The violence of vigilance

Neighborhood watches can’t shake their racist past

Neighborhood Watch was initiated on the national scale in the United States during the early 1960s in the middle of the civil rights movement. It was a program initiated at the same time that white flight was growing popular—causing environmental racism that has continued on since. Neighborhood Watch was a program created to instill segregation as well as violence during a time when people were fighting to move forward, and it has stayed problematic since.


In 2012, 17-year-old Black male Trayvon Martin was walking home from a gas station when he was shot by George Zimmerman, a volunteer for Neighborhood Watch. Zimmerman first called the police before shooting Martin, who advised him to stay inside his car and not approach him. Zimmerman did not listen. Systemic racism is what caused this to happen. This is a well-known example of how Neighborhood Watch has cultivated racism and violence in neighborhoods throughout the U.S.


To give a more recent example, the wildfires in Oregon have caused a great deal of rumors about looting and arson that created a divide between the local residents and passersby. In Corbett, there were illegal roadblocks set up by local residents, who were a part of a neighborhood watch group. According to residents and recordings obtained by The Guardian, “Civilian residents, some heavily armed, set up at least two roadblocks with cars and household chairs.”  


Neighborhood Watch is defined as being “a group of people living in the same area who want to make their neighborhood safer by working together and in conjunction with local law enforcement to reduce crime and improve their quality of life.” This definition comes from the U.S. National Neighborhood Watch website. Regarding the wildfire incidents, it is clear that what the local vigilante group was doing was not only illegal, but also worsened the townspeople’s quality of life at the time. 


According to numerous reports, police saw the illegal traffic stops on at least two instances, and had not intervened. These traffic stops were not only enforced by road blocking, but also by questioning from the local vigilante group about passerby identity and their connection to Corbett. Amid a global pandemic, it is highly irresponsible to enforce rules such as questioning, that may have been conducted at an unsafe social distance, or without wearing masks. This again is a situation where the definition of Neighborhood Watch was completely ignored and profiling occurred. 


It is clear Neighborhood Watch’s existence is entirely toxic, violent and rooted from prejudice. Neighborhood Watch should be dismantled because it is doing the opposite of what it is defined to be in local communities across the country. It lacks involvement with police most of the time, especially in major news coverage when related incidents occur—not to mention the small affiliation Neighborhood Watch has with police often enables their actions, especially racist ones. If part of the definition of Neighborhood Watch is working together with local law enforcement, then it should be held accountable when extremist members act out.