Taking the law into one’s own hands? On the nature, organization and rationale of vigilantism against Migrants and Minorities in Europe
During the last few years, especially around the refugee crisis in 2015-16, vigilante groups popped up all over Europe and North America, patrolling the streets and national borders. They claimed to protect the local citizenry against crime and security threats constituted by illegal migrants and minority groups.
Photo: Heiko Junge
The volume Vigilantism against Migrants and Minorities (Routledge, 2019) (available in Open Access), edited by Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mareš, traces the rise of far-right vigilante movements in a comparative international perspective. Based on new empirical data from 17 countries, it focuses on the internal organization of these groups, on their external justification, group strategies and individual motivations, as well as on the circumstances that facilitate their emergence, breakthrough and decline.
While the most popular understanding of vigilantism is “to take the law into one’s own hands”, vigilante practices generally configure organised civilians that act in a policing role without any legal authorization, who use or display a capacity for violence, and claim that the police is either unable or unwilling to handle a perceived crime problem. In this respect, a core feature of vigilantism is that it is usually biased: vigilantes tend to direct their attention towards certain marginalised groups in society, such as ethnic minorities or migrants accused of being potential criminals and threats to collective security or to the social and moral order. It is no surprise, then, that the Roma peoples have been the target of the aggressive vigilante activities across multiple European countries. In our research, we could identify at least four main types of contemporary vigilante activities.
Varieties of vigilantism
1. Vigilante terrorism, pogroms and lynchings
The classic case of vigilante terrorism is the Ku Klux Klan lynchings of blacks and other minorities, usually accused of having committed crimes or breaking the “moral order” of white supremacy. Similar events took place in Russia, with a murderous campaign against migrants and homosexuals, especially between 2006 and 2010, when vigilante violence lasted for years. Another extreme case of vigilante terrorism was the series of murders of Roma people in Hungary in 2008 to 2009. A killer commando of four perpetrators killed 10 people (including a child) and wounded six more when they attacked Roma villages with guns. They justified their actions by claiming that they intended to take revenge for “Gypsy crimes” and provoke violent reactions from the Roma to trigger an ethnic civil war. In reality, the victims were selected randomly.
2. Paramilitary militia movements
Militias can be distinguished from other forms of vigilantism because they are modelled on a military style and form of organisation. Participants usually wear military-like uniforms, perform parades and marches, have a structured chain of command and train in military skills, sometimes also with firearms. In Central and Eastern Europe, there is a long tradition of paramilitary militias, often affiliated with parties on the extreme right. In recent years, the
most significant initiative was the establishment of the Hungarian Guard in 2007, as a militia-wing of the far-right party Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik). The Hungarian Guard was tasked to protect Hungarian citizens against “Gypsy crime”, sometimes marching through Roma villages and neighborhoods to intimidate the inhabitants.
3. Border patrols
Border patrol groups emerge when the issue of the arrival of refugees and undocumented
migrants is high in the political or media agenda. Claiming that the governmental border agencies are unable to fulfill their tasks, some activists volunteer to “help” protecting the borders. In Bulgaria, vigilante border patrols affiliated with far-right political parties have patrolled the border to Turkey and even arrested undocumented migrants. There were also some rather sophisticated attempts to demonstrate the government’s lack of capability to control EU borders against migrants: in the Mediterranean and on the Franco-Italian Alps, the “Defend Europe” campaign by the Identitarians displayed border control and allegedly contributed to discourage rescue operations by NGOs. A common feature of vigilante border patrols is that they very rarely actually detect or apprehend undocumented migrants crossing the borders. Their activities appear to be completely symbolic. They make an effort to demonstrate the willingness of vigilantes to protect their “own country” as a preventive measure in case of need. They also want to demonstrate that the government is not able to do “its best” against migration. In this respect, vigilantism represents a media strategy and a recruitment tactic more than an actual intervention in the territories crossed by migration.
4. Street patrols
The most common type of vigilante activities against migrants and minorities are street patrols, by which organized groups walk together in the streets or near ‘sensitive’ places with the stated goal of providing protection to local inhabitants. They claim that their presence will deter criminals and provide a sense of safety to the most vulnerable citizens, notably women and children. Typically, such patrolling activities emerge in the aftermaths of criminal events, especially if migrants or minorities have been involved as (alleged) perpetrators. Frequently, these actions are more or less directly sponsored by radical right organisations and parties, which seize the opportunity to promote their group at the local level. At times, however, patrols are organised by concerned citizens without any particular political sponsorship. Some of these groups maintain that they will only observe and report incidences to the police. Other groups take a more active stance by intending to deter and even intervene against acts of crime. Obviously, this may represent a challenge to the police monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Although some vigilante groups make use of violence (the first type in particular), most of them do not actually carry out acts of violence. However, they do usually display a violent capacity through a performance of force, whether they parade as a paramilitary militia (with or without weapons), or patrol the streets in groups dressed up with group symbols or uniforms. Their display of force is intended to have an intimidating and deterring impact on their designated target groups) as well as political opponents.
