A critical footnote on the use of term ‘riot’

The Sacheverell Riots


There have been a number of occasions that have given me cause to reflect on the use of the term ‘riot’. Two, thematically, I suppose.

I first began to pay attention to use of term after living and working  in remote Indigenous communities for a time. The situations or events that Police and media considered ‘riots’, I realised, were nothing of the kind on the ground. In fact, it became apparent over time that the situations and events most often considered and referred to as ‘riots’, were in actual fact local, culturally recognized forms and processes of conflict resolution. This may seem unlikely – that conflict resolution could be misrecognized as ‘a riot’ – but this kind of ‘moral misrecognition’ is a common occurrence in intercultural relations in remote Australia. Detailing the ‘how and why’ of such misrecognition is beyond the scope of dhuwala footnote though, this previous post may point in the same ‘how and why’ kind of direction.

There are strong parallels between the aforementioned mis-ascription of the term ‘riot’ and the way it is used in the context of (or commentary about) public demonstrations and protests and the like. The most obvious local example being the recent ‘Australia Day Riot’ of January 26. It was, of course, nothing of the kind – unless one is thinking of the media frenzy, or perhaps the overly zealous police response. This dynamic, however, is – I’m sure – familiar to anyone who has been involved in public demonstrations or protests – Police instigate violence and cause disorder at an otherwise peaceful assembly or protest – and then attribute responsibility for that violence or disorder – to those assembled, the demonstrators. The media then legitimise this claim by repeating it over and over again with selective footage as ‘evidence.’

It is worth noting that, on the part of Police, this dynamic is not dissimilar to the all too common Police strategy of preemptively ‘counter-charging’ individuals who they suspect will or may press charges against them (for mistreatment or misconduct etc). In these cases Police rely on the likelihood that the individual or individuals involved will not be in a financial position to match or challenge their own legal team –  that of the Police force itself. In most cases, unfortunately, their bets are well placed.

Anyhow, I was once again prompted to think over the use of the term ‘riot’ at last year’s Anarchist Bookfair in Melbourne. The bookfair took place just after the ‘London Riots’ so, as one might imagine, the discussion session on ‘Anarchism and Violence’ was rather well attended. In the course of said discussion, it became clear that it was not ‘violence’ that was the crucial point at issue at all – it was power. Yes, many involved in the London ‘riots’ were empirically observed to have behaved in a violent manner  –  but framing the discussion  in terms of ‘violence’ was divisive and thus, un-/counter- productive.


“I think it is completely wrong to buy into the ‘good anarchist, bad anarchist’ debate; we should all stand in unqualified solidarity with those involved.”

“So you’re saying that you condone the use of violence – violent tactics and actions!?”


And around and around it goes. Power relations and the way that power manifests (and must be sometimes be wrest back) is a lot more complex than ‘I condemn’ or ‘I condone’ the use of violence. Violence is but one way that power is enacted. Infinitesimal possibilities. Another way that power is enacted, which is relevant to the immediate discussion, is using one’s power to actively delegitimise the concerns and actions of some people in order to legitimise the use of force or violence against them.

This is where the term ‘riot’ seems rather useful.

If one listens to mainstream media, there are ‘riots’ in remote Indigenous Communities on an almost regular basis. Then there is the ol’ ‘peaceful demonstration turned violent’, which escalates into a ‘riot’. One hears of ‘riots’ inside Immigration Detention Centres and ‘riots’ in prisons. There are riots like the aforementioned ‘London Riots’ and, for example, the ongoing ‘riots’ in Greece. [1] What is it that makes or defines these situations, ‘a riot’? I’d speculatively throw up the fact that they are all organised groups of persons attempting to challenge or resist a perceived injustice perpetrated or enacted by an institutional authority of some kind (usually, of course, the State or an arm thereof). In almost every case the institutionalised authority involved is one that claims a monopoly of legitimate force or violence. When has the term ‘riot’ ever been used to refer to the actions, force or violence perpetrated by institutionalised authorities? ‘Riot police’ doesn’t count.

The term ‘riot’, while ostensibly an issue of social or civil order, has always been used as a mechanism or tool for political ends.

The original ‘Riot Act’, from whence the expression ‘read them the riot act’ is derived, was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain (1714). The Act was such that authorities had only to make a public  ‘proclamation’  – ordering the dispersal of any gathering of twelve or more people – and those gathered had one hour to disperse or they would be found guilty of a felony punishable by death. The proclamation read thus:


“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.”


