"Vigilante justice" is rationalized by the idea that adequate legal mechanisms for criminal punishment are either nonexistent or insufficient. Vigilantes typically see the government as ineffective in enforcing the law; such individuals often claim to justify their actions as a fulfillment of the wishes of the community.
Persons alleged to be escaping the law or above the law are sometimes the victims of vigilantism.
Vigilante behavior involves various degrees of violence. Vigilantes may assault targets verbally, physically, vandalize property, or even kill individuals.
In a number of cases, vigilantism has involved targets with mistaken identities.
- In Britain in the early 2000s, there were reports of vandalism, assaults, and verbal abuse towards people wrongly accused of being pedophiles, following the murder of Sarah Payne.
- In Guyana in 2008, Hardel Haynes was beaten to death by a mob who mistook him for a thief.
- In South Africa from the period 2002 to the present there has been an increase in vigilantism against the mining sector in response to perceived failures in the mitigation of acid mine drainage in the Witwatersrand Goldfields and Mpumalanga Coalfields.
Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual and psychological parallels between the Dark Age and medieval aristocratic custom of private war or vendetta and the modern vigilante philosophy.
Elements of the concept of vigilantism can be found in the Biblical account in Genesis 34 of the abduction and rape (or, by some interpretations, seduction) of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, in the Canaanite city of Shechem by the eponymous son of the ruler, and the violent reaction of her brothers Simeon and Levi, who slew all of the males of the city in revenge, rescued their sister and plundered Shechem. When Jacob protested that their actions might bring trouble upon him and his family, the brothers replied "Should he [i.e., Shechem] treat our sister as a harlot?"
Recourse to personal vengeance and dueling was considered a class privilege of the sword-bearing aristocracy before the formation of the modern centralized liberal-bureaucratic nation-state (see Marc Bloch, trans. L. A. Manyon, Feudal Society, Vol. I, 1965, p. 127). In addition, sociologists have posited a complex legal and ethical interrelationship between vigilante acts and rebellion and tyrannicide.
In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been vested in folkloric heroes and legendary outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood). Vigilantism in literature, folklore and legend is connected to the fundamental issues of dissatisfied morality, injustice, the failures of authority and the ethical adequacy of legitimate governance. Hollywood (Cinema of the United States) has explored and exploited the vigilante theme extensively in movies such as the 1974 action film Death Wish (film) and its several sequels.
During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm (cf. the medieval Sardinian Gamurra later become Barracelli, the Sicilian Vendicatori and the Beati Paoli), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.
Colonial era in America
Formally-defined vigilantism arose in the early American colonies.
- Established the mid-18th century, for instance, the Regulator movement of American colonial times was composed of citizen volunteers of the frontier who opposed official misconduct and extrajudicially punished banditry.
As boom-towns, or mining towns in California because of Gold Rush, started appearing towards the 1850s, vigilantes started putting justice in their hands because no forms of government were established in these towns. These people would assault accused thieves, rapists and murderers. When they assaulted these thieves, they would take all their gold and give it to the accuser. Other than reports and newspapers, there are not many records of vigilantes. Few names or groups are known.
Later in the United States, vigilante groups arose in poorly governed frontier areas where criminals preyed upon the citizenry with impunity.
- In 1851 and 1856, San Francisco Vigilance Movement sought to eliminate crime, an element of this movement focused on immigrants like the Sydney Ducks.
- Los Angeles and the surrounding counties had outbursts of vigilantism from the early 1850s as many of the criminals driven out of San Francisco and the Gold Country came into the less populated Southern California making the city and surrounding countryside a dangerous place for many years.
- In Bleeding Kansas during the run-up to the American Civil War, the Sacking of Lawrence in May of 1856 by a posse (or, in some accounts, a mob) led by the local sheriff -- who justified their destruction of the town founded by anti-slavery activists on the grounds that it was a hotbed of rebellion against the official pro-slavery territorial government -- was answered just days later by the midnight Pottawatomie Massacre of five pro-slavery settlers by anti-slavery activists commanded by John Brown (abolitionist), citing the dead men's alleged involvement in the attack on Lawrence and other attacks on anti-slavery forces. This touched off a three-month cycle of retaliatory battles and raids by the two sides in which some 29 people were killed.
- In 1858 San Luis Obispo vigilantes ended the murderous reign of the bandit gang of Pío Linares on El Camino Real between San Luis and Santa Barbara.
- In October 1862 in northern Texas, several Unionist sympathizers were arrested and taken to Gainesville, Texas for trial on charges of treason and insurrection. Seven were tried and hanged, and 14 were hanged without trial. A few weeks later, Unionist sympathizers were hanged without trial across northern Texas. Known as "The Great Hanging at Gainesville", it may have been the deadliest act of vigilante violence in U.S. history.
