What do we mean by vigilantism? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, vigilantism is the practice of ordinary people taking unofficial action to prevent crime or to catch and punish people believed to be criminals.
During the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015-16, there was a surge of vigilante activities in Europe and North America, taking the form of street patrols, border patrols, and militias of different kinds. Vigilantes usually claim to be doing what the authorities are unable or unwilling to do: maintaining public safety, in this case against alleged threats from illegal migrants and/or crime-prone minorities.
The majority of vigilante activities are intimidating rather than overtly violent, but there are also cases of violence and Vigilantism Against Migrants and Minorities examines many of them. Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mareš edited the first extremely comprehensive volume on this topic, focusing on the form of vigilantism that targets migrants and minorities.
Combining a robust theoretical framework with a series of in-depth case studies, seventeen in total, which are analyzed by top experts in the field and illustrate the dynamics of out-group vigilantism against minorities in different contexts and times, the editors and the experts who joined them in this project provide a stunning clarity, an essential tool for any scholar, practitioner, or general reader who wants to understand the phenomenon of vigilantism. Indeed, some of the typical vigilante activities had been previously studied from the perspectives of racist violence, hate crime or far-Right terrorism, but seeing them through the lens of vigilantism undoubtedly adds new insights to a sensitive topic.
Moving beyond the dictionary definition, the first chapter seeks to bring clarity to what vigilantism actually is. It introduces the relevant terminology, theories, and the goals of the work, in which vigilantism is described as the use of extra-legal enforcement of a particular conception of justice or a threat or intention to use such enforcement, carried out by informal actors, with the purpose to protect subjectively perceived “law and order”.
The editors highlight that vigilantism can also be understood as an instrument to weaken the enemies in civic and ethnic conflicts and it can serve as a training activity for paramilitary groups. Moreover, in some cases it can be supported by external actors — including hostile states — with the goal of weakening state authorities. In this sense it can be subsumed under hybrid campaign or hybrid warfare.
Based on an effective typology by L. Johnston (1996), the research mentions six main elements of vigilantism:
- It involves planning and premeditation of those engaging in it;
- Its participants are private citizens whose engagement is voluntary;
- It is a form of “autonomous citizenship” and, as such, constitutes a social movement;
- It uses or threatens the use of force;
- It arises when an established order is under threat from the transgression, the potential transgression, or the imputed transgression of institutionalized norms;
- It aims to control crime or other social infractions by offering assurances of security both to participants and to others.
Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mareš expand the theoretical framework further, categorizing vigilantism also according to the dominancy of the activity in comparison with other activities. In this perspective, groups can be divided into:
- “Single-issue” vigilante groups, in which the vigilante activity is the only one;
- Dominancy or subsidiarity of vigilantism, in which the vigilante activity take priority over other actions; and
- Random vigilantism, in which vigilante activities do not represent the core of the groups’ actions.
As far as the relationship between vigilante groups and authorities is concerned, the authors use the scheme developed by Marx and Archer:
- Vigilante groups supplemented and encouraged by the police and/or other governmental security forces;
- Vigilante groups supplemental and opposed by the police and/or other governmental security forces;
- Groups that are adversarial and encouraged by the police and/or other governmental security forces;
- Groups that are adversarial and opposed by police and/or other governmental security forces.
For the sake of clarity, the authors also provide a definition of far-Right, which explains it as a part of the political spectrum where the ideological core is based on intolerant nationalism, nativism, and demands for a strict “law and order” policy in the fields which are important for maintaining the preferred governmental order.
Under the broad label of the far-Right, a distinction is commonly made between the extreme-Right and the radical-Right. According to the editors of the volume, the extreme-Right accept or even condone violence, and reject the values of a democratic constitutional state. By contrast, the radical-Right is represented mainly by Right-wing populist parties and some anti-immigration organizations. These parties and groups usually operate within the framework of democracy, even where they share some of the outlook of the extreme-Right.
