There is no greater law firm than Smith & Wesson, especially if it’s backed up by a 12-gauge injunction.
MEMBER OF THE US MILITIA MOVEMENT POSSE COMITATUS (1978)1
A PHOTOGRAPH, SHARED MORE THAN three thousand times and eliciting 1,200 comments in the hours after it was put online in June 2016, shows a man wearing a baseball cap lying face down on the ground, his feet and hands bound in a hogtie, with a hunting knife a few inches from his face. The image was posted on the Facebook page of a group calling itself Darwin Crime Rally Protest. “Tired of the courts soft approach on criminals,” the group targets residents of the Australian city eager to “get involved and make the community a safer place.” The text accompanying the image claims the person shown in this humiliating posture was captured in the suburb of Palmerston as he was about to steal a car and threatened passersby with a knife. “His mates got away, and until we find them, this guy’s new home is in the boot of our car,” the author added and then suggested that there would be more vigilante action to come: “Get word out we aren’t here to fuck around anymore, and we will be taking action into our own hands from now regardless of the outcome.”2 A number of people visiting the page lauded this social prophylaxis and encouraged the group in its efforts to clean up Palmerston. “Good job, hope you get a great collection of these scumbags,” one of the comments read. Others criticized the vigilantes for being too lenient, with one commentator suggesting that the suspect should have been flogged and another that they “should have tied him behind the car and made him run.” The local police took a diametrically opposite view, stating that “Northern Territory Police do not support or condone” any form of vigilantism and that ordinary citizens should refrain from “taking the law into their own hands.” Clearly flustered by this challenge to their authority, law enforcement officers gave assurances that they were duly investigating the matter. The veracity of the photo was, however, soon called into question by informed commentators who derided the amateurish way that the suspect had been tied up: “Look at his hands, don’t need to be Houdini to get outta that,” one noted sarcastically.3 The administrator of the Facebook page himself fueled doubts, first telling the police that the photo had been faked but then claiming to have lied to avoid criminal charges. In the end, he left it up to the people of Darwin “to decide whether the alleged incidents [were] real or not.”4
Doubt continued to hover over this affair, and most commentators, including the police, did not rule out the possibility that it was indeed an example of vigilantism: an initiative by ordinary citizens determined to enforce the law and mete out justice on their own terms, in response to a formal justice system deemed to be either wanting or ineffective.5 Darwin’s self-proclaimed crime fighters may not have been expert knot tiers, but in the eyes of a large segment of their audience, their performance was no less convincing. Indeed, in their statements of intent, their modus operandi, and the controversies they fueled, these enforcers determined to clean up the streets were without doubt exemplary of their kind.
The uncompromising approach to justice endorsed by the Darwin activists led them to defy the law and impose outrageous penalties. Few parts of the world have escaped such controversial improvised justice, administered by amateurs who, hands on hearts and heads high, proudly claim the right to punish. The iconic figure of the superhero, made popular through comics, pulp fiction, and Hollywood movies, continues to feed the global imagination of what vigilantes are, alongside more vernacular figures of punishers.6 But whereas pop culture favors lone avengers, the Darwin vigilantes and their ilk tend to hunt in a pack, in the name of their people.
Physical punishment is a vindictive act of communication. When a mob gets hold of an alleged rapist to lynch him, it throws down a challenge to the authorities by appropriating sovereignty’s ultimate attribute, the “right of death.”7 The message to governments and populations can be read on the battered bodies, in the edifying notices that death squads pin on the publicly displayed corpses of their victims: “I was a robber,” “I was a dealer, don’t become like me.” Their communiqués, leaflets, or filmed stunts can take a more elaborate form than notes on corpses, but vigilantes always take delight in leaving their audience in a state of shock and awe. Yet to stand out from assassins drunk on revenge, they constantly seek legitimacy through approval of their actions by recognized authorities (the police, the government, political parties, the community, the people).8 Vigilantes invoke the right of self-defense extensively and proactively for the sake of society at large, unlike those who claim it when under personal and immediate threat.
