopted a persona who have some kind of ties with the RLSH (although they usually don't use the "RLSH" term) who do label themselves as vigilantes, but there's only a handful of them. Maybe 10? I haven't done my vigilante census yet.
So why do so many people react like it’s a hot potato? Well, some of the groups that have been associated with the word in the past haven’t set a great precedent.
VIGILANTES: OUR UGLY IN-LAWS
Top of the list would be the Ku Klux Klan, who began their terror filled night rides in 1865, beating and lynching, and burning crosses. They dressed in white hoods and sheets meant to symbolize fallen confederate soldiers. Although today the group numbers less than 6,000 members in sheets, the group had a very real reign of terror in the 1920’s, when membership was an estimated 6 million members.
The Wild West was sort of a “golden age” of vigilantes. With law enforcement few and far between, it was easy for people to decide to take the law into their own hands. These people were sick of having their livestock stolen, so groups like Stuart’s Stranglers of Montana, and the Tin Hat Brigade, of Texas, began hanging and shooting the thieves.
Other groups like the Anti Horse Thief Association (with a pretty straight forward motto: “protect the innocent; bring the guilty to justice.”) operated within legal means.
A Bald Knobber
A good vigilante cautionary tale is the story of the Bald Knobbers of Missouri. The Knobbers also wore masks- weird looking black ones with red and white patterns sewn around the eyes, nose, and mouth, and cork horns with tassels on top. From 1883-99 they rode out capturing and hanging horse thieves and murderers who had escaped the justice system. At first people supported the Bald Knobbers for protecting their property and safety.
The Bald Knobber’s power went to their head, though, and they began scaring and horsewhipping people they accused of immoral behavior; drunks, gamblers, unwed couples “living in sin,” people supporting a political candidate they didn’t like, and even people they simply considered “ornery.” Needless to say, the people got pretty pissed off with vigilantes telling them how to live their lives, so an anti-vigilante vigilante group formed (the Anti-Bald Knobbers) and the law cracked down on the Bald Knobbers as well, arresting 16 and hanging 4 of them.
Another bloody image of vigilantes is Central and South American death squads.
Los PEPES were a vigilante group, for example, who formed to try to take on and flush out Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar. It’s likely they were funded and assisted by the Colombian and American governments. Eventually they did get to Escobar, but not before leaving a bloody trail killing many of Escobar’s associates, lawyers, and family members. It was like six degrees of separation, except everyone associated was being brutally murdered.
Somba Negra (“Black Shadow”) is a group of police and military that hunts down gangs and criminals in El Salvador. They cover their faces to hide their identity and shoot the criminals they catch in the back of the head.
OTHER GROUPS and PEOPLE ASSOCIATED WITH THE TERM
Perhaps the most famous case of the solo modern vigilante is Bernhard Goetz-the “Subway Vigilante.”
On Dec. 22, 1984, Goetz was approached by four young men from the Bronx, one of who demanded 5 dollars. Goetz pulled out a .38 special Smith and Wesson and shot all four men. All of them lived, but one was paralyzed for life. Goetz fled the scene, but turned himself into authorities later.
“You decide.” Goetz said about his guilt in his confession. “I became a vicious animal, and if you think that is so terrible, I just wish anyone could have been there in my place. Anyone who is going to judge me, fine, I was vicious. My intent was to kill ‘em, and... and you just decide what’s right and wrong.”
The case was controversial. Some people viewed Goetz as a racist who went out with his gun that night looking for trouble. Goetz also had many supporters, people sick of living in fear in their own city.
Time magazine reported at the time:
“When New York police set up a special hot line to seek evidence in the case, they were deluged with phone calls backing Goetz; many of the well-wishers suggested that he run for mayor or receive a medal.”
A wide variety of other groups are also known as “vigilantes.”
Groups like the Earth Liberation Front are labeled eco-terrorists, and some of their actions could be considered vigilante behavior. Same with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society- despite their scholarly sounding name, this group actively attacks and sinks whaling and fishing vessels.
The Minuteman Project and Ranch Rescue are vigilante groups formed to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent and expel illegal immigrants.
One of the more famed “cyber-vigilante” groups is Perverted Justice, made famous by Dateline NBC‘s “To Catch a Predator” series. The group poses as minors on the internet to lure sexual predators out into a trap.
VIGILANTES- AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE?
Despite some ugly vigilantes in the past, and depending on your opinion, the present, I think one thing is clear; our culture loves vigilantes. It’s part of who we are.
Go back to the very beginning. What were the founding fathers, if not a crew of hard hitting vigilantes? The Boston Tea Party was a vigilante action, complete with the participants wearing disguises to conceal their identities.
Since then, our culture has embraced vigilantes as folk heroes.
Here’s a pop hit list of some of our beloved vigilantes:
Robin Hood- The original man in tights! Yes, I realize he’s actually British (first appearance: "Robin and the Monk," 1450) but he’s made the voyage across the pond pretty well. He’s been portrayed by Errol Flynn (1938), a cartoon fox (1973), a mullet sporting Kevin Costner (1991), and Russell Crowe (in a film to be released in May). See also: Zorro.
