Wanted: Dead or Alive
I came across an interesting poster that’s been put up on a few lampposts on my street. It rather pathetically offers a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of George Welch for operating a bucket shop in New York.
This got me thinking about the notion of vigilante justice and the failure of the Department of Justice, or pretty much anyone else, to prosecute people on Wall Street for the financial crisis. What if more people, frustrated by the lack of prosecutorial interest in Wall Street, decided to take matters into their own hands? What if there was an outbreak of bounties being put on the heads of wrong-doing bankers so that some street justice could be applied, as the person posting this poster appeared to be seeking?
Wikipedia has a surprisingly elegant definition of vigilante justice as:
the idea that adequate legal mechanisms for criminal punishment are either nonexistent or insufficient. Vigilantes typically see the government as ineffective in enforcing the law; such individuals often claim to justify their actions as a fulfillment of the wishes of the community.
The mood of the community I follow on Twitter and around the web certainly resonates with this definition. A lot of ink has been spilled on how the government has failed to enforce the law with respect to the Financial Crisis and that a collection of the wrong-doers, big and small, have gotten away with it, at the expense of the rest of us. Occupy, obviously, was an expression of frustration about the lack of law enforcement, though it did not have a vigilante component. Growing dissatisfaction with our government is manifesting itself in many places – including the most recent anti-incumbent mid-term elections. And despite whistleblowers, such as Alayne Fleischmann or Edward Snowden naming names and institutions, nothing seems to change.
There’s a long, (not so) proud tradition of vigilante justice in our country (and, of course dating back to societies much older than our country). Vigilante justice stories in the American frontier were tales of how people bound together to fight back against lawlessness. In my youth, movies like Billy Jack, Death Wish or Rambo portrayed the desperate, yet justified (?), actions of people who had had enough with lawlessness and weren’t going to take it anymore. The real life story of Bernhard Goetz was often portrayed in a similar fashion in the tabloids. Today, vigilante themed movies and shows, like Batman or Dexter, are everywhere. In the hands of the right storyteller, vigilante justice has a visceral appeal.
Vigilantism also has an awful, dark history in the US and elsewhere, including the legacy of lynchings in our not too distant past. As angry as many of us have been about the aftermath of the financial crisis and the sense that the government has been bought by Wall Street money, the notion of vigilantism is still scary. Who will really be making decisions about right and wrong if people take law into their own hands – the downtrodden and righteous, or the powerful and corrupt?
Upon doing a little internet research into the Wanted! poster on my street, I discovered that it wasn’t exactly a call for justice from a poor aggrieved investor in some bucket shop scheme. Perhaps the name of the firm – Hooke, Lyon and Cinquer – should have given it away. Instead, this poster seems to be a reference to a piece of strange art by a early 20th Century artist named Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was a mysterious man and many people had a hard time understanding what he was getting at with his art. He made this poster, with a picture of himself as the wanted man, but critics are unclear about what he was saying with it.
Frankly, I have no idea why someone is posting them on my street now, almost 50 years after the original artist’s death. It seems noteworthy, somehow, that Duchamp’s poster originated in the lawless, Boardwalk Empire days of the 1920s, but I’m not sure why exactly.
I realized that I had been pranked by the poster, because I was sympathetic to a story about a small investor being burned by a Wall Street con artist, and a bounty on the scammer’s head seemed like an innovative, though unlikely, solution to the failure of law enforcement. So what was the point of this prank by Duchamp and by his new imitator on my street?
I’m not an art expert in any way (particularly not an expert on Dadaism that Duchamp helped originate), but my interpretation of today’s poster is that vigilantism is, itself, a prank. Despite fantasies of lawless bankers being tarred and feathered, what I (and I assume others) really want is a justice system that works, not one where people have to take the law into their own hands. In an excellent article written in response to the Ferguson troubles, Kareem Abdul Jabbar argues that we should use our rage at injustice to work to fix the system, and he has a point. Vigilantism is an illusion of justice… but the sense that the system isn’t working is still real. Maybe there’s an alternative interpretation of Duchamp’s prank: Unless more people within the system actually start to enforce the law against the powerful (as folks like Judge Rakoff or Ben Lawsky have shown is possible), then justice and government will lose their authority and become an illusion.
It’s art, so I don’t know that there is a definitive interpretation, but Duchamp’s piece tricked me and challenged me and pushed me, so I like whichever of these interpretations I apply.