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Thursday, May 5, 2005
Minutemen and the “Vigilante” Label
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Clearly, based on comments here and via traffic I am getting from here, I have touched a nerve agreeing wit the President’s classification of the Minutemen as “vigilantes.”

As I noted in that comment section, while the application of the word may not be perfect, I would argue it is still on the mark.

Dr. Tom O’Connor, a CJ Professor at North Carolina Wesleyan College, has an interesting write-up on the subject that notes, contrary to one of my posters, that the term “vigilante” does not have as well established definition as some seem to think:

The word vigilante is of Spanish origin and means “watchman” or “guard” but its Latin root is vigil, which means “awake” or “observant.” When it is said that someone is taking the law into their own hands, this usually means that they are engaging in vigilante activity, or vigilantism, although sometimes the phrase “taking the law into your own hands” is used to describe what some people call a “secret police” force. The phrase does not make for a good definition. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what vigilantism is, but few people have taken the trouble to define it (Johnston 1996). Worse yet, those of us who teach criminal justice and criminology often warn about the dangers of vigilantism without really understanding or explaining why, and the field of criminal justice is way too silent on this topic, gladly substituting state-by-state comparisons on gun ownership and self-defense for real research on the nature and dynamics of

Of the definition he cites (and he cites several), the following fits the Minutemen pretty well:

Brown (1975) attempted to define vigilantism, saying it represented “morally sanctimonious” behavior aimed at rectifying or remedying a “structural flaw” in society, with the flaw usually being some place where the law was ineffective or not enforced. This is a complex socio-legal definition. It treats vigilantism as a societal reaction and not as a social movement. It also implies that the phenomenon of vigilantism will be short-lived since once a flaw is remedied, there is no reason to continue, and in any event, “sanctimonious” morality is unlikely to be sustainable.

While the Minutemen have not directly engaged the immigrants in question, there is little doubt that their motivations fit the description by Brown.

If we wish to discuss common usage, let’s look at Merriam-Webster Online, where we find:

Main Entry: vig·i·lan·te
Pronunciation: “vi-j&-’lan-tE
Function: noun
Etymology: Spanish, watchman, guard, from vigilante vigilant, from Latin vigilant-, vigilans
: a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law appear inadequate)
broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice
- vig·i·lan·tism /-’lan-”ti-z&m/ noun

Now, setting aside the irony about the linguistic origins of the word, the Minutemen fit this definition pretty well: they are watchers, they are volunteers, they seek to suppress crime, and they are certainly self-appointed seekers of justice.

While it is true that the Minutemen have not directly confronted the immigrants, I don’t see how it can be argued that the word “vigilante” cannot be applied in this case.

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Filed under: US Politics, Criminal Justice | |


  1. Steve,

    I think the real problem with this is not with the denotation, which seems to be what the CJ prof is arguing about, but the *connotation.* vigilante justice at least in the South, and certainly in parts of the west, conjures up images of folks “taking justice into their own hands” by means of the rope. In the deep south, there are also racist overtones.

    Unfortunately, the word carries such baggage that it’s lost any precision it might have once had apart from that negative connotative meaning. (cf. “fundamentalist” Christian, which at one time meant someone who subscribed to a set of doctrinal fundamentals of the faith contra more “liberal” theologies of the early 20th century, now solely connotes a “knuckle-dragging” luddite moralist who wants to kill everyone’s good times)

    Comment by bryan — Thursday, May 5, 2005 @ 8:34 pm

  2. The word may apply, but I have always thought that the “and punish crime summarily” part of the definition was a defining characteristic of a vigilante.

    Is a neighborhood watch effort vigilante-ism? If they just keepo an eye out and call the police (and not try to capture the criminals or mete out punishment), then I have doubts that such a group meets the definition.

    I have similar doubts about the Minutemen, though it is a fuzzy concept without well-defined edges.

    Comment by Steven L. — Thursday, May 5, 2005 @ 8:48 pm

  3. We have made the term “vigilante” a dirty word which conjurs up scenes in your mind of a lawless bunch of angry citizens unjustly hanging some poor guy they think is guilty. The real criminal, however, is the government official who refuses to carry out and enforce our just laws. What our elected representatives are not doing about out porous borders should be grounds for impeachment.

    Comment by bindare — Thursday, May 5, 2005 @ 9:21 pm

  4. I take the point and the neighborhood watch analogy was brought up in the comments section of the other post. However, the Minutemen aren’t watching their own neighborhood, and they are clearly self-righteously responding to what they see as a failure of the government. Their action go beyond just watchfulness in my mind.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Friday, May 6, 2005 @ 6:30 am

  5. We have made the term “vigilante�? a dirty word which conjurs up scenes in your mind of a lawless bunch of angry citizens unjustly hanging some poor guy they think is guilty.

    Yes, because that’s what happened in more than one instance. Especially in the deep south, the spectre of lynching black men who were innocent of the crimes they were accused of is more than just a “figment of the imagination.”

    And unfortunately, words don’t rehabilitate very easily.

    Such mob activity has little to do with the failure of government to do its duty, but the failure of citizens to follow the dictum “innocent until proven guilty.”

    Comment by bryan — Friday, May 6, 2005 @ 6:49 am

  6. Vigilantes and Immigration
    I’m getting a lot of email flack for having agreed with President Bush that the Minutemen are vigilantes. The top definition of vigilante kicked up by Google is

    Trackback by — Saturday, May 7, 2005 @ 12:50 pm

  7. an exercise in sophistry
    He chooses a compound definition that actually includes two meanings for the word: one that is deserving of bad connotations and one that is not.

    Trackback by Doc Rampage — Monday, May 9, 2005 @ 2:20 am

  8. The Minutemen just want an excuse to fondle their “guns” Red necks….. hahaha

    ——————————————— - Rant & Rave Forum

    Comment by - Max — Friday, May 27, 2005 @ 11:40 am

  9. According to Dr. Taylor, would not the ACLU people watching the Minutemen also be vigilantes?

    Comment by Ed Duffy — Monday, October 17, 2005 @ 5:01 pm

  10. […] y at Pros and Cons (click and scroll) has tagged me as “going wobbly” because I agree with the classification of the Minutemen as “vigilantes” (although, to take minor […]

    Pingback by PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » More on Immigration and the Border — Tuesday, May 16, 2006 @ 7:45 am

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