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Reading ‘The Riot Act’ May Not Be Enough to Quell the Flames


Would a New Riot Act Help? - Bryan Tong Minh

The August 2011 riots in London and other cities, have led to calls for troops, curfews, banning social media and a new Riot Act.

To ‘read someone The Riot Act’ has come to mean an authoritative scolding to overcome troublesome children, youths or adults. Three hundred years ago, as BBC Radio 4 pointed out only days before the Summer 2011 riots took hold in Britain, it meant a far more serious consequence. Hanging was the punishment for insurrection.

The Riot Act was a law that came into force in August 1715 which permitted local authorities to declare a group of twelve or more persons ‘unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled’ and order them to disperse or face punishment. The full title was: ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters’.

While recriminations and blame for the causes of the riots (unemployment, deprivation, spending cuts, motiveless young people, social networking, criminals and anarchists) are bandied about as people look for an end to the August chaos, some wonder about the ancient ‘Riot Act’.

Is It Needed Now?

A Mayor, bailiff or Justice of the Peace could make a proclamation in a precise form of words: ‘Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!’

If a group failed to disperse within an hour of the reading, they were guilty of felony and ‘without benefit of clergy’ could be punished by death. Force could be used to ensure dispersal; anybody assisting was indemnified from legal consequences. To cause or begin to cause damage to places of religious worship,houses, barns and stables was the felony.

There was a 12 month limitation on prosecutions. It was a broad-brush solution, and later (1819 Peterloo Massacre; anti-Trades Unions actions) it became a political device. It gradually slid into disuse, the last times being 1919 and 1929. The Act was repealed in 1973, as the death penalty had been abolished (1965).

However, some people have started calling for a new act in 2011, feeling that the Public Order Act (1986) with a statutory offence of riot, is inadequate. While a minority want the death penalty back, it’s feeling impotence in the face of mindless life-threatening destruction that leads the majority to demand the forces of law and order strengthening.

Some Theory of Crowd Behaviour

In 1994, David D. Haddock, Professor of Law & Economics, and Daniel D. Polsby, Professor of Law, Northwestern University published Understanding Riots. Although US-biased and out of date in specifics, it had lessons that may need to be learned in Britain. They catalogued the conventional wisdom on riot causes: a catalyst (police shooting a man) creates social rage (racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, family breakdown, television and cultural disorientation).

They accepted that these elements are part of the story, yet social conditions are constantly present, riots are episodic. Sometimes mob actions can be triggered by good news (like sports fans who rampage when their team has won); ‘they’re having a party’.

A crowd is not an incipient riot, or every big sports event would turn into violence. The daily criminal activities in each corner of the country do not amount to an orgy of theft, or ‘recreational looting’ as has been coined. Riots are coordinated acts of many; there’s a leadership in ‘the ecology of a mob’.

Certainly the speed of social media means groups can be directed, as was seen in the ‘student fees’ protests of December 2010. Haddock and Polsby felt that ‘Schelling Incidents’ play in riots. These don’t tell people what to do; they tell people what others will probably do.

Thomas Schelling wrote The Strategy of Conflict (1960): ‘It is the essence of mob formation that potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert’.

In this respect, TV and social media have provided coverage of incidents, in effect, telling others which social life focal points to go or where police forces are concentrated. ‘Overt leadership can be identified and eliminated by authority’, and it’s this angle that may lead to an end of the current wave.

The authors described police inadequacy becoming impotence as inevitable. For a time, anarchy rules. Some police responses themselves trigger further escalation. They felt ‘a significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous’. There has to be a critical mass within the crowd who make accurate judgments about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.

Role of the Entrepreneur

Finally, the professors argued that there must be a catalyst or entrepreneur to get started on rioting (or looting), prepared to be taken out early, but preferring to hide identity. Crowd mentality, sheep-like, then takes over. The majority of people wait for somebody else to start before following.

As to how to stop a riot, the findings pointed out twin constraints on authorities. One, constitutional law preventing drastic responses; two, financial, as modern urban police forces will always be aware of their budgets. Most people obey laws and are keen to be respected (whatever community they live in), but if either probability of catching offenders rises dramatically, or consequences are enhanced, then rioting will diminish, they felt.

There seems little enthusiasm for calling out the military to patrol and clear the streets. Experiences in Northern Ireland and Iraq have shown how that is a mixed blessing. But new thinking is demanded. Premier David Cameron returned from his holiday to take charge and come up with new ideas for halting it.

The first step was to recall Parliament from its summer recess. He said: ‘It will allow MPs to stand together in condemnation of these crimes and to stand together in determination to rebuild these communities’.

Just as in the darkest days of the last war, the government started to plan the peace, so rebuilding has to be planned for now.

First published on Suite 101, 9 August 2011. Republished on the anniversary of the riots.

Image: Would a New Riot Act Help? – Bryan Tong Minh

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One Response to "Reading ‘The Riot Act’ May Not Be Enough to Quell the Flames"

  1. […] the approach as ‘proud and loud’. Clearly, it was built in the aftermath of the summer 2011 riots, with many negative impressions to […]