Dominant interpretations of rough justice tend to equate it with a form of establishment violence.9 For US scholars, who pioneered the study of extralegal violence, the iconic vigilante is a reactionary and xenophobic White male, aiming to defend the natural order of things and, more prosaically, vacillating social, racial, and sexual hierarchies.10 However, this archetype by no means exhausts the portrait gallery of self-styled enforcers on the fringe of the law. Sexual and racial minorities, revolutionary organizations, and dominated classes spawn their own whip-wielding, gun-toting avengers, and police and paramilitaries may also disregard the law to liquidate those branded as enemies of the state and the dregs of society. Whatever the cause they champion, vigilantes of all stripes share a critique of the judicial system—they resent undue delays, quibbling, rights granted to the accused and convicts, and leniency of sentences. This critique of procedure is coupled with a vitriolic indictment against the correctionalist ideal of the justice system, with its focus on rehabilitating criminals. In recent decades, this ideal has lost momentum in the face of public discourse advocating harsher sentences on the pretext of a supposed social demand for security.11 Reflecting these punitive trends, vigilantes do not believe that deviants and criminals can mend their ways. Rabidly hostile to programs promoting the reintegration of ex-offenders, they claim the right to banish incorrigibles or even put them to death in the name of a community—from the poor and the marginalized to the more privileged “law-abiding citizens”—that varies from one vigilante group to another.
Although vigilantes take popular support for granted, it is difficult to measure. The intimidation they exert leaves little room for outright protest against their actions, and the failings of the state foster endorsement by default, in the absence of a credible alternative. Still, the embedding of protectors into the neighborhood or the village lends them credibility. The promise of restoring order also resonates with anxious and vulnerable populations. Vigilante justice often appears as a revolt against the law,12 but it is also the vehicle for social demands and collective assertion. Defending private property and protecting one’s family are not confined to the dominant classes; for the most vulnerable they take on an existential dimension. These concerns are heightened in societies damaged by decades of neoliberal reforms that, with their trail of privation and alienation, have intensified the specter of dispossession. Vigilante justice, then, partakes in the power struggles between marginalized populations, political authorities, and law enforcement institutions.
Vigilantes cut to the chase; they provide a cheap solution within everyone’s reach and are not ashamed of their amateurism.13 They are not immune to harrowing blunders, even if they often are “specialists in coercion”14 with hunting skills, combat experience, or a background in law enforcement. At the same time, their propensity for rough justice does not imply wholesale rejection of the law. On the contrary, the legitimacy of these movements also relies on their ability to refer to positive law when need be, mimicking its procedures and appropriating its rituals. The ambition of this book is to demonstrate that, in its various forms, rough justice thrives on “the dense interweaving of arms and law.”15
Pierre Bourdieu notes that a vigilante is like a “self-mandated legal prophet . . . who opposes a personal and private justice to juridical common sense,” believing himself entitled to “[express] the collective morality” in the name of a group.16 He is a “juridical creator”17 who also oversees the entire penal chain: he is at once detective, interrogating officer, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. He may deliver justice here and there in the event of an obvious offense. More frequently, however, he produces evidence that is based on a victim’s complaint or coerced confessions of an alleged perpetrator and also occasionally draws on indigenous rituals for establishing guilt (trials by ordeal, divination, oaths, etc.).18 His versatility enables him to reach verdicts and hand down sentences in record time. However, his primary role is to administer punishment, and this he does with boundless imagination. Favoring spectacular and exemplary justice targeting the body, he degrades and tortures his victims for edification, dissuasion, and entertainment. Such resolutely corporal punishments resurrect the criminal justice system’s past of torture and spectacle, which persists despite the advent of “the age of sobriety in punishment,” as noted by Michel Foucault.19 Whereas Foucault sees a “shame in punishing” that prompted contemporary penal institutions to hide punishment from the public eye,20 the self-styled justice dispensers who fill these pages are proud of their actions and rejoice in their omnipotence. They orchestrate new “festivals of punishment”21 that revive the excesses of the oldest forms of public execution for a global audience attained through social media. The more enterprising among them, such as Russian vigilantes,22 even make a profit from these violent spectacles, providing sensational content for their YouTube channels, which they turn into business assets.
