American Vigilantism — Popular Justice and Popular Culture
Vigilante Justice in Society and Popular Culture: A Global Perspective, Forthcoming
31 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2020 Last revised: 24 Mar 2020
Date Written: February 26, 2020
This essay on American vigilantism is a chapter in the forthcoming book Vigilante Justice in Society and Popular Culture: A Global Perspective (Peter Robson & Ferdinando Spina, eds). It summarizes the rich history of American vigilantism, meaning that people administer popular justice by taking the law into their own hands. It focusses particularly on the San Francisco Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856 when large numbers of people who were frustrated by crime and corruption took over criminal law enforcement and hanged a number of desperados. The chapter also discusses San Francisco’s Chinatown Squad of 1879-1920, a group of police assigned the job of law enforcement in Chinatown by any means necessary. The chapter then turns to vigilantism in American movies. Given the centrality of vigilantism in American history and the hearty public approval it usually enjoys, it’s not surprising that a vast number of films concern this subject. The chapter concentrates on police vigilantism, exemplified by Dirty Harry and its sequels. Almost all of the Dirty Harry films were set in San Francisco (which connects the two halves of this chapter). These very successful movies transmitted a strong message of political conservatism. They depicted San Francisco as a pit of depravity and sexual permissiveness. Police vigilantism offends the criminal law compromise that gives government a monopoly on the use of force, but subject to a series of constraints that vigilantes ignore.
Keywords: Vigilante, Vigilantism, Police, Popular Culture, Dirty Harry, Law & Humanities
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