Militant vigilantism and mob rule

Quite a few thieves, would-be thieves and suspected thieves have been caught and mercilessly beaten by outraged residents of the communities that they have targeted. Some of the victims have succumbed to the beatings. Others have been maimed to the extent where their careers have been brought to a premature end.   Usually, nothing is ever heard about these incidents beyond what is initially reported in the media. No matter the extent of the evidence to the contrary, these acts are widely regarded as justifiable. In the absence of the pressure of public protest against what, in fact, are illegal acts, the police usually let them slide.

Some of these occurrences have taken bizarre twists. Some years ago a man caught paying close attention to a parked car in the vicinity of Vlissengen Road and D’Urban Street during the early hours of the morning was accosted and severely roughed up before he managed to persuade his attackers that he was simply seeking to change a punctured tyre on his car. More recently, a young man was badly beaten by residents of an East Coast village not because they could come up with any serious evidence that he was thief, but because he was simply unable to persuade the residents that, as a stranger to the community, he was there on legitimate business at that time of night.

The rise of this kind of militant vigilantism has been particularly evident in communities that have suffered repeatedly at the hands of thieves. When triggered, such acts manifest themselves in unrestrained and uncompromising violence against the hapless victim. Mob rule becomes mistaken for self defence, and the victim suffers as much for his own misdeeds as for the misdeeds of his predecessors who may have escaped the swift and ruthless summary justice.

The actions of the vigilantes are usually driven by a strong sense that they are in fact exercising a right – the right to protect themselves and their property by any means necessary. It simply never occurs to them that if you effectively neutralize an intruder then proceed to beat him to near death rather than turn him over to the police you are, in fact, breaking the law. Driven by the altogether misguided notion that maiming, even murder, can be justified in the particular circumstance, they unleash their pent-up rage, their line of reasoning being that  the more severe the beating the stronger the message sent to others who might be targeting their community.

There is a message here for the police too. Vigilantism thrives most in societies and communities where law enforcement is regarded as weak and ineffective and where frustrated citizens are sufficiently prepared to take the law into their own hands, driven by the notion that their efforts are subsidizing those of the lawful authorities.

The right of citizens to protect themselves against ruthless criminals who evince a preparedness to take lives in the course of carrying out robberies is not in dispute here. The proliferation of crime that targets mostly rural communities has given rise to the creation of officially sanctioned Community Policing Groups which serve to watch over their own, so to speak, in support of the Guyana Police Force. Indeed, the public importance which Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee has attached to these groups is, in itself, an acknowledgment of the inability of the Guyana Police Force to tackle crime without civilian support. Of course, there are risks involved in empowering civilians to execute what in effect are police powers, though it has to be said that Community Policing Groups have worked well in some societies and in some instances, in Guyana.

If communities that feel either sufficiently threatened or sufficiently motivated to want to protect themselves against crime have a right, under the law, to do so, we still cannot allow mob rule to become mistaken for law enforcement. The police must be persuaded that lynch mobs cannot be equated with supernumerary policing. It really is a matter of deciding whether, as a society, we continue to be advocates of the rule of law or whether we have reached a point where we are prepared to give ourselves over to mob rule.

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