CASE STUDIES IN VIGILANTISM
The first case study, written by Kathleen Blee and Mehr Latif and titled ‘Ku Klux Klan: Vigilantism Against Blacks, Immigrants, and Other Minorities’, describes the classic case of vigilante terrorism, which for more than a century spread fear among blacks, Jews, and other minorities.
The chapter meticulously contextualized the Klan’s activities in the different historical phases. The last phase of its existence, from the 1970s until the 2000s, saw the tremendously weakened Klan form alliances with other far-Right groups in an attempt to maintain white dominance in America. As a secret society that is often engaged in illegal activities, the Klan takes care to obscure its leadership, structure, and locations and to exaggerate its size and influence.
The second case study, ‘Jewish Vigilantism in the West Bank’ by Nir Gazit, analyzes how Jewish settlers in the occupied territories could continue to harass Palestinian inhabitants for as long as the Israeli military and government does not crack down on their vigilante activities. There are different types of Jewish vigilante groups in the occupied territories, varying both on their level of organization and their relationship with the Israeli authorities.
The most organized and institutionalized are the Settlements’ Defence Squads, which are organized, trained, and armed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as emergency response teams in case of Palestinian attacks, and usually commanded by former IDF officers.
The general stated purpose and justification for the Jewish vigilantes is threefold, combining security (increasing the protection of the Jewish settlements and roads in the West Bank), politics (the need to demonstrate Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank), and religion (related to the religious interpretation of Zionism which considers the occupied territories an integral part of the biblical Land of Israel).
The other major type of Jewish vigilantes are those who belong to radical-Right groups that were banned in the past. These groups are founded on ideas of Jewish supremacy and radical, anti-Arab racism.
The less organized groups of Jewish vigilantes are religious-nationalist teenagers and young adults who establish outposts without a formal authorization from the Israeli government. They are the most active in initiating anti-Palestinian violence.
Juhi Ahuja carries out interesting research on Hindu vigilantism: ‘Protecting Holy Cows: Hindu Vigilantism Against Muslims in India’, which describes a series of violent attacks, up to and including lynching, by Hindu extremists against Muslims allegedly involved in slaughtering cows and trading beef in India. Ahuja argues that the rise of this kind of vigilantism must be seen in the context of the rising influence of Hindutva, a Hindu ethno-religious and nationalist movement that has gained political power in modern India, and a growing inter-religious and inter-caste intolerance.
The author highlights that the study of vigilantism in India has received little attention as a phenomenon per se by both academia and mainstream media before Narendra Modi’s ascension to power as Prime Minister in 2014. Undeniably, as he came to power numerous Hindu nationalist organizations and cultural groups across the country have been emboldened.
Hindutva is often used in Hindu nationalist discourse to represent the idea that native Indians should be loyal to their ancestral roots and that they should recognize the great civilizational history of India, while honoring Hindu culture. Therefore, although Hindutva ideologues are clear that the Hindu race referred to people who resided in the region of the Indus river irrespectively of their beliefs, it excludes Indians who identify themselves as non-Hindu in religious terms.
ANTI-MINORITY HATE IN RUSSIA
The next case study, ‘Violent Attacks on Migrants and Minorities in the Russian Federation’, was written by Martin Larys and describes how more than 600 people, mostly labor migrants from the Muslim regions of Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as homosexuals, have been killed and several thousands have been injured by nationalists and neo-Nazis in Russia during a 17-year period. Although many of these murders can more appropriately be characterized as hate crimes or far-Right terrorism, a large proportion of the violence contains elements that are strongly characterizable as vigilantism. The perpetrators often justified their violence as a way to defend the Russian people against rapists and criminal migrants.
The figures are alarming, and in the first decade of this century, more hate murders happened in Russia than in all European countries combined. Most of these murders were committed by racist street gangs, lacking a sophisticated ideology and strong organizational structure. But vigilantism in Russia has taken a number of forms.
