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Harvard professor discusses new book on modern-day lynching, collective vigilantism in Haiti

| Wednesday, March 31, 2021

On Tuesday, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies hosted professor Dara Kay Cohen to speak about her newly published book titled “Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States.”

Cohen is an associate professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her research primarily focuses on violence in unstable states, such as those experiencing civil wars. “Lynching and Local Justice,” coauthored with Danielle F. Jung of Emory University, is Cohen’s second book. 

Abby Córdova, associate professor in the Keough School of Global Affairs, moderated the virtual discussion, which consisted primarily of Cohen explaining the core concepts of her book and answering audience questions.

“Lynching and Local Justice” examines the causes and possible solutions of modern-day lynching by studying the practice in Haiti.

Cohen defined lynching as “lethal violence or violence that the participants think could be lethal, violence that is extralegal and violence that is usually committed by groups of people to punish offenses to a community.” 

Cohen first addressed what she called common misconceptions about modern-day lynching. She said the practice is not limited to weak states and is not correlated with poverty or a lack of development; rather, it results from micro-level contestation over the legitimacy of authority. She cited recent examples from Northern Ireland, India and Brazil to demonstrate the far reach of lynchings in the contemporary world.

To determine what causes and perpetuates lynching as a tool of justice, Cohen said, she and Jung focused on Haiti — which Cohen called “a fascinating example of widespread violence against a background of a fractured state.”

Cohen said research addressing lynching in the context of civil war already exists. However, Haiti provides an opportunity to study a “gray area” where very high numbers of fatalities are hidden from typical political science data sets because those acts of lethal violence are not committed by political armed groups.

In Haiti there is a preponderance of “violence that is committed by gangs and violence that is committed by ordinary people — not specialists in violence,” Cohen said.

Cohen and Jung also chose Haiti because it was “dramatically understudied,” Cohen said, despite its proximity to the U.S. and the two nations’ rich history.

“Gang violence and gang governance are … major issues that have implications not only for the country but also for the region, including the United States,” Cohen said.

Cohen and Jung conducted some of their research by taking qualitative reports from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and converting them to quantitative data. From this, they found most lynchings are committed by young men against other young men and primarily as a response to petty crimes such as theft. They noticed one source of variation in the types of killings that occur. The most common types of killings, like stoning and beating, require large groups of people.

Cohen and Jung also conducted surveys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. They asked residents several questions that would shed light on perceptions of the legitimacy of the Haitian government and of the authority of local gangs.

Cohen and Jung learned that 76% of respondents would rather use the state justice system than lynching. However, 56% of people responded by saying lynching was an appropriate response to murder, and 51% of respondents said lynching was an appropriate response to theft. The survey also revealed gender differences. They discovered women were less supportive of lynching for murder than for theft. Cohen and Jung believe a possible explanation for this is because women feel more vulnerable to theft.

The core finding of “Lynching and Local Justice,” Cohen said, was that weak formal institutions — even those unrelated to security — are associated with public support for lynching. If states fail to provide governance and, instead, social services or non-state actors — such as gangs or communities — provide those services, then lynching becomes more common. Broad support and group participation make lynching difficult to curb, according to Cohen and Jung. 

Cohen stressed that reducing lynchings is not simply a matter of legal prohibition and enforcement. Lynching is illegal in Haiti, but it still happens on a widespread scale. Rather, Cohen argued, there must be a common belief that the criminal justice system is capable of punishing criminals, and the state must be able and willing to enforce their monopoly on violence.

“Fostering trust in the justice system is as important as the institutions themselves,” Cohen said.

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