Vigilante actions serve two different conceptions of punishment. The first involves publicly humiliating deviants before returning them to society, as happens in village justice rituals such as charivari in France,23 “rough music” in the United Kingdom,24 and vozhdenie in Russia.25 The second is intended to expel or eliminate those beyond redemption, in accordance with a hygienist agenda that seeks to cleanse society of its dregs. In every case, the vigilantes’ prey are sanctioned for straying from legal or moral norms. They are punished for not only what they do but also who they are in terms of ethnic origin, social status, or sexual orientation. Their perceived identity makes them vulnerable to scapegoating by lynch mobs and vigilantes, who deliver their verdicts in the name of both positive law and an ideal conception of justice that predates or overrides the legal rules of the state. Indeed, positive law is not the only normative framework recognized by self-appointed punishers. As “moral entrepreneurs,”26 they also penalize behavior deemed to be deviant even if not criminalized (such as homosexuality, adultery, and witchcraft). And when they put their strong-arm tactics in the service of the dominant classes, punishers hunt down trade unionists, political activists, and other champions of human rights disturbing the established order.
Extrajudicial punishment is premised on a presumption of impunity. Self-appointed law enforcers bank on the authorities’ inadequacies or complicity to escape prosecution. As a number of cases discussed in this book show, the outcome is never a foregone conclusion, and advocates of rough justice sometimes cross the path of uncompromising judges, tenacious journalists, or competitors prepared to fight it out. These constraints oblige vigilantes to strike a balance between publicity and secrecy. Some groups opt to work underground, whereas others act in the open, proudly embracing their prophylactic mission and the inevitable dirty work that comes in tow. While pursuing spectacular justice, vigilantes strive to keep some details offstage. They readily exhibit their exploits, their victims, and expressions of popular support but often conceal their personal identities, unsavory feats, and hidden motives—even if these are “public secrets.”27
The self-righteousness of vigilantes, their certainty of being in the right, does not prevent them from quickly running out of steam. This is particularly true for lynch mobs, associated in the public mind with sudden and explosive action. But more routine vigilante operations, such as patrols to keep watch over a territory or border, can also founder. The longevity of these ventures depends on their legitimacy at the local level and, especially, on the benevolence of official and customary authorities. This precarious accreditation endows them with a temporary right to exercise legal authority, thus paving the way for plural policing.
When their operations go beyond mere publicity stunts, vigilantes present their audience with a fait accompli. Their claim to realize the will of the people or the community is inherently divisive. The ensuing controversies revolve first of all around the appropriateness of the punishments, particularly when their unbridled violence seems to more moderate spectators to be disproportionate to the offense. Their conception of corporal punishment is intrinsically inclined to excess and responds to the crime with a surfeit of severity, “a sort of surplus on the side of punishment”28 by which the vigilantes proclaim their sovereignty loud and clear. Additional layers of meaning may aggravate the imbalance between offense and sanction in these rituals of degradation. Crime fighting may thus combine with a reassertion of racial and sexual order, with a project of social cleansing, or with an attempt to disenfranchise certain categories of the population.29 The propensity of vigilantes to make exceptions to their own rules also fuels controversies regarding their art of punishing. In shedding institutional constraints governing the use of violence and the right to judge, vigilantes let loose with exhilaration or delight in their own dilettantism, like the mercenaries hired to crush strikes and restore employer justice in 1970s France, who found factory life depressing and preferred to spend their time “partying wildly” and committing robberies for their own profit.30
As illustrated by the controversy over the Darwin Crime Rally Protest, both the sham of vigilante justice and the methods used to enforce it are condemned. In posing as paragons of virtue, vigilantes are bound to come under public scrutiny and expose themselves to judicial risks. Their claim to serve the common good and their professions of integrity are liable to arouse suspicion. They are therefore open to accusations of duplicity: under the cover of the law, they allegedly enrich themselves or conceal a political agenda. Also, their claim of autonomy in their determination to implement an alternative form of justice is puzzling. Are they really the vengeful arm of the people, as they proclaim, or are they secretly serving the interests of major corporations, criminal organizations, or political groups? The dissimulation strategies used by vigilantes themselves, their blurring of the line between law enforcers and troublemakers, and doubts surrounding the veracity of the images they produce and disseminate reinforce these suspicions of imposture. The specter of fakery looms over twenty-first-century vigilantes, whose pretentions to capture the moral high ground expose them to counterinvestigations and flurries of fact-checking.
