Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Read them the Riot Act

It saddens me to report that the metaphorical name of my blog "Detritus of Empire" has become literally true as civil unrest in London and other British cities has raged out of control for several nights.
The streets of Liverpool, from the BBC

As is so often the case the problems of the UK and the US are similar, and we have had our own episodes of unacceptable civil disturbance closer to home.  Unrest in Milwaukee

Something is clearly amiss in our respective lands, and the police in each instance have not appeared to be able to restore order in a timely fashion.  At least in the UK they have had the option, until very recent times, to have the authorities confront a mob and "Read them the Riot Act".

In current usage this is a phrase used to describe stern sounding threats of future dire consequences, generally from a parental figure to a surly teenager who is seldom impressed by the effort.  But not so long ago the Riot Act was a very real thing, and to be ignored at considerable peril.

The Riot Act was enacted by Parliament in 1714 and allowed local authorities to declare any collection of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and to disperse or face punitive action.  The official name of this legislation was very direct and to the point:  "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters."

The Act had to be read aloud to the rioters.  If in one hour they had not dispersed the authorities could take any action necessary including deadly force. 

Here is what was read:
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!
That's it.  In one hour the mob disperses or in theory, the authorities could draw sabers, level pikes and halberds and sound the charge.

Of course with any legal power of this magnitude it was employed in both good and bad cause, the Peterloo Massacre being an especially egregious use of force.

The Riot Act gradually fell out of use, its last public reading being in 1919 when it was employed to deter looters taking advantage of a widespread police strike.  It remained on the statute books until 1973.  I understand that Scotland retains a version of the law, in a land where tumults and riotous assemblies are historically a normal state of affairs.

I am enough of a Tory to wonder if the UK might not benefit from a revival of the Riot Act.  Here in the US we shall, alas, have to find some other way to maintain order.  We fought a Revolution to get away from this sort of thing.

Besides,  commanding a crowd in the name of "Our Sovereign Lord the President" might not work out very well at all.

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