AskDefine | Define vigilante

Dictionary Definition

vigilante n : member of a vigilance committee [syn: vigilance man]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. One who takes the law into one's own hands



From Spanish vigilante meaning watchman or guard; derived from Latin vigilant-, vigilant-.





  1. vigilant, watchful, alert



Extensive Definition

A vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts his or her own form of justice when they deem the response of the authorities to be insufficient. Several groups and individuals have been labeled as vigilantes by various historians and media. Vigilantes have been central to several creative fictional works and are often depicted as being heroes and retaliatory against wrongdoers.


The term vigilante is Spanish and Portuguese for "watchman" or "watcher," ultimately from Latin "vigilans"- the present participle of "vigilare" (to watch). It was introduced into English from the Southwestern United States. Vigilantism is generally frowned upon by official agencies, especially when it gives way to criminal behavior on the part of the vigilante.

Vigilante behavior

An impetus of vigilant behavior must exist to facilitate a subjective definition of vigilantism.
"Vigilante justice" is sometimes spurred on by the perception that criminal punishment is insufficient or nonexistent to the crime. Some people see their governments as ineffective in enforcing the law; thus, such individuals fulfill the like-minded wishes of the community. In other instances, a person may choose a role of vigilante as a result of personal experience as opposed to a social demand. Most significantly, some vigilantes specifically target authoritarian entities such as government.
In recent times vigilante or vigilante justice has become a tool of some legislators respecting sex offenders [rightful or wrongful labeling]to terrorize anyone forced with the label of sex offender. Legislators speak of using baseball bats, penal islands, and the use of residency restrictions to run people out of towns, villages, cities, and states based on faulty information, which generally comes with vigilante reasoning.
Persons seen as escaping from the law, or "above the law" are sometimes the targets of vigilantism. It may target persons or organizations involved in illegal activities in general or it may be aimed against a specific group or type of activity, e.g. police corruption. Other times, governmental corruption is the prime target of vigilante freedom fighters.
Vigilante behavior may differ in degree of violence. In some cases vigilantes may assault targets verbally, terrorize victims, perform inhumane acts, or may exhibit no violence at all, choosing other means of pressuring the target. Anyone who defies government and institution to further justice can be considered a vigilante, and thus violence is not a necessary criterion.


Vigilantism existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been noted in folkloric heroes and legendary outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood). Vigilantism in literature, folklore and legend is deeply connected to the fundamental issues of morality, the nature of justice, the limits of bureaucratic authority and the ethical function of legitimate governance.
During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm (cf. the medieval Sicilian Vendicatori), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.

Colonial era

Formally-defined vigilantism arose in the early North American colonies. In these instances, the line between "taking the law into one's own hands," and rebellion or tyrannicide (to destroy an abusive corruption of a legitimate government and vindicate moral ends) was not clear.

19th century

Later in America, vigilante groups established themselves in poorly governed frontier areas where criminals preyed upon the citizenry with impunity.
  • In the 1850s, the San Francisco Vigilance Movement was an example of secretive groups of vigilantes who cleaned up city streets of crime with a segment focused against immigrants.
  • In the aftermath of the Civil War and the South's defeat, vigilante secret societies, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which hid behind masks and robes, and the Knights of the White Camellia, arose, using violence and intimidation to continue an insurgent war, enforce white supremacy against freedmen, and to intimidate white Republicans and Freedmen's Bureau agents. With state and Federal enforcement, both died out about 1870-1871.
  • In 1868 between 60 and 70 vigilantes broke into the New Albany, Indiana jail and lynched three Reno Brothers.
  • Active in 1883-1889, the Bald Knobbers were masked men who retaliated against invading marauders and drove out outlaws in Taney County.