Interestingly, it was not just an issue of persons and social order –  the Act also made it a felony (punishable by death) for those gathered to cause (or begin to cause) any damage to private property:


“And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any persons unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace, shall unlawfully, and with force demolish or pull down, or begin to demolish or pull down any church or chapel, or any building for religious worship certified and registred according to the statute made in the first year of the reign of the late King William and Queen Mary, intituled, An act for exempting their Majesty’s protestant subjects dissenting from the church of England from the penalties of certain laws, or any dwelling-house, barn, stable, or other out-house, that then every such demolishing, or pulling down, or beginning to demolish, or pull down, shall be adjudged felony without benefit of clergy, and the offenders therein shall be adjudged felons, and shall suffer death as in case of felony, without benefit of clergy.”


From the few sources I have read on the topic, the historical trajectory of Australian law as regards freedom of assembly etc., strongly reflects that of English Law, beginning with the adoption of the English 1817 ‘Riot Act and Seditious Meetings Act’ in the various colonial criminal codes of the time. As late as 1958 there remain striking similarities with the original 1714 ‘Riot Act’. In Victoria, for example, the ‘Unlawful Assemblies and Processions Act’ (1958) allowed a magistrate to disperse any crowd by proclaiming,


“Our Sovereign Lady the Queen doth strictly charge and command all manner of persons here assembled immediately to disperse themselves and peaceably depart to their own homes. God save the Queen.”


These days, as Roger Douglas explains in his ‘Dealing with Demonstrations: the law of public protest and its enforcement’ (2004), Australia relies on the absence of formal restrictions on freedom of assembly – rather than any explicit protection through an over-arching constitution or such. Freedom of assembly (including the implicit right to demonstrate etc.) is guaranteed only through the absence of formal restrictions. That is, there are no express rights of assembly or association (with the exception of the Queensland Peaceful Assembly Act 1992) – these rights are ‘residual’ or limited to that which is not proscribed by statute or common law.

This terrified me when I read it. It should terrify you too. Have you read your local City Council bylaws lately? Everything is prohibited (or ‘highly regulated’ at the very least)! Pulling twigs off trees? Yes. Washing your car? Highly regulated. Your dog’s pooopy? Highly regulated. Where you can stand, for how long, and ‘doing’ what? Drop-down list. The prospect of reading your local City Council laws and bylaws may not immediately excite, however, I guarantee that if nothing else, you will be surprised. In content and detail they are akin to a morphological breakdown of State governance and control (*in a city near you*). No really, here is an example – the Darwin City Council bylaws, which you can peruse online here.

I have veered somewhat off track.

‘Riot’ – the use of the term serves only to delegitimise the concerns and actions of some in order to legitimise the use of force or violence against them by others. Don’t use it, and don’t accept it as ascribed to the actions of others.






/End rather rambling footnote/




Reading that may be of interest:

^ The original full text of the Riot Act (c. 1714 – 1715)

^  I really do recommend Roger Douglas’, Dealing with Demonstrations: the law of public protest and its enforcement, Federation Press.

^ The Activist Rights Manual is well worth a read on this topic, particularly with regard to ‘public assembly’ and ‘protest.’

^ Katharine Gelder’s, The Right to Protest in Australian Political Culture, I found really informative also – available here.


Filed under Current social issues, Posts of an unqualified kind

5 responses to “A critical footnote on the use of term ‘riot’

  1. I think E.P. Thompson makes a similar point about “legitimacy” in his ‘Customs in common’. I was in london at the time of the riots. think Zoe williams makes some interesting points. here

  2. Ooo – I love E.P. Thompson! I’ll definitely look that up, thanks. And also for the video – I’m watching it just now. Danny Kruger is such a jerk! Waiting for Zoe WIlliams to speak #livetweetingwatchingyoutube! 😀

  3. Great video! Relieved that from @ 2:45 onward Zoe Williams takes him to task with ‘sense’. Conservatives hate it when people make sense at them.

  4. Yes, I think that’s right, B. there’ll always be a kind of intelligence (a kind intelligence) that derives from talking like a human being & to another human being: *common* sense.
    Eagerly awaiting your horses! 🙂

  5. Pingback: A critical footnote on the use of term ‘riot’ | The Academic Activist

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