Friday, August 26, 2011

riot

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:

22 comments:

  1. Seana

    I thought it was a very measured piece by Hitch. I think the point he was stressing was that rioting is as English as steak and kidney pie.

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  2. We have had reason to think clearly about whether it is safe to visit places where rioting is likely to break out.

    Your very helpful post led me to write a bit about social changes over the past 40 years and how citizens choose to negotiate with society.


    It's on Moderntwist2.

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  3. Adrian, yes, it was so measured that I had to look at it a time or two to understand what his point was.

    I was struck by his comment at the beginning about the people getting out early the next day to clean up because they had been instructed by the collective memory of the Blitz that that was the kind of thing the Brits do in such situations.

    From my own experience of our earthquake here some years ago, I think people do tend to act from a script in the face of emergencies or crisis, so it's very helpful to have a good one in your head.

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  4. Maria, your piece was instructive to me as well. I had thought the the tactic in Santa Cruz to use unsuspecting students as a foil was kind of a one off, but obviously it was learned from other events that had gone before. What was odd about ours, though, was that the cover story wasn't even a peaceful protest but a street dance party.

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  5. Good god, that’s a Machiavellian story behind those Santa Cruz riots. Might be time to dust off that old, discredited term outside agitators.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  6. It's interesting, because though a couple of people were arrested , it doesn't sound to me like either of them were the prime movers in this. Both were 'transients' but it seems like it would have taken someone who knew the community a bit more to mastermind the whole police distraction aspect. So inside agitators is more what I'm thinking.

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  7. Or outside agitators working with inside agitators.

    My v-word has some good consonants though its vowels could use a bit of woek: teristr
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  8. Two's company, three's a riot - interesting poke around in the meanings.
    My take on them is here http://blackwatertown.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/heroes-of-the-frontline/ (and the post before it).
    I hope to put up something soon on a gang intervention guy from Hackney who was out trying to avert trouble during the recent riots.
    (Too much to do.)
    Ah - by the way - agree with you about the Collusion trailer - great trailer - but not really representative of the good book.

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  9. Thanks for dropping by, Blackwatertown. As to Collusion, I'm hoping that the movie doesn't actually make Gerry Fegan into some kind of psychokiller, although I'm sure that would bring in the bucks.

    I really liked your blogpost on the riots, and am going to make a more click friendly link to it: Heroes of the Frontline.

    While I'm at it, here's the link to Maria Buckley's Writing in a Twist post about all this, which I meant to post above but had a little trouble copying for some reason...

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  10. I am happy to endorse Collusion. it may be better than Ghosts of Belfast, and it contains the most trenchant remark upon Americans' weird addiction to cheese that I have ever read.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  11. Which sadly, I have already forgotten, Peter.

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  12. You may not have noticed in the first place. I remembered it only because I have often had precisely the same thought.

    Fegan has just escaped form new York and made it to Newark Airport, where he will catch a flight back to Ireland. He stops for a sandwich, and he wonders -- as have I -- why the %^&%$# Americans put cheese on everything.

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  13. Thanks--I do remember it now, because I remember thinking, why the hell not?

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  14. Other countries -- the Netherlands, France, Italy -- love their cheese, but they don't slather it on everything the way Americans do. This must have somethingt to do with the dairy lobby.

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  15. Say what you will, cheeseburgers are a good invention.

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  16. Hamburgers with cheese. Omelettes with cheese. Tuna sandwiched with the cheese. One must draw a line somewhere.

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  17. I've just compiled a quick reading list, in note form, as this post really got me thinking.

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  18. That's very cool. Anything from it that you'd care to share?

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  19. I don't know if this is the reading list you meant, but I'll post a link to your blog post anyway.

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  20. Thanks for posting the link, Seana.

    I'm focusing on photography at the moment, so shall keep writing very short. However, books and films have always been good guides to living in society, so I'll jot some more links down as I find them.

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  21. Even as a teenager I felt less safe in London than in Paris.

    London has a ruggedness that Dickens revealed in many aspects.

    This is useful

    fodors.com/community/europe/impact-of-london-rioting-on-visitors.cfm

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