The most dangerous form vigilantism in Russia has taken is terrorism in the form of bomb attacks or demonstrative racist murders, which sent underlying messages to the state authorities.
GERMANY: RE-EMERGENCE OF THE FAR-RIGHT
The Director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies Daniel Koehler, in his chapter ‘Anti-Immigration Militias and Vigilante Groups in Germany’, explains how anti-immigrant violence and pogrom-like attacks have been rife in Germany for a long time, but only in a few cases has this violence had a distinct vigilante character — until the last few years.
The recent formation of a number of vigilante groups came in response to criminal acts — alleged or actual — committed by immigrants. Notorious episodes are the sexual attacks on German women by North African and Arab migrants in Cologne, Dortmund, Frankfurt, and elsewhere during the New Year celebration of 2015/16. The assaults and the passive police response became a watershed event, releasing a wave of vigilante movements against the groups they were terming rapefugees.
Koehler notices that vigilantism as a new mobilization strategy by extreme-Right groups aims to capitalize on feelings of existential threat posed by the influx of refugees and concurrent disappointment with the German government’s perceived inability to protect the local population from predation by the newcomers.
Nowadays, however, it seems that the majority of vigilante activism in Germany is confined to the online space, with the creation of dedicated Facebook groups and so forth.
In the following case study ‘Vigilante Militias and Activities Against Roma and Migrants in Hungary’, Szilveszter Poczik and Eszter Sarik analyze vigilantism in the markedly complex Hungarian socio-political context.
In August 2007, the Jobbik Party (Movement for a Better Hungary) founded the Hungarian Guard Association for Protection of Traditions and Culture. It organized vigilante patrols and marches in Roma communities against alleged “Gypsy crime”. After its ban in 2009, several successor groups were established.
The chapter also discusses a vigilante terrorist racist commando that was active in 2008-2009, which killed six Roma people and injured many others.
The authors warn that Hungary has a long tradition of far-Right movements and political parties, as well as associated paramilitary organizations, with the ideologies that drive this history — xenophobia, anti-minority sentiment, and dislike of migrants — embedded in the country’s fabric.
In the following chapter, Miroslav Mareš and Daniel Milo deal with ‘Vigilantism Against Migrants and Minorities in Slovakia and in the Czech Republic’.
After the fall of Communism, extreme-Right militias and skinhead racist groups were established in both countries. They justify their hate crimes by reference to the allegedly elevated crime rates among various ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma. Paramilitary groups are involved in anti-migrant patrols and in the protection of borders.
The authors highlight a crucial trend: currently, the pro-Kremlin parts of the political spectrum, which mix nationalist motives with the legacy of the Communist era, are active alongside traditional Rightist extremists.
Finally, the authors provide the readers with a detailed account of the transnational cooperation of the Czech and Slovak vigilante groups.
Vigilantism against ethnic minorities and migrants in Bulgaria is the object of the next case study, written by Nadya Stoynova and Rositsa Dzhekova, who explain how the migration route that crosses from Turkey to Bulgaria and the big Roma minority provide the two main flash-points, with the most recent manifestations of vigilantism generally taking the form of anti-migrant patrols along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
The recent wave of anti-immigrant vigilante groups is also analyzed within the context of a persistent “systematic crisis feeling”, which remains endemic in the country.
In Bulgaria, like in many other countries, vigilantism can be divided into two categories: ad-hoc vigilantism and organized vigilante activities. The first one generally lacks significant premeditation and is often a reaction to (alleged) criminal activity. On the other hand, far-Right groups drive vigilante activity.
AMERICAN BORDER PATROL
In the next chapter ‘The Minutemen: Patrolling and Performativity Along the U.S.-Mexican Border’, Harel Shapira moves the analysis to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He focuses on the notion of militarized masculinity of the patrolling individuals, within the context of performed patriotism.
The author researched almost 200 Minutemen and found out that they were composed of predominantly elderly white men who were almost exclusively military veterans: “In an age of globalization, borders have become lighting rods for the politics of belonging”.
