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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

George Zimmerman: Watchman or Vigilante?

     While 28-year-old George Zimmerman may have used excessive force when, on February 26, 2012, he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to death, he was not, according to the true definition of the term, a vigilante.

Citizen Watch Groups

     In the United States, millions of citizens volunteer their time as members of neighborhood watch groups. Their principal objectives are to watch each other's property, report suspicious activity, and encourage citizens to come forward as witnesses to crime. Although some volunteer watchmen (and women) receive a little basic law enforcement instruction, they are unarmed, and do not perceive themselves as cops, or even security officers. They know their role, and their place in the criminal justice system.

     In 1979, 13 members of a watch group called the Guardian Angels started riding New York City's crime-ridden subways. By 1981, more than a thousand of these unarmed volunteers were patrolling the streets of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Cleveland. At first, the police didn't welcome the Guardian Angels, but urban dwellers weary of crime, did. Fears that the Guardian Angel movement would evolve into vigilantism never materialized.

     Citizen self-protection isn't new. From colonial times to the mid-19th century, there was no such thing as professional, government provided law enforcement. (The New York City Police Department wasn't established until 1844.) During this period, citizen volunteers patrolled the streets. They were no match for the criminals, and by 1859, every major city in the country was unsafe.

The San Francisco Vigilante Movement

     During the period 1860 to 1906, the citizens of San Francisco were terrorized by dozens of hoodlum gangs. (A problem that exists today in every city in America.) The most notorious mob, a Chinese outfit called the Tongs, ruled the opium trade, extorted protection money, imported child slaves, ran gambling operations, and controlled prostitution. The city's leading merchants, aware that high crime was bad for business, established, in 1851, the 700-member San Francisco Vigilance Committee. In its first month, members of the vigilante group arrested 90 people. Four suspects, without the benefit of trials, were hanged, and a dozen run out of town.

     In 1856, merchants in San Francisco formed a second vigilance group. This time, 8000 people joined the committee, making it the largest group of its kind in American history. The vigilantes conducted illegal searches, and arrested hundreds of criminal suspects. Dozens of people went to prison on little or no evidence, 25 were deported, and four died at the end of a rope.

     The San Francisco vigilante movement had little effect on the city's crime. The Tongs, and other criminal organizations, continued to flourish. The great earthquake and fire of 1906 put an end to the San Francisco gangs. The Vigilance Committee, however, had gained significant political and economic power, controlling the mayor's office, the new police department, and local politicians.

The Cattle Wars

     In 1892, the large cattle companies in Wyoming formed a vigilante group to run the smaller ranchers out of business. The vigilantes accomplished this by falsely accusing these ranchers of cattle rustling. Like their counterparts in San Francisco, the vigilantes in Wyoming were motivated by money and politics. Their actions had nothing to do with law enforcement or self-protection. In the American west, between 1849 and 1902, there were 210 vigilante movements. In the south during this period, vigilantes murdered almost 2,000 black people. That's vigilantism.

     Members of neighborhood watch groups are not vigilantes. They are not law enforcers, nor are they politically motivated. The only economic interest they have involves the protection of their own property.

     Regardless of why George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, the watchman gained nothing, politically or economically, from Martin's death. The fact he had no business carrying a gun, was perhaps undertrained, and may have used excessive force, does not make Mr. Zimmerman a vigilante. If convicted of criminal homicide or some lesser crime, Zimmerman will not be guilty of vigilantism.

     Those who are portraying George Zimmerman as a vigilante, and calling for his head, are acting like the vigilantes of old.  


1 comment:

  1. The confrontation happened on public land, not on Zimmerman's private property. He is indeed a vigilante, there is no justification for behaving in the manner he behaved in.
    Had he been defending his own home or that of a neighbor it might be a different story. As it stands, he was an arrogant jerk acting like a cop in a public place. Martin was under no obligation whatsoever to tell Zimmerman who he was, what he was doing, or why he was there. He was in a public place. Zimmerman had no business harassing or stalking him. He should have left him alone.