Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
April 11, 2014
Last week, a man was savagely beaten by an angry mob after he accidentally hit a kid with his pickup on a Detroit street. Steve Utash stopped to help David Harris, a 10-year-old boy he struck while on his way home from work. That’s when a group of about a dozen men, who had gathered after the accident, began to beat him, reported the Detroit News.
The mob attack is an example of “vigilante justice”—the actions of a group of people who claim to enforce the law but lack the legal authority to do so. A vigilante can also be a single person who seeks to take the law into his own hands. The term can also describe a general state of disarray or lawlessness.
One of the best known vigilantes is Bernhard Goetz. In 1984, Goetz was on a New York City subway when two teenagers approached him. One of the teens demanded money. Goetz pulled a gun and fired five shots. Four young men were wounded—one suffering a severed spinal cord. New York City newspapers dubbed the gunman "the subway vigilante."
At the time, New York City’s violent crime rate was unprecedented, and in some circles Goetz was praised as a hero.
During some of the darkest times in American history, lynching was viewed as vigilantism. In reality, lynchings were evidence of a general state of lawlessness. In the South, an estimated two or three blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Mississippi alone, 500 blacks were lynched from the mid-1800s to 1955. Nationwide, the figure climbed to nearly 5,000, according to the Public Broadcasting System.
Today lynching is not only outlawed but also a sign of collective incivility. Lynching is often defined as "any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of the person.” For instance, South Carolina law defines a “mob” as "the assemblage of two or more persons, without color or authority of law, for the premeditated purpose and with the premeditated intent of committing an act of violence upon the person of another."
At times the color of law is often blurred. In 1933, a prominent California business owner’s son was kidnapped for ransom. The kidnapping turned to murder and two men were arrested.
After the victim’s body was discovered, the media announced that the two “killers” would be lynched at San Jose’s St. James Park. Some 15,000 people gathered in the park. Gov. James Rolph refused to take any action to protect the men. He even announced that anyone who participated in the lynching would receive a pardon.
In 2010, John D. Murphy wrote about the lynching in the San Jose Mercury, “Never before or since has the rule of law been so collectively subverted by law enforcement (including the FBI), public officials, community leaders, everyday citizens and the press.”
Lynchings in the South were often covered in the local newspaper. The website for PBS’s American Experience provided examples of newspaper headlines from about the same time as the California lynching. “Negro and White Scuffle; Negro Is Jailed, Lynched" was published in the Atlanta Constitution on July 6, 1933. "Negro Is Slain By Texas Posse: Victim's Heart Removed After His Capture By Armed Men" was published in The New York World Telegram on Dec. 8, 1933.
Vigilante justice is nothing new in Detroit. In 2013, a mob located a man accused of raping a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome. They beat him repeatedly. Witnesses at one point saw five attackers. At least one was armed with a baseball bat.
In 2011, the city had 32 self-defense killings, a 79 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Daily Mail.
Detroit’s lawlessness is on the mind of the young and old alike. “We got to have a little Old West up here in Detroit. That’s what it’s gonna take,” 73-year-old Julia Brown told the Daily Mail. “I don’t intend to be one of their victims, I’m planning on taking one out.”
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” is due out this summer. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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