The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

21. Tumultuous and riotous assemblies

The Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar is currently under a State of Emergency, as a result of disturbances following widespread dissatisfaction with the conduct and outcome of the country's recent parliamentary elections. Protesting crowds in the capital's central Sukhbaatar Square have led to riots which have resulted in five deaths, the destruction of the ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party headquarters, and damage and looting to the Culture Palace. English language commentary on the events has been posted at the Asian Gypsy blog, scoring valuable points for citizen journalism. (The limited international interest in the run-up to the election is wryly underlined by this posting, remarking on the fascination with the fact that some voters arrived at polls on horseback.)

Today's Guardian has found room for the subject, and takes this assessment from a Reuters report:

Analysts and foreign business executives in Mongolia played down the violence, saying most Mongolians did not support it and describing it as teething troubles for a young democracy.

"The outskirts of Ulan Bator have a lot of poor and frustrated youngsters who would use any pretext to get to streets and participate in any turmoil[.]"

Whether by accident or design, the Guardian avoids the word 'riot.' The Ninth Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica provides the following definition:

RIOT is "an unlawlful assembly which has actually begun to execute the purpose for which it assembled by a breach of the peace and to the terror of the public. A lawful assembly may become a riot if the persons assembled form and proceed to execute an unlawful purpose to the terror of the people, although they had not that purpose when they assembled" (Stephen, "Digest of the Criminal Law," art. 73).

[...]y. In its previous stages it may be an affray, an unlawful assembly, or a [rout], according to circumstances, and it may, if carried far enough, become treason. An affray is the fighting of two or more persons in the public street. An unlawful assembly is an assembly of three or more persons with the intent to commit a crime by force or carry out a common purpose, lawful or unlawful, in such a way as to give reasonable grounds for fearing a breach of the peace. A rout is an unlawful assembly which has made the motion towards the execution of its common purpose. If the unlawful assembly should begin to demolish a particular inclosure, that would be a riot ; if it should proceed to pull down all inclosures, that would be treason.

I imagine that a history of disturbances fitting the legal definition of 'riot' in British history would provide an interesting parallel to show social progress and the movement of democracy. Whenever unsatisfactory conditions such as shortages of food or employment have led to large crowds of aggrieved citizens congregating, the law has sought to preserve the peace. Inevitably, the forces of law and order are in a reactionary position in these engagements, but that a 'riot' by this definition includes the wanton (or directed) destruction of property, draws a distinction between that act and a 'protest.' My right-on NERVE 2008 Calendar lists an upcoming anniversary on 4th of July as:

1981: Start of Liverpool 8 uprising ('the riots')

As though the scale of events in Toxteth that year are somehow only alleged. The Boston Riots of 1770 are of course remembered as a 'massacre' in the former colonies: the emotional impact of soldiers firing at a mob attacking them in a city where their presence is resented by much of the populace, is a phenomena not without significance to the present United States.

There is something of a nostalgic, old-worlde charm to the manner in which English laws on riotous assemblies were once carried out: by means of the 'reading of the Riot Act.' And something somehow quaint in notion that this would take place in the event of an unlawful assembly beginning to transform into the uglier stage - where modern laws involving Designated Areas and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders can be put in place for months at a time to empower the police against such an assembly occurring in the first place.

[It is] the duty of a justice, sheriff, mayor, or other authority, wherever twelve persons or more are unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together to the disturbance of the public peace, to resort to the place of such assembly and read the following proclamation :- "Our Sovereign Lady the Queen 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 of the Act made in the first year of King George for preventing tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God save the Queen." It is a felony punishable with penal servitude for life to obstruct the reading of the proclamation or to remain or continue together unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously for one after the proclamation was made or for one hour after it would have been made, but for being hindered.

The heavy penalty reflects the opinion that the offence "is the most grave kind of breach of the peace known to the law, short of treason." It is notable, however, that the penalties are incurred after fair warning, in the form of reading of the proclamation, is given. Furthermore, a distinction is noted that goes some way towards forestalling the Act and relating law being abused by justifying provocation from the forces of law and order themselves:

A matter of interest is the extent of the protection afforded by the Riot Act to soldiers acting under the commands of their officers. The soldier is at the same time a citizen, and the mere fact of his being a soldier is not sufficient to exonerate him from all responsibility. No case in which the question has called for a decision seems to have arisen. It is the opinion of Mr Justice Stephen that a soldier would be protected by orders for which he might reasonably believe his superior officer to have good grounds [...]. On the other hand, he would probably not be protected by an order plainly unnecessary, such as an order to fire into a crowd of women and children when no violence was observable.

This brings to mind the events in Londonderry of 1972 (and the much subsequent inquiry of 1998-2004) notorious as 'Bloody Sunday.' The last point of no violence being observable is largely contradicted by the majority of accounts which concede that British troops had been attacked, if only by a small group of teenagers throwing stones, but the question of whether soldiers had been given an immoral order and whether they bore any responsibility for obeying such an order, was at least (albeit after considerable time, at great expense and to the satisfaction of very few) asked.

FOOTNOTE: More pedantry. Where the word "rout" appears in square brackets above, EB9 printed "riot", but I took it from the later reference to rout and the context being stages that lead to and succeed a riot, that this was a rare error in our noble work of reference. As the word is not being used in this instance in a sense with which I am familiar, and as I am myself fallible, it could be that my correction is itself an error. You have been cautioned.

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