Minutemen’s patrols can be understood by focusing on the ideology of group members — an expression of the kind of far-Right political views that have begun to seep into the American political mainstream over the past couple of decades, which claim that Mexican culture is backwards and often speak of the (often illegal) immigration of Mexicans into America as an “invasion”.
At the same time, the Minutemen’s attitude towards immigration is not simply hatred and xenophobia, and the patrols are sustained by much more than racism. The author regards the Minutemen’s patrols as a set of identity performances: performances of patriotism, connected to enactments of soldiering and masculinity, through which they seek to escape their current lives as aging veterans and reclaim a lost sense of purpose.
FASCIST INFILTRATION IN GREECE
‘Vigilantism in Greece and the Case of Golden Dawn’ is the tenth case study, written by Christos Vrakopoulos and Daphne Halikiopoulou, who also deal with far-right vigilante activities beyond the Golden Dawn.
According to Vrakopouls and Halikiopoulou, what distinguishes Golden Dawn from a number of other European parties under the “far-Right” umbrella is that it was formed as a violent grass-roots movement by far-Right activists and its main activities prior to 2012 were confined to the streets.
The party, which openly endorses the collective use of extra-legal violence, promulgates a markedly palingenetic ultranationalist vision that claims there is a need to cleanse the Greek nation of its internal and external enemies, so as to facilitate its rebirth.
Since 2013, some of Golden Dawn’s leaders have been on trial for maintaining a criminal organization and other criminal acts, including murder and grievous bodily harm. The murder of the Pakistani immigrant Shehzad Luqman — stabbed by members of Golden Dawn in Athens on 19 January 2013 — and the murder of Left-wing activist Pavlos Fyssas in September of the same year triggered the arrest of about twenty Golden Dawn MPs.
In analyzing the different historical phases of vigilantism in Greece, the authors explain that the country has often witnessed a deep-seated intolerance against a number of minority groups, including homosexuals, people with Left-leaning attitudes, and different ethnic groups.
ITALY AND FRANCE
Pietro Castelli Gattinara writes the next two chapters, ‘Forza Nuova and the Security Walks: Squadrismo and Neo-Fascist Vigilantism in Italy’ and ‘Beyond the hand of the state: Vigilantism against migrants and minorities in France’.
In Italy, Security Walks (Passeggiate Della Sicurezza) were also used as a recruitment strategy by Forza Nuova, which used to invite concerned locals to join their patrols, especially in dangerous areas or in areas that were perceived as dangerous.
While Northern League (Lega Nord) was the first to introduce citizen squads patrolling the streets in northern Italy, many other groups followed suit in the late 1990s and 2000s.
The author, however, chooses to focus on Forza Nuova because that was the group that invested the most in promoting and diffusing vigilantism in Italy in recent years.
A number of crucial insights relate to the cultural embeddedness of vigilantism in the history of Italy’s fascist direct activism and how this is intertwined with specific political, social, and legal factors that fostered contemporary vigilantism.
In the chapter dedicated to France, Gattinara describes two varieties of vigilante activities, one bottom-up initiative and one top-down.
The bottom-up dynamics are embodied mainly by The Angry People of Calais (Les Calaisiens en Colère) or LCC, which emerged as a response to the large numbers of refugees that had gathered in the vicinity of Calais. LCC has always claimed to be entirely non-political and non-violent.
The top-down variety was a range of vigilante activities organized by the Identitarians, a far-Right nativist movement formerly known as Bloc Indentitaire (BI). They used to set up a number of “anti-scum” patrols in streets and public transport, as well as other actions aimed at convincing the French people to “defend themselves” against insecurity caused by migrants.
Notably, vigilantism has attracted little scholarly and public attention in France, even though there have been numerous spontaneous outbursts of anti-migrant violence, with the tacit approval of local communities in the name of “Do-it-Yourself” justice.