20th century

  • In the 1920s, the Big Sword Society of China protected life and property in a state of anarchy.
  • Formed in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been increasingly active against whaling and fishing vessels which they see as violating international laws, regulations and treaties, particularly where whaling is concerned. It endorses an active policy of scuttling fishing and whaling vessels while in harbor, and ramming and sinking vessels engaged in the killing of whales. A tally on the side of the Sea Shepherd vessel RV Farley Mowat displays the ten whaling vessels (referred to as "Pirates" by the society) sent to the bottom by Sea Shepherds:
1979 – the whaler Sierra rammed and sunk in Portugal;
1980 – the whalers Isba I and Isba II sunk in Vigo, Spain;
1980 – the whalers Susan and Theresa sunk in South Africa;
1981 – the whaling ships Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 sunk in Iceland;
1992 – the whaler Nybraena sunk in Norway;
1994 – the whaler Senet sunk in Norway;
1998 – the whaler Morild sunk in Norway.
  • Founded in 1979 in New York City, the Guardian Angels is a recognized crime fighting organization that now has chapters in many other cities. It has sometimes been incorrectly called a vigilante organization. Safety Patrol members are instructed to call police, are trained in basic first aid, CPR, law, conflict resolution, communication, and basic martial arts, and are prohibited from carrying weapons.
  • Recognized since the 1980s, Sombra Negra or "Black Shadow" of El Salvador is a group of mostly retired police officers and military personnel whose sole duty is to cleanse the country of "impure" social elements. Along with several other organizations, Sombra Negra are a remnant of the death squads from the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • In 1981, a resident of the rural town Skidmore, Missouri fatally shot town bully Ken McElroy in broad daylight after years of crimes without any punishment. Forty five people witnessed the shooting, but everybody kept quiet when it came time to identify the shooter.
  • In 1984, Bernhard Goetz entered a subway train in New York and was surrounded by a group. He shot all four, fled the scene, and was called "the subway vigilante" by some media.
  • Known since 1995, the Davao Death Squad of present-day Davao City, Philippines unleashed a killing spree aimed at the city's (supposed) notorious criminals and children by unknown motorcycle riding vigilantes.
  • Formed since 1996, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs of Cape Town, South Africa fights drugs and gangsterism in their region.
  • Formed since 1998, the Bakassi Boys of Nigeria were viewed as the frontmen in lowering the region's high crime when police were ineffective.

21st century (present day)

  • Formed since 2000, Ranch Rescue is a still functioning organization in the southwest United States ranchers call upon to forcibly remove illegal aliens and squatters off their property.
  • In the early decade of 2000, after the September 11 attacks, Jonathan Idema, a self-proclaimed vigilante, entered Afghanistan and captured many people he claimed to be terrorists. Idema claimed he was collaborating with, and supported by, the United States Government. He even sold news-media outlets tapes that he claimed showed an Al Qaeda training camp in action. His operations ended abruptly when he was arrested with his partners in 2004 and sentenced to 10 years in a notorious Afghan prison, before being pardoned in 2007.
  • Operated since 2002, opponents have accused the website of being modern day cyber vigilantes.
  • In Northern Ireland, vigilantism has been observed against drug dealers and pedophiles. In one such case, a known pedophile had been released from prison early, kidnapped by a group of men dressed in black clothing and balaclavas, much like the Provisional IRA or UVF. He was stabbed twice, then, put in the back of a Ford Transit van where four Bull Mastiff dogs were waiting for him. He was then driven around Belfast and Derry for two hours. After the dogs mauled him, he was dumped in the verges of a dual carriageway. He survived.
  • In 2007, religious vigilantes in the southern Iraqi city of Basrain warning against "violating Islamic teachings" killed at least 40 women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves.
  • The Minuteman Project, a group created to deter illegal aliens and drug smugglers from entering the United States, was criticized for making citizen arrests.
  • The internet-based group Anonymous has brought down websites of the Church of Scientology in response to their attempts at internet censorship. They have also organized peaceful protests against the organization, calling it a exploitive business and cult, during which almost all members wear masks.

Works of fiction

In cinema

The Hollywood vigilante had its development in the 1960sat a time when the cop or detective story was popular and replacing the Western (genre) in popularity where vigilantism often occurred. There was a change in the film industry, change in self regulation in the industry, and change in American values all which opened up production to violent content without completely banning it or censoring it to viewers making way for a "vigilante cop."

In television

In literature

In comic books

Vigilantism in the comic book arena has its basic concepts in several fictional genres, including stories published in dime novels and comic books. Many of the heroes of pulp fiction and comic book superheroes are vigilantes because they operate outside the law in order to combat lawlessness. In fact, virtually any superhero can be considered a vigilante if he or she is not acting under the direct authority of a law enforcement agency or other government body.
A key example is Watchmen, a DC Comics limited series of the late 1980s written by Alan Moore, in which superheroes are portrayed by society and government as illegal vigilantes. Also of note is the DC comic book character of the 1940s and revived in the 1980s, the Vigilante.

In video games

In the Grand Theft Auto series, the player has the oppurtunity to steal a police vehicle and play as a vigilante.

See also

vigilante in German: Selbstjustiz
vigilante in French: Auto-justice
vigilante in Irish: Grúpa forairdill
vigilante in Indonesian: Vigilante
vigilante in Italian: Giustiziere
vigilante in Japanese: 自警団
vigilante in Norwegian: Selvtekt
vigilante in Portuguese: Justiceiro (auto-justiça)
vigilante in Swedish: Vigilant
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