This book draws on our respective fieldwork—in India, Pakistan, and Russia—and on a bibliography that takes an inclusive approach to the social sciences, drawing from sociology, political science, anthropology, and history. Although firmly grounded in an analysis of the contemporary era, our investigation is nevertheless sensitive to the specific yet connected historicities of rough justice. Thus, the universal revulsion toward lynching has been fueled by the controversies surrounding racial violence in the United States since the second half of the nineteenth century, which have spread far beyond the country’s borders. Although defending a comparative approach, we do not propose a term-by-term analysis or typological classification. Rather, we explore how, beyond idiosyncrasies, each case may refine the overall inquiry, shed light on other situations, and suggest potential circulations of narratives, practices, and controversies. The expansion of social media has strengthened these connections and contributes to a formal convergence of these narratives and practices through the circulation of global templates. Hence the striking similarities among contemporary lynching scenes from India to Mexico or among “pedophile hunts” from the United States to Russia.
The opening scenes introducing each chapter aim to capture the combination of sensorial overdrive, exhilaration, and routine practices that characterize rough justice in action. By observing the protagonists in their social environment, exploring their practices, and listening to their vindictive discourse and the reactions of their audience, we start drawing the contours of punitive configurations. These opening scenes also outline the realm of possibilities in which relations between private enforcers and public authorities are negotiated. Finally, these vignettes vividly convey the confusion that permeates rough justice, hinting at a world of subterfuge in which radical stances do not suffice to dispel suspicions of imposture.
Violent, controversial, and confusing, the subject matter of this book invites caution in the gathering and treatment of documentary sources. Press accounts, nongovernmental organization reports, and judicial investigations are often marred by sensationalism and political biases. Besides, most of these sources tend to make victims invisible and inaudible. The survivors are reluctant to publicize their ordeal and, at best, voice their grievances through authorized spokespersons. While engaging with this problematic corpus, we do not seek to set the record straight but instead analyze on their own terms the actors’ statements (including messages and press releases, videos, exchanges on social media, and possible confessions) and unpack the controversies arising from their wrongdoing.
Proud to Punish follows two threads: One leads from seemingly autonomous citizens taking the law in their own hands to punishers in uniform. The other leads from crime fighting to social cleansing. The first two chapters tackle the most iconic representations of do-it-yourself justice: the vigilante, a private enforcer who breaks the law to maintain order, and the lynch mob, a vindictive horde acting with method, assuming the right to put the guilty to death without further ado. The next two chapters venture into less well charted territory, on the trail of cop killers and revolutionaries experimenting with a more subversive brand of popular justice. The last two chapters dive into the murky waters of political domination, where death squads and punishers in uniform set out to cleanse society. And when the political patrons of these executioners, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Narendra Modi in India, elevate extrajudicial violence into an art of government, they hasten the advent of a vigilante state.
1. Cited by George O’Toole, The Private Sector: Rent-a-cops, Private Spies and the Police-Industrial Complex, New York, W. W. Norton, 1978, p. 150. Posse Comitatus (Force of the County) was formed in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1960s by antigovernment White supremacists.