- From late December 1863 to 1864 the Montana Vigilantes were formed by citizens of Bannack, Virginia City and nearby Nevada City to fight lawlessness in the gold mining region of Montana. Over the next month, 21 men were hanged, including, on January 10, 1864, Henry Plummer the sheriff of Bannack, who was also the leader of a major gang of highwaymen. The last man hanged by the vigilantes may have done nothing more than express an opinion that several of those hanged previously had been innocent.
- In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee by a group of six Confederate War veterans. The KKK or "Klan" sought to use extralegal force to resist Reconstruction in the post Civil War South of the United States. The KKK became a leading agent of racist and nativist violence in the United States.
- In 1868 between 60 and 70 vigilantes broke into the New Albany, Indiana jail and lynched three Reno Brothers.
- In 1881, a mob lynched an outlaw who goes by the nickname of Big Nose George, who shot two local law enforcement officers years before. Big nose George was in prison awaiting execution at the time of his death.
- Active in 1883–1889, the Bald Knobbers (or "Baldknobbers") were masked men who retaliated against invading marauders and drove out outlaws in Taney County.
- In March 1898, the "101" of Skagway, Alaska posted handbills and held meetings trying to free the town of a bunco gang known as the "Soap Gang" under the control of the infamous Soapy Smith. Four months after its creation the 101 shot and killed Soapy in a shootout on Juneau Wharf.
- Lynching was the most common form of vigilantism in the US in the 20th Century—it was practiced through the early years of the civil rights movement, extending through the late 1960s.
- In the early 20th century, the White Finns founded the Suojeluskunta (Protection Corps) as a paramilitary vigilante organization in Finland. It formed the nucleus of the White Army in the Finnish Civil War.
- In the 1920s, the Big Sword Society of China protected life and property in a state of anarchy.
- After World War II, several alleged Nazi collaborators were beaten up or killed for their activities.
- In 1954, the Thai Border Patrol Police formed the Volunteer Defense Corps (also called the Village Scouts Thai: ลูกเสือชาวบ้าน) to provide law and order and emergency or natural disaster response. In 1974 it was expanded by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to urban areas to fight left-wing political activism. The Village Scouts were subsequently involved in the Thammasat University massacre of 1976. Their 21st century Internet censorship vigilance groups are called ลูกเสือบนเครือข่ายอินเทอร์เน็ต or cyber scouts.
- During the Troubles in Northern Ireland late 1960s-98, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army were known to administer punishment beatings and kill any suspected criminal or drug dealer in order to deter crime.
- During racial unrest in Newark, New Jersey during the late 1960s, local activist Anthony Imperiale, later a city councilman and state legislator, founded a neighborhood safety patrol which critics claimed was a vigilante group. 
- The Guardian Angels organization was founded February 13, 1979 in New York City by Curtis Sliwa and has chapters in 15 countries and 144 cities around the world.
- 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 by killing criminals and gang members. 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 was approached on a New York City subway train by four men intent on mugging him. He shot all four and fled, earning him the media appellation "the subway vigilante".
- In 1985 the formation of Anti-Fascist Action groups throughout Britain came about whose goal was to combat the issue of neo-fascism.
- During the 1990s, the group City without Drugs publicly beat and brutalized drug dealers and forced addicts to go cold turkey in the city of Yekaterinburg, Russia.
- Formed since 1996, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs of Cape Town, South Africa fights drugs and gangsterism in their region. They have been linked to terrorism since they bombed some American targets in Cape Town.
- Formed since 1998, the Bakassi Boys of Nigeria were viewed as instrumental in lowering the region's high crime when police were ineffective.
- Formed in 1996, Mapogo a Mathamaga of South Africa provides protection for paying members of this group. Leaders have been charged with murder, etc.
- Los Pepes was a shadowy group formed in Colombia during the 1990s that committed acts of vigilantism against drug lord Pablo Escobar and his associates within the Medellin Cartel.
- Current mayor of Davao City, Philippines Rodrigo Duterte is noted for transforming the city from the murder capital of the nation to what tourism organizations there now call "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia". He's been suspected of being involved with the vigilante outfit Davao Death Squad and has been criticized by human rights groups and by Amnesty International for tolerating extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals. Time magazine has dubbed him "The Punisher".
- Formed in 2000, Ranch Rescue is still a functioning organization in the southwest United States. Ranchers call upon Ranch Rescue to forcibly remove illegal aliens and squatters from their property.
- In the early decade of the 2000s, 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.
- Formed in 2002, the Revolutionary Front is a Swedish anti-fascist organization. Members have been known to orchestrate attacks against known/suspected Neo-nazi/nationalist individuals. The attacks usually involve damaging property, or even attacking the person themselves.
- Operating since 2002, perverted-justice.com opponents have accused the website of being modern day cyber vigilantes.
