Proud to Punish
The Global Landscapes of Rough Justice
Gilles Favarel-Garrigues and Laurent Gayer, Translated by Cynthia Schoch and Trista Selous


Introduction: Breaking the Law to Maintain Order
chapter abstract

While the apparent differences between Wild West vigilantes, 20th-century Latin American death squads, cop killers, killer cops, lynch mobs and people's courts have made them objects of study for distinct academic subfields, we argue that they are all of the same blend. All of them aim virulent criticism at due process, which they claim to cure with a treatment of their own. In each of its avatars, rough justice involves both a radical critique of the rule of law and a set of practices aiming to repair the judicial system through extralegal means. In opposition to the formal justice system, proponents of rough justice advocate a cheap, uncompromising form of law enforcement, which they regard as the embodiment of popular sovereignty.

1The Vigilante Show
chapter abstract

Vigilantism is closely linked to the history of the United States since the nineteenth century, but the practices it encompasses are currently being debated in many other countries. Having various sociological profiles, but usually linked to conservative or reactionary circles, vigilantes have no qualms about breaking the law to maintain the order in the name of which they patrol, hunt and punish their prey. In its contemporary forms, vigilantism is a global phenomenon with digital ramifications, resulting in the proliferation of Internet-mediated policing initiatives. In addition to the protection of private property and community boundaries, vigilante practices challenge the boundary between activism and rough justice.

2Lynch Law
chapter abstract

The notoriety of "Lynch Law" exceeds the scope of vigilante justice, although the two phenomena have obvious similarities. Proponents of such methods often choose the same targets: thieves, rapists, and child abductors. They justify their actions using similar arguments: all decry the failings, remoteness, slowness or leniency of the judiciary as an institution. And in publicly administering their punishments, they express a similar conception of popular sovereignty. However, lynching differs from vigilantism in three respects. First, it arouses all the more horror as it calls up visions of an angry mob––and not a squad of volunteers on patrol. Moreover, with "Lynch law," the right to punish tends to be confused with the right to kill. Last, faced with the specter of dispossession, the punitive spectacle fully restores the social body in its integrity.

3Cop Killers
chapter abstract

This chapter is based on the case of the "Primorsky partisans", a gang of young die-hards from Russia's Far-East who were in the news for several weeks in 2010 due to their many attacks on the local police. This case is untypical as the cop killer is largely a figure of fantasy. Murders of police officers generally occur during criminal actions that go awry. Beyond situations of civil war, planned attacks on law enforcement officers tend to be the work of solitary snipers. The "Primorsky Partisans" took their hatred of the uniform to a new level, justifying their actions with political arguments intended to appeal to a specific audience and promote support for the group, and drew on the imaginary of insurrection and revolution, with its lurking specter of civil war.

4Popular Justice, Revolutionary Justice
5Cleaning Up Society
chapter abstract

This chapter deals with social cleansing in South America. Although revolutionary movements occasionally carried out "limpieza" operations, these were reactionary in origin, emerged within the state, and were historically linked to "death squads".

6Punishers in Uniform
chapter abstract

The constraints imposed on the police by the legal framework for the use of force have led them to develop their own critiques of judicial institutions, and indeed to replace those institutions by carrying out their own sentences. Routine punitive police work may be seen as a legitimate way to deliver justice if it is publicly stated to be done for the benefit of society. Although police rough justice challenges the juridical framework by transcending legal law in the name of higher principles, its existence is conditional on the good will of authorities. Police rough justice is not an expression of mutiny against state institutions, but of a government-impelled rebellion against the liberal rule of law. The endpoint of this process is the vigilante state, which guarantees impunity to both the police and to "decent people" who choose to dispense justice themselves, and may even reward their transgressions.

Conclusion: The Rough Justice Continuum
chapter abstract

At this time of growing visibility and legitimacy for vigilantes of all hues, the use of extrajudicial violence culminates in what we refer to as the 'vigilante state' –a form of government that emerges at the meeting point of three interdependent trends: the reformulation of social tensions in the language of security in response to an alleged social demand for greater severity; a revolt against the rule of law promoted by segments of the ruling elite and advocates of a no-holds-barred response to crime; and a plethora of enforcement offers from various violent specialists, blurring the boundaries between the public and the private. While these punitive configurations are most fully developed in so-called illiberal democracies, it would be a grave mistake to regard other regimes as immune from this revolt against the rule of law.

Selected Bibliography