In October 2013, the center-right mayor of Calais announced the set-up of a dedicated email address, which citizens could use to report on “no-border” activists and migrants residing illegally in the city area. If the goal was to raise attention about the conditions in Calais, the result was in fact to legitimize various initiatives against migrants by private citizens and grassroots organizations.
Not only do activists engage in patrolling, but they also report with videos and pictures the alleged reality about immigration to Europe, claiming to offer alternative material and uncover the collusion between the NGOs and human smugglers.
FRINGE PLAYERS IN BRITAIN
Prof. Elizabeth Ralph-Morrow, from King’s College, investigates ‘Vigilantism in the United Kingdom: Britain First and Operation Fightback’.
Britain First is a fringe far-Right political party that has carried out mosque invasions and “Christian patrols” in the Muslim-dominated urban areas. The first Christian patrols started in 2014 as a response to a “Muslim patrol” video on Youtube, which showed a street gang enforcing shari’a law in East London. The Christian vigilantes behave in ways calculated to insult, provoke, and intimidate Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or alleging that Muhammad was a false prophet.
The chapter retraces the historical path of Britain First, demonstrating that its vigilante activities, religious allusions, and savvy social media use set it apart from the parties and movements that came before it.
Britain First was never a major social or political force, and in recent years even Britain First’s online presence and impact have been significantly reduced due to Facebook and Twitter suspending its accounts, and YouTube restricting access to some of its videos.
AN EPICENTRE IN FINLAND: THE SOLDIERS OF ODIN
The next chapter deals with one of the most notorious vigilante groups in Europe. In his, ‘The Soldiers of Odin in Finland: From a Local Movement to International Franchise’, Tommi Kotonen investigates the movement that started in Finland in late 2015 and became the most striking example of a transnational vigilante movement.
Boosted by the abovementioned events in Cologne, Soldiers of Odin (SOO) spread to more than twenty countries within a few months.
In their programmatic statement, SOO described the movement as a “patriotic street patrol organization, which opposed harmful immigration, Islamization, EU, and globalization”.
They emphasize their role as an alleged preventative force, which also works on cases that are not exactly illegal but could be better described as “bad behavior”.
THE SOLDIERS OF ODIN IN NORWAY: A PATH TO NORMALCY?
Tore Bjorgo and Ingvild Magnaes Gjelsvik analyze the evolution of the SOO movement in Norway in a chapter entitled, ‘Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing? The Taming of the Soldiers of Odin in Norway’.
The chapter focuses on the rapid growth and disintegration of the SOO in Norway, where it gradually broke away from the Finnish mother chapter and later also with SOO World Wide, before closing down after about a year of activity.
Interestingly, the main reason for the split was that the Norwegian branch was uncomfortable with the increasingly extreme and anti-Islam profile of the mother organization.
A crucial feature analyzed by the two experts consists of the high proportion of leaders and members with a criminal past within the organization. Even the first formally elected leader, Steffen Andrè Larsen, had an extensive criminal record. Part of the explanation is that much of the recruitment was based on pre-existing social networks, often created in jail.
The Soldiers were also providing new members with a new, “cool” identity and a sort of uniform (a black hoodie) with high symbolic power. Moreover, both the organizational structure and the recruitment process were simplified versions of the outlaw biker club models and the membership was something to be achieved: a challenge and an opportunity to make amends.
Assessing the factors that helped Soldiers of Odin Norway flourish — albeit for a short time — the authors underline that in the country there are no cultural traditions of people taking the law in their own hands and that the offer by SOO to help the police to maintain safety in the streets was promptly turned down.
Nevertheless, the vigilantes could count on another permissive factor: the low level of visible policing. In Norway — as in other Northern European countries — police officers are rarely seen in the streets, and the link between police visibility and perception of security is a matter of fact.
A STUDY IN FAILURE: THE SOLDIERS OF ODIN IN CANADA
Emil Archambault and Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, in ‘Soldiers of Odin in Canada: The Failure of a Transnational Ideology,’ expand the analysis of the movement further.