- The Minuteman Project has been described as vigilantes dedicated to expelling people who cross the US-Mexico border illegally.
- Salwa Judum, the anti-Naxalite group formed in 2005, in India, is also considered by many as a vigilante group and its policies are suspected to be helping the security forces in their fight against Naxals.
- In Hampshire, England, during 2006, a vigilante slashed the tires of more than twenty cars, leaving a note made from cut-out newsprint stating "Warning: you have been seen while using your mobile phone". Driving whilst using a mobile is a criminal offense in the UK, but critics feel the law is little observed or enforced.
- Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an Irish republican socialist paramilitary group, maintains a presence in parts of Northern Ireland and has carried out punishment beatings on local alleged petty criminals. In 2006, the INLA claimed to have put at least two drugs gangs out of business in Northern Ireland. After their raid on a criminal organization based in the north-west, they released a statement saying that "the Irish National Liberation Army will not allow the working class people of this city to be used as cannon fodder by these criminals whose only concern is profit by whatever means available to them." On 15 February 2009 the INLA claimed responsibility for the shooting dead of Derry drug-dealer Jim McConnell. On 19 August 2009 the INLA shot and wounded a man in Derry. The INLA claimed that the man was involved in drug dealing although the injured man and his family denied the allegation. However, in a newspaper article on 28 August the victim retracted his previous statement and admitted that he had been involved in small scale drug-dealing but has since ceased these activities.
- Other Irish republican paramilitary organizations have served and continue to serve as vigilantes. Óglaigh na hÉireann for example in 2011 claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a taxi depot on Oldpark Road, Belfast, which led to the owners fleeing the country. It claimed that the owners were using the depot as a cover for drug dealing. In 2010 The Real Irish Republican Army shot a man in the legs in Derry. The man was a convicted sex offender. The Continuity Irish Republican Army in 2011 were blamed for the punishment beating of a heroin dealer in Clondalkin, Dublin, the man had previously been ordered to leave the country.
- Republican Action Against Drugs or RAAD are an Irish Republican vigilante organization active predominantly in and around Derry. Although often attributed as being a front for "Dissident Republican" groups by the media, the organization claim to have no allegiance to any particular Republican party or paramilitary. Formed in late 2008 RAAD originally offered an "amnesty" to all drug dealers, asking them to make themselves known to the group before giving an assurance that they had stopped dealing. In an interview with the Derry Journal in August 2009, the group's leadership explained: "We would monitor the actions of those who have come forward and, given an adequate period of time, interest in those drug dealers would cease and they could start to lead normal lives". Since then RAAD have claimed responsibility for no less than 17 shootings as well as countless pipe bomb attacks (see Republican Action Against Drugs#Timeline).
- In a number of U.S. cities, individuals have created real-life superhero personas, donning masks and costumes to patrol their neighborhoods, sometimes maintaining an uneasy relationship with local police departments who believe what they are doing could be dangerous to the costumed crusaders themselves, or could devolve into vigilantism.
- In October 2011 on the United States, a vigilante operating in Seattle, named Phoenix Jones was arrested and forced to reveal his true identity, after a confrontation with two groups who were fighting.
- On April 15, 2011 a group of women in Cherán armed with rocks and fireworks attacked a bus carrying illegal loggers armed with machine guns in Michoacán associated with the Mexican drug cartel La Familia Michoacana. They assumed control over the town, expelled the police force and blocked roads leading to oak timber on a nearby mountain. Vigilante activity has spread to the nearby community of Opopeo. The government of Mexico has recognized Cherán as a self-governing indigenous community, but criminals continue to murder residents in the forest.
- On June 13, 2014, Darius, a 16-years-old Rom residing in France and who has been several times interrogated by the police on the account of suspected burglaries and larcenies, has been kidnapped, beaten up and then left in a supermarket trolley by an unknown party after rumors on him being implicated in a housebreaking which happened several hours before circulated in the city of Pierrefite-sur-Seine.
- Bounty hunter
- Citizen's arrest, when an amateur authority figure, or normal citizen arrests a fugitive
- Extrajudicial punishment
- Frankpledge, American frontier-vigilantism emerged as a "mutation" of the Saxon tradition of frankpledge
- Frontier justice
- Feud, a now-illegal form of non-governmental interpersonal violence practiced by feudal chieftains and currently by organized crime gangs
- List of feuds in the United States
- Law without the state
- Malfeasance - Vigilantes usually assert or claim existent authority is, in terms of legitimacy, guilty of misprision generally against the public and malfeasance (simplified police misconduct and/or political corruption), thus, meta-ethically, rationalizing (in the vigilante mind) the morally normative nature of their extrajudicial variant of retributive justice.