The Vigilante from Action Comics
The Wild, Wild West- As mentioned before, one of the great pieces of Americana is the legend of the West, the vigilante being forced to take the law into his own hands. We all know the set up; the quick drawing hero meets up with the villains that have been terrorizing the village on the dusty, tumbleweed littered street at high noon. The posse tracks down the cattle thieves and delivers frontier justice.
There’s a cowboy comic character that first appeared in Action Comics in 1941, simply named The Vigilante.
The Vigilante vowed to fight crime after his father, a Sheriff, was killed by a gang of bandits. He rode the plains of Wyoming, armed with a lariat and his sharpshooting skills, tracking down spies and banditos with help from his sidekick, “Stuff the Chinatown Kid”. There are many other examples of Western vigilantes. There’s even a Dallas indoor football league who has adopted the image, named The Dallas Vigilantes.
Batman demonstrates the dangers of vigilantism
Batman, Daredevil, The Crow, Green Arrow, and most every single comic book superhero- Justice League of Vigilantes.
The A*Team- Fool pitying vigilantes.
The Big City- In the 1970s and 80s movies like Death Wish and Taxi Driver became popular. I think it’s safe to say that the general public, upset by rising crime and the crack epidemic, found some vicarious thrill in these “you talkin to me?” style vigilantes.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- Vigilantes in a half shell.
Dexter Morgan- Blood splatter analyzing, serial killing vigilante. Dexter is an odd one, because the show is set up so that we feel sympathy for creepy Dexter instead of the garbage bags full of criminals he’s hacked apart.
Now, why do these characters appeal to us so much? That’s easy. A lot of people in this country are sick of it.
“THE SYSTEM IS A DISASTER”
In his book Into Their Own Hands, author Gary Provost writes a true crime book about everyday people who have become vigilantes. A women shoots her abusive ex-husband, a father shoots in revenge for the death of his daughter, etc.
These people decided to skip the justice system and become judge, jury, and executioner.
In the introduction to the book, Provost says he and his friends had theorized something called the “Bristol Plan.” The Bristol Plan envisioned a justice system with just two punishments- 2 years in prison or death by hanging. He and his friends weren’t really serious about the idea, but he found himself talking to a lot of people about the plan, and he shared their response.
“What I was hearing in people’s response to The Bristol Plan was rage. You couldn’t enjoy an evening walk in the city, because you might get mugged. You worried about buying that sports car you always wanted because there was an excellent chance it would get stolen. Your kid couldn’t play basketball in the gym because there had been a knifing incident there. Your hairdresser had bruises on her face because her husband was beating her and the cops wouldn’t arrest him. Your taxes went up to pay for more cops, more prisons, more prosecutors, more judges-and all this more didn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference.”
“The people I talk to are wringing their hands and shaking their heads. They cannot believe how incredibly cumbersome , slow, and ineffective the criminal justice system is. They believe that when a crime is committed, justice comes slowly or not at all. They believe that most criminals go unpunished and the ones that are punished are not punished severely enough. And the people that believe these things are absolutely right. The system is a disaster.”
Provost’s responses are similar to responses I’ve heard myself when talking to people about this book. Most people I’ve talked to feel our justice system is extremely flawed, if not entirely broken.
I’m sure any one of you can pick up your local newspaper and find something that’ll make your stomach turn.
Just a couple weeks ago, I was flipping through my local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when I found an article titled “Man Charged in Sexual Assault of Student.” It turns out this guy was convicted of third degree sexual assault (1999), bail jumping (2006), operating a vehicle without owner’s consent (1996 and 1997), and issued a domestic abuse restraining order (2006).
Last month he followed a 21 year old college student to her apartment, and later was charged with first degree sexual assault, kidnapping, burglary, and two counts of second degree assault. Now what makes the story even worse- at this same time he was charged with two incidents that had happened a year prior.
These were charges of child enticement and stalking in connection with 3 incidents with a 14 year old girl in September 2009 and two counts second degree sexual assault in a March 2009 in which he groped a 16 year old girl. At the March incident:
“A Milwaukee Police officer handcuffed (name deleted) near the scene, but the complaint does not explain why (name deleted) was not charged at the time or how the case was initially resolved.”
So they had this guy, and for unknown reasons he walked. And he did it again.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I’d like to say now, that I am not endorsing vigilante behavior here; I’m trying to understand it. I’m not trying to insult people in law enforcement, I think generally they’re good people trying to do their jobs, and frustrated like everyone else.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you think our justice system works? Do you think vigilante justice is the answer? Do you think there are certain times vigilante justice is acceptable?
-Definition of vigilante from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 11th edition
- Phone interview with Vigilante Spider
-Ku Klux Klan info from wikipedia
-Wild West vigilante group info from Legends of America site HERE
-Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes on the Ozarks Frontier, by Mary Hartman and Elmo Ingethron
-Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden
-A Crime of Self Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the law on trial, by George P. Fletcher
-"Behavior: Low Profile for a Legend Bernhard Goetz," by John Leo and Jack E. White, Time, January 21, 1985
-Into Their Own Hands,by Gary Provost
-"Man Charged in Sex Assault of Student," by Ryan Haggerty, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel March 10, 2010