Partly, this post is just an excuse to link to Christopher Hitchens thoughts on the recent riots in England.
It's an interesting, moderate (for him) short piece, but if you don't feel like reading the whole thing, I'll cut to the chase and quote what's probably the biggest point he's making:
But the only really new development, without historical analog, is the emergence of gangs and even small-scale "communities" that feel they owe no civic or political or in many cases religious loyalty to the state or its institutions. These groups and areas often detest each other as much as they do the wider society: There has been graphic violence, for example, between Afro-Caribbean and Asian Muslim factions. Clearly, also, these are the sort of rank, polluted waters in which white supremacist and jihadist groups can find their fishing grounds.
And here, just for the sake of another perspective, I thought I'd include this clip of the West Indian writer Darcus Howe.
But after reading a fair amount of commentary on this recent upheaval, I found myself wondering what a riot really is. I mean we all know what one is--the unruly mob works itself into a frenzy over something, whether deservedly or not, and out of the range of anyone's control, wreak havoc. I mean, you can tweak that a bit, but isn't that more or less your sense of it?
Anyway, I realized that I can't identify the root of the word, and maybe some sense of where it came from will give us some clues about the phenomenon.
Well, it's French. That would have been my guess, as I had also thought of the word 'griot', but then realized that I not only didn't really know what it meant but didn't know if that one was French either.
Ignorance can take one down an ever deepening spiral of inadequacy sometimes.
'Riot' does indeed mean violent, noisy public disorder but there were a couple of facts about the word that I found interesting. First off, in law, the word has a more precise meaning of three or more people acting together in a tumultuous way that disturbs the peace in the pursuit of their private purposes.
I had heard of course that three's a crowd, but it would never have occurred to me that three people could be a riot. Instigate a riot, maybe, but that's a little different.
It makes sense, though, because the meaning in Old French of riote was 'dispute or quarrel'. This sounds more like what three people get up to than what a mob does.
It's also interesting that though the sense of 'riot' as public unrest is first recorded in the late 14th century, the word was set down as meaning 'debauchery, extravagance and wanton living'. Didn't seem to have much to do with breaking in windows with baseball bats. In fact, pretty much the opposite...
I was also a bit surprised to find the origin of the term 'riot act', as in 'reading someone the riot act', which at least in American vernacular pretty much means to give someone a dressing down. But those subject to British law, or at least more aware of British history, will know that it comes to us from the
British parliament's Riot Act of 1714. One of the things it did was give local officials the power to disperse or punish an unruly mob (in this case, though, it had to be twelve or more people). Similar to our current day Miranda rights in one regard, it was required that the riot act actually be read to the restive group before action could be taken. If the crowd did not disperse within one hour, the local authorities were authorized to use force.
Finally, I guess it wouldn't be right to make it sound as if all the rioting happens in England. We had a small riot here about a year ago. My understanding of it was that under pretext of a dance party on the street, a group lured a lot of students downtown, and then after diverting the police with false alarms away from the center of town, proceeded to do some damage. The police did not arrive in force until some 45 minutes after the actual rioting had started. Below is some fairly raw footage:
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