More so than SOO chapters elsewhere, the Canadian branch combined vigilante street patrols with community-building efforts and charity actions.
SOO first established a Canadian presence in March 2016, five months after the foundation of the group in Finland. In this chapter, the authors trace and assess the six internal splits that marred the group during its first fourteen months of existence in Canada and focus on SOO ideology and overt or covert Islamophobic and xenophobic raison d’être.
Soon, the tension between a strictly Canadian nationalist focus and a transnational, civilizational, “European” orientation proven to be a an irreconcilable point of contention.
BURNING BRIGHT AND BRIEF IN SWEDEN
The Swedish historian Mattias Gardell is the author of the last case study: ‘Pop-up Vigilantism and Fascist Patrols in Sweden’. He describes a surge of radical nationalist vigilantism between 2013 and 2017, fed by a moral panic about migrant crime, so-called no-go zones, and an alleged “rape jihad” against white Swedish women.
Gardell describes four categories of vigilante activism:
- Sweden’s Citizens Militia, which emerged as a response to riots against police brutality in a stigmatized underclass suburb. The inner circle all had criminal records and links to radical nationalist groups.
- Soldiers of Odin, who were characterized by a rapid growth but soon declined.
- Gardet and several other autonomous vigilante groups.
- The patrols of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a pan-Nordic national-socialist organization, probably the most organized and potentially the most durable form of vigilante patrols in Sweden.
Gardell argues that vigilante activities in Sweden were mainly a ritual performance, either to promote the organization behind such activism, or to articulate the participants’ white Swedish masculinity by defining the public space as a white space.
With the possible exception of the patrols organized by NMR, the author suggests that the sudden outburst of vigilante activism may be understood as a “popcorn phenomenon”: “into the simmering heat of the radical nationalist milieu, warmed up by negative press on migrants and migration, cyber activists pumped in ‘alternative facts’ on alleged migrant crimes, no-go zones, and sharia-sanctioned ‘rape jihad’ of white Swedish women, to which concerned clicktivists responded with calls to protect the nation and its women”.
In the concluding chapter, ‘Comparative Perspectives on Vigilantism against migrants and minorities’, the editors make use of the rich empirical data from the seventeen case studies for analyzing the research questions raised earlier and the most crucial insights provided by the different experts who participated in the volume.
One of the most interesting components of the theoretical framework relates to the reasons why vigilantism is able to emerge and flourish. Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mareš identify a number of relevant factors:
- Widespread perception of crisis and threat;
- The threat of crime is identified with specific groups that become objects of hatred and fear;
- Specific shocking events causing moral panic;
- The perception that the police and other authorities are either unable or unwilling to protect the citizens;
- Permissive legislation for armed self-defense or civil patrols;
- Traditions of vigilantism and militias;
- A base of support for vigilantism among the public and/or among political parties;
- The police and other authorities turn a blind eye to vigilante violence.
There are also discernable conditions that make vigilantism decline or fail, and the authors list those:
- The reduction of the threat or perceived threat;
- Police and other authorities demonstrating that they are in control of the situation;
- Lack of support from the public, politicians, or the news media;
- Police and other authorities cracking down hard on vigilante violence and hate crime;
- The inherent tendency in extreme-Right movements towards internal conflicts and fragmentation.
A highly interesting conclusion that the authors draw from the many case studies is that vigilante groups very rarely, if ever, achieve their declared objectives. A key reason is that the claim from these groups that they are providing additional capacity to an under-staffed police force visibly lacks credibility. It is quite clear that such vigilante patrols tend to absorb police capacity, necessary to monitor the vigilantes and prevent violent incidents.
Vigilantism Against Migrants and Minorities is a groundbreaking volume and an essential resource for scholars, practitioners, and readers interested in social movements theory, political violence, and the evolution of the far-Right in Europe and elsewhere.