- Mobbing, the "dark side" and distorted legality inherent to the meta-ethical, unstable dynamic of "vigilante punishment"
- Neighborhood watch
- Posse comitatus (common law), indirect descendant of the Northern Germanic hird or fyrd system, the "citizen enforcer" band either capable of acting lawfully as exceptional agent of justice; or deteriorating into lawlessness of populist malice
- Real-life superhero, groups of vigilantes who wear comic book style costumes
- Vigilance committee, organized vigilantes in the 1800s United States
- Violent non-state actor
- Wrath, the basis of affective emotivity motivating vigilante-type behavior
- Harris, Bronwyn (May 2001). ""As for Violent Crime that's our Daily Bread": Vigilante violence during South Africa's period of transition".
- Pedophiles 'driven into hiding' Whispering game The campaign for 'Sarah's Law' Vigilante attack on innocent man
- "Mob killings spark worry". Kaieteur News. December 14, 2008. Retrieved 18 June 2012.
- Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence.
- "Germany: Die Feme". Time. Oct 16, 1944.
- Mullen, Kevin. "Malachi Fallon First Chief of Police".
- Hine, Kelly D. (1998). "VIGILANTISM REVISITED: AN ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF THE LAW OF EXTRA-JUDICIAL SELF-HELP OR WHY CAN'T DICK SHOOT HENRY FOR STEALING JANE'S TRUCK?" (PDF).
- Monkkonen, Eric (2005). "Western Homicide: The Case of Los Angeles, 1830–1870". Pacific Historical Review 74 (4): 603–618 [p. 609]. doi:10.1525/phr.2005.74.4.603.
The homicide rate between 1847 and 1870 averaged 158 per 100,000 (13 murders per year), which was 10 to 20 times the annual murder rates for New York City during the same period
- "Under the Rebel Flag: Life in Texas During the Civil War". Texas State Library and Archives Commission. 2011.
- Nicholas Farrelly (July 2, 2010). "From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts". New Mandala. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
- Gutiérrez, Raúl (2007-09-04). "RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating". Inter Press Service.
- Zabriskie, Phil: The Punisher, Time magazine (Asia edition), June 24, 2002.
- http://vice.com/vice-news/the-rise-of-swedens-far-left-militants. Missing or empty
- Casey Sanchez (August 13, 2007). "New Video Appears to Show Vigilante Border Murder". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
- "Vigilantes Gather in Arizona". Anti-Defamation League. April 7, 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
- "Phone vigilante slashes car tires " BBC News dated 14 August 2006. Recovered on unknown date.
- "Careless talk". news.bbc.co.uk. 2007-02-22. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
- "500 drivers a week flout phone ban". www.thisislondon.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
- "1,100 fined drivers get off the hook - Scotland on Sunday". scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
- INLA statement of 2004, claiming responsibility for a punishment attack
- Brendan McDaid (31 March 2006). "INLA hands over drugs seized from cocaine ring". Belfast Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 17, 2011.
- INLA dismantles another criminal gang April 07, 2006 10:51 Indymedia.ie
- INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer Retrieved: 26-05-2009
- INLA say they shot father-of-three – Derry Journal – 21 August 2009
- INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore' – Derry Journal – 28 August 2009
- Belfast Media | News | ONH claim arson attack on depot
- Real IRA shot sex offender - Local - Derry Journal
- CIRA blamed for attack on man (20) - News, Frontpage - Herald.ie
- 'Only way to eradicate drugs scourge is to remove the dealers' - Local - Derry Journal
- Karla Zabludovsky (August 2, 2012). "Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
- Willsher, Kim (June 17, 2014). "Roma teenager in coma after being attacked by residents of French estate". The Guardian. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
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- From Border Stories, a profile of a Minuteman Project volunteer in Campo, CA
- From Border Stories, a video on the American Border Patrol
- Historical Deadwood Newspaper accounts of George Keating and O. B. Davis hung by vigilantes for stealing horses 1878
- Comfort Ero, "Vigilantes, Civil Defense Forces and Militia Groups: The other side of the privatization of security in Africa," Conflict Trends (June 2000): 25-29.
- Martha K. Huggins, editor, Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America: Essays on Extralegal Violence, Praeger/Greenwood, 1991.
- Bill Ong Hing, "Vigilante Racism: The De-Americanization of Immigrant America", Donkeyphant, Vol. 9 (Summer 2002).
- Tom O'Connor, "Vigilantism, Vigilante Justice, and Victim Self-help"
- Stephen Faris, "Nigeria's Vigilante Justice," Mother Jones (April 25, 2002)
- EyeWitness to History, "Vigilante Justice, 1851".
- Steven F. Messner, Eric P. Baumer, and Richard Rosenfeld, "Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment," Law & Society Review (September 2006)
- Vincent Moss, "The Paedo Vigilante", Sunday Mirror (June 25, 2006)
- American Right To Life, "Abortion Vigilante Worksheet" designed to deter clinic violence