The "Bald Knobbers", an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri – as portrayed in the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills

Vigilantism (/vɪɪˈlæntɪzəm/) is the act of preventing, investigating and punishing perceived offenses and crimes without legal authority.[1][2]

A vigilante is a person who practices or partakes in vigilantism, or undertakes public safety and retributive justice without commission.


The term is borrowed from Spanish vigilante, which means 'sentinel' or 'watcher', from Latin vigilāns. According to political scientist Regina Bateson, vigilantism is "the extralegal prevention, investigation, or punishment of offenses."[1] The definition has three components:

  1. Extralegal: Vigilantism is done outside of the law (not necessarily in violation of the law)
  2. Prevention, investigation, or punishment: Vigilantism requires specific actions, not just attitudes or beliefs
  3. Offense: Vigilantism is a response to a perceived crime or violation of an authoritative norm

Other scholars have defined "collective vigilantism" as "group violence to punish perceived offenses to a community."[2]

Les Johnston argues that vigilantism has six necessary components:[3]


Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual parallels between the medieval aristocratic custom of private war or vendetta and the modern vigilante philosophy.[4]

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?"

Similarly, in 2 Samuel 13, Absalom kills his brother Amnon after King David, their father, fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, their sister.

In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been vested in folkloric heroes and outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood[5]).

During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm[6] (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.

Vigilantism in Mexico

In some regions of Mexico, mainly in the state of Michoacan, people affected by criminal groups like Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana, created vigilante groups called Grupos de autodefensa comunitaria in 2013. Their most notorious leader was Hipólito Mora, assassinated in 2023.

Other notable acts of vigilantism

See also


  1. ^ a b Bateson, Regina (2020). "The Politics of Vigilantism". Comparative Political Studies. 54 (6): 923–955. doi:10.1177/0010414020957692. ISSN 0010-4140. S2CID 224924776.
  2. ^ a b Cohen, Dara Kay; Jung, Danielle F.; Weintraub, Michael (2022). "Collective Vigilantism in Global Comparative Perspective". Comparative Politics. 55 (2): 239–261. doi:10.5129/001041523x16630894935073. S2CID 252721449.
  3. ^ Johnston, L. (1996). "What is Vigilantism?". British Journal of Criminology. 36 (2): 220–236. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a014083.
  4. ^ Dumsday, Travis (2019-06-17). "Alexander of Hales on the Ethics of Vigilantism". Philosophia. 48 (2): 535–545. doi:10.1007/s11406-019-00093-5. S2CID 189951647. Retrieved 2021-12-30.
  5. ^ Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802087744.
  6. ^ "Germany: Die Feme". Time. Oct 16, 1944.
  7. ^ Capozzola, Christopher (March 2002). "The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America". The Journal of American History. 88 (4): 1354–1382. doi:10.2307/2700601. JSTOR 2700601.
  8. ^ Hochschild, Adam (October 2, 2018). "1. Lessons from a Dark Time". Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays. University of California Press. p. 13. doi:10.1525/9780520969674-fm. ISBN 978-0-520-96967-4.
  9. ^ a b Levi, William (May 12, 2022). Badger state nationalism: World War I, the Ku Klux Klan, and the politics of 'Americanism' in 1915-1930 Wisconsin (Thesis). James Madison University. pp. 45–47. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  10. ^ Nicholas Farrelly (July 2, 2010). "From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts". New Mandala. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  11. ^ Gutiérrez, Raúl (2007-09-04). "RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating". Inter Press Service. Archived from the original on 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  12. ^ "1985-2001: A short history of Anti-Fascist Action (AFA)". Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  13. ^ "The Rise of Sweden's Far-Left Militants". VICE. Archived from the original on 31 May 2014. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  14. ^ Prasad, Raekha (2005-09-16). "'Arrest us all': the 200 women who killed a rapist". the Guardian. Retrieved 2020-09-07.
  15. ^ "Phone vigilante slashes car tires " BBC News dated 14 August 2006. Recovered on unknown date.
  16. ^ "Careless talk". 2007-02-22. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  17. ^ "500 drivers a week flout phone ban". Archived from the original on 2009-05-02. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  18. ^ "1,100 fined drivers get off the hook - Scotland on Sunday". Archived from the original on 2012-07-18. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
  19. ^ "Action Taken Against Ardoyne Thug Necessary - INLA". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  20. ^ Brendan McDaid (31 March 2006). "INLA hands over drugs seized from cocaine ring". Belfast Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 17, 2011.
  21. ^ INLA dismantles another criminal gang April 07, 2006 10:51
  22. ^ "INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer". Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved 26 May 2009.
  23. ^ "INLA say they shot father-of-three". Derry Journal. 21 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-24.
  24. ^ "INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore'". Derry Journal. 28 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-31.
  25. ^ "Belfast Media | News | ONH claim arson attack on depot". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  26. ^ "Real IRA shot sex offender - Local - Derry Journal". Archived from the original on 2012-01-18. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
  27. ^ Cormac Byrne (16 March 2011). "CIRA blamed for attack on man (20)". Archived from the original on 2012-09-04.
  28. ^ a b "'Only way to eradicate drugs scourge is to remove the dealers'". Derry Journal. Archived from the original on 2012-01-18. Retrieved 2011-05-27.
  29. ^ Karla Zabludovsky (August 2, 2012). "Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  30. ^ Willsher, Kim (June 17, 2014). "Roma teenager in coma after being attacked by residents of French estate". The Guardian. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
  31. ^ "THE KILL LIST". Philippine Daily Inquirer. July 7, 2016. Retrieved July 30, 2016.
  32. ^ Quiano, Kathy; Westcott, Ben (2017-03-02). "Ex-Davao Death Squad leader: Duterte ordered bombings". CNN. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  33. ^ "Women's Vigilantism in India: A Case Study of the Pink Sari Gang | Sciences Po Mass Violence and Resistance - Research Network". 2016-01-25. Retrieved 2023-04-03.
  34. ^ "Father of Kidnapped Son gets Revenge-1984 Remember those moments on TV?-Jeffrey Doucet bites the bullet". Toluna. 2011-03-15. Archived from the original on 2011-07-22. Retrieved 2024-01-25.

Further reading