2. The group’s Facebook page has been deleted, but a screenshot of the page is in Steven Trask, “His New Home Is in the Boot of Our Car,” Daily Mail (Australia), June 12, 2016.
3. Steven Schubert, “Vigilante Warning as NT Police Investigate Facebook Post of Hogtied ‘Would-Be-Thief,’” ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Company), June 13, 2016.
4. Kieran Banks, “Former Organiser of Darwin Crime Rally Protest Group Stands by Hogtie Picture,” NT News (Northern Territory, Australia), June 15, 2016.
5. Gilles Favarel-Garrigues and Laurent Gayer (eds.), “Justiciers hors-la-loi,” Politix, no. 115, 2016, pp. 9–156.
6. We have in mind here the overwhelming presence of civilian and police vigilantes in Indian and Nigerian cinema. See Beatrice Jauregui, “Just War: The Metaphysics of Police Vigilantism in India,” Conflict and Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 41–59, https://doi.org/10.3167/arcs.2015.010105; John C. McCall, “Juju and Justice at the Movies: Nigerian Popular Videos,” African Studies Review, vol. 47, no. 3, 2004, pp. 51–67, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0002020600030444.
7. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended:” Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–76, trans. David Macey, New York, Picador, 2006, p. 240.
8. This definition of legitimacy draws on Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 171.
9. H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg, “Vigilantism: An Analysis of Establishment Violence,” Comparative Politics, vol. 6, no. 4, 1974, pp. 541–570,https://doi.org/10.9783/9781512806335-002.
10. Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.
11. Regarding this change in the United States and in the United Kingdom, see David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 8–9.
12. Grégoire Chamayou, Manhunts: A Philosophical History, trans. Steven Rendall, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2012, chap. 9.
13. David Pratten and Atreyee Sen, “Global Vigilantes: Perspectives on Justice and Violence,” in David Pratten and Atreyee Sen (eds.), Global Vigilantes, London, Hurst, 2007, p. 3.
14. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990, Cambridge, UK, Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 19.
15. Michael Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 92.
16. Pierre Bourdieu, On the State: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1989–1992, trans. David Fernbach, London, Polity Press, 2014, pp. 57, 47.
17. Bourdieu, p. 57.
18. David Pratten, “‘The Thief Eats His Shame’: Practice and Power in Nigerian Vigilantism,” Africa, vol. 78, no. 1, 2008, pp. 64–83, https://doi.org/10.3366/E0001972008000053; McCall, “Juju and Justice at the Movies.”
19. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York, Vintage, 1995, p. 14.
20. Foucault, pp. 16–17.
21. Foucault, p. 8.
22. The term vigilante, from the Spanish, appeared in the United States after the Civil War to refer to members of vigilance committees. William Safire, “On Language: Vigilante,” New York Times, February 10, 1985.
23. Jacques Le Goff and Jean-Claude Schmitt (eds.), Le Charivari, Paris, EHESS-Mouton, 1982.
24. Edward Palmer Thompson, “‘Rough Music’: Le charivari anglais,” Annales, vol. 27, no. 2, 1972, pp. 285–312.
25. Stephen Frank, “Popular Justice, Community and Culture among the Russian Peasantry, 1870–1990,” Russian Review, vol. 46, no. 3, 1987, pp. 239–265, https://doi.org/10.2307/130562.
26. Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1963, chap. 8.
27. Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 50.
28. Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974–1975, trans. Graham Burchell, London, Verso, 2003, p. 83.
29. David Garland, “Penal Excess and Surplus Meaning: Public Torture Lynchings in Twentieth Century America,” Law and Society Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 2005, pp. 819–826, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5893.2005.00245.x.
30. See the account of one of these mercenaries in Claude Angeli and Nicolas Brimo, Une milice patronale: Peugeot, Paris, Maspero, 1975, p. 85.