What makes vigilantism emerge and flourish?
- Vigilantism emerges in contexts characterized by a widespread perception of crisis and threat to one’s society and life-style. This causes fear among sections of the population, which is exacerbated by extensive media campaigns and far-right propaganda. A particularly sensitive issue is the perceived threat of sexual assaults against native women. Furthermore, vigilantism flourishes when perceptions of threat are easily associated with specific groups: the marginalized Roma populations; refugees (especially since in 2015-16 in Europe); and Muslim migrants and residents.
Specific shocking events causing moral panic trigger vigilante activities. One such turning point in Europe were the events on New Year Eve 2015/16 in Cologne, Germany. Large numbers of local women were sexually harassed and abused by men of mainly North African and Middle Eastern origin. This event triggered vigilante responses in many countries, and boosted street patrol groups like the Soldiers of Odin and others. During the first months of 2016, SOO and similar vigilante groups popped up all over Europe and even in Australia and North America.
- The perception that the police and other authorities are either unable or unwilling to protect the citizens from threats to their safety is a major factor facilitating the emergence of vigilantism. More generally, vigilantism is closely associated with a lack of trust in governmental institutions and the police in particular. The Eurobarometer show that many of the countries with relatively strong and persistent tendencies towards vigilantism, such as Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, score low or relatively low on trust in governmental institutions. Countries where vigilante movements have more difficulties in finding a lasting foothold, such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, score high on trust in governmental institutions and the legal system. The United States, which has a long legacy of vigilantism and militias, is also characterized by a low trust in governmental institutions among large sections of the population.
- Countries with a permissive legislation for armed self-defense or civil patrols provide opportunities for vigilantism. The liberal laws in the U.S.A. on gun ownership and the right to use armed force for self-defense and for protecting your property goes very far in legalizing vigilantism. In most European countries, applications for gun permits would be turned down flatly if the reason given was self-protection.
- Finally, vigilantism is facilitated by historical embeddedness of a tradition of vigilantism and militias. Again, the United States is a special case, with its Wild West history of frontier justice and lynchings, and a popular culture and film industry where vigilantism, street justice and revenge are main themes. This historical and cultural dimension in the United States might facilitate a widespread mindset where vigilantism becomes a natural response to perceived threats. In Central and Eastern Europe there are also historical traditions of Fascist militias, especially during the inter-war period in the 1920s and 1930s. This has served as a model and inspiration to modern-day extreme-right parties and movements to establish paramilitary militias. We find this in countries like Italy, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
- Vigilantism thrives in societies where there is a base of support for vigilantism among the public or among political parties. Most vigilante groups described in in our case studies put a lot of effort into gaining support from the public and recognition from the police and the government, albeit in most cases with limited or no success.
- Vigilantism thrives when the police and other authorities turn a blind eye to it, or even tacitly accept or actively support it. Under these circumstances, vigilante practices turn most violent. The Ku Klux Klan lynchings and the murderous attacks on migrants and homosexuals in Russia are examples of how such violent campaigns could continue unhindered for a long time.
What makes vigilantism decline or fail?
The appeal of vigilante responses become less persuasive and/or comes to an end
- When the perceived threat is reduced or appears less acute – e.g. when media attention moves away from issues of migration and security
- When the police and other authorities are able to demonstrate that they are in control of the situation. This because diffusion of vigilantism is directly related to the level of trust in the police and other authorities. In countries and cities where the police is generally respected and trusted by most of the population, initiatives to establish vigilante patrols to provide safety in the streets will usually fall flat.
- When there is a lack of support by the public, organized political actors and/or the news media. The Norwegian Soldiers of Odin, which did not get support from any political party, the police, or significant part of the public, quickly lost steam.
- When the police and other authorities strike down hard on vigilante violence and hate crime. This was the case of the Ku Klux Klan from the 1970s, due to increased legal prosecutions, increased FBI surveillance and infiltration by the police. Similarly, restrictive legislation on vigilantism and police enforcement of such laws does reduce the leeway of vigilante activities and may even put an end to it.
- When the extreme-right movements sponsoring vigilante actions have a tendency towards internal conflict and splits. Internal conflicts over ideology, strategy, methods, money, and leadership often leads to splinters into several small and weakly organized groups. While some of these groups might turn towards violence, they are also generally more easily targeted by law enforcement.
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