When the jury returned a non-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, it fell like a solid slap in the face to the idea of justice, law, and order in the United States. A man had engaged in vigilantism, the taking of matters best handled by the police into his own hands, and, on his own, proceeded to execute a child who was guilty of nothing but being black… and being in the crosshairs of George Zimmerman. And the jury, in effect, rewarded Zimmerman for his actions, telling society that it is okay for people to essentially murder each other, so long as they feel justified in what they are doing. So long as they can claim “self defense” when those they pursue fight for their lives.
This is a lynch mentality, and it is the root of the vigilante. In American culture, we celebrate the vigilante – Batman, Dirty Harry – and hold them up as idols. They do not have to consider the law; instead, they firmly believe themselves to be the law. Over the years, laws enacted to protect individuals from vigilante justice, from the lynch mob, have eroded, and now, with the horrifying release of George Zimmerman for the cold-blooded “execution” of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, those who would seek the elimination of those protections have gotten what they so wished for – a court case with which precedent is created. The rebirth of the lynch mob is nigh.
In folklore, people also admired the vigilante. From Robin Hood to the Punisher, our tales are full of those who took the law into their own hands to fight against what they saw as injustice. But the reality of their “justice” was often far less benign than they claimed. In a rush to find guilt, or to find a scapegoat, these individuals, or gangs, would engage in terror, intimidation, and execution of any who opposed them. In their desire to mete out what they deemed rightful response, these groups would target minorities, people of different faiths, even elected officials, in their attempts to force their viewpoints onto culture. Neighborhoods, cities, even whole states would become victims of those who would held themselves above the law.
More recently, and after decades of targeted budget cuts designed with the goal of instilling distrust in the federal government, it is easy to see why people would turn to vigilantism. While the police have their budgets slashed, and the courts are a horrid example of backlogs, the vigilante is able to transcend all of these problems to get the job done. In fact, it is the epitome of the Republican and libertarian idea of “rugged individualism.” Who needs courts when a random group of strangers can decide on a whim if you are guilty of a crime, even one they made up themselves (as in the case of Zimmerman), and can execute you for it on the spot? And, if the GOP has their way, we will have far more George Zimmerman’s, and tragically, Trayvon Martins.
Yet, there is an unusual development in the modern rise of the vigilante. Decades of mass media presentation of vigilantes has resulted in an unusual version of character, no longer the lynch mob but, instead, one clad in spandex and sporting a mask.
This new form of vigilantism has taken “independent justice” in a different direction, transitioning tough guys or gun-toting wannabe-cops into the costumed realm once reserved for fictional, so-called superheroes. Seattle, Washington, for example, has Phoenix Jones, a mixed martial-arts-fighter-turned-superhero. His superior strength, body armor, and use of weapons such as pepper spray make him quite dangerous to those who fall into his definition of “criminal.” He and his “Action Team” take it upon themselves to jump to conclusions over a myriad of cases, such as assuming that several crimes in a neighborhood were caused by a single man, handing out fliers describing the man they believed was the perpetrator. No trained investigation, no skilled detectives, just wild hunches, and thousands of fliers with a man’s likeness were handed out across Seattle.
Here’s the video:
Imagine anyone who happened to be in the area who might vaguely resemble the sketch in the flier. How long before a lynch mob is formed and an unfortunate and innocent victim is slaughtered as a deviant sexual predator?
At least in the world of Phoenix Jones, the police are notified in time to intervene in suspicious situations. For all his bravado, Jones does not prescribe to the use of firepower to enforce his view; he doesn’t show that particular disrespect for the law. While Jones will engage in fights, he has done so using non-lethal methods. After all, once you hang a witch, it is too late to apologize. And these new vigilantes sporting garish costumes and fancy monikers sometimes promote a message of hope, of bettering oneself along with improving society, compared to the vigilantes of old who more frequently sought only blood and vendetta.
This movement, however, on the rise within the United States. Instead of being isolated, a rare and unusual event, they are now a regular part of many cities. The website Real Life Superheroes indexes dozens of people who engage in such antics. This phenomenon has grown to the point that HBO released a documentary on the rise of these new costumed vigilantes in 2011:
But for every caped crusader who steps up with a message of hope, there are darker folk who would take things a step further. Tragically, for the family of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was more of the old style vigilante, dead-set on his pursuit based on his own scenario of suspicion. Directly ignoring police orders, driven to go after the boy in his sights; acting as the aggressor, he was looking for the glory every vigilante looks for: getting the guy. In this case, “the guy” pursued fought back and the vigilante killed.
George Zimmerman is now a free man, free to carry out more vigilante-style justice in neighborhoods of children guilty of nothing but being black. This is the America of the future if the GOP has their way, one in which neither judge nor jury decides on guilt or innocence, but, instead, the wild frenzy of a lynch mob, or a self-styled vigilante, takes justice into their hands. Instead of the hopeful message of Phoenix Jones, we’ll continue to find blood-soaked hands like George Zimmerman’s.
It is, after all, the American Way.
Correction: The original articles listed the HBO documentary “Superheroes” as pending release. It came out in 2011. The article has been updated to reflect this.