Riots and “Reading the Riot Act”

Today, the initially peaceful assemblies in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and Chicago often mutate into violence and looting. At some point the police make an announcement. “This has been declared a riot.  Disperse immediately or you will be arrested.

The crowd has just been “Read the Riot Act.

In 1714, the British Parliament passed the original “Riot Act.”  This was an “Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the More Speedy and Effectual Punishing the Rioters.”

The Riot Act of 1714 authorized local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be an unlawful assembly and order them to disperse or face arrest a prosecution.  A person violating the act could be subject to fine, imprisonment, or even death.

Before making arrests, the authorities “read the Riot Act,” as follows:   

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.

Under California law, it is a crime to “participate” in a riot. (Penal Code Section 405)

A riot is: “Any use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or any threat to use force or violence, if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by two or more persons acting together, and without authority of law, is a riot.” (California Penal Code Section 404(a).)

It is also a crime to “incite” a riot, whether or not the person “participates” in the riot. “Every person who with the intent to cause a riot does an act or engages in conduct that urges a riot, or urges others to commit acts of force or violence, or the burning or destroying of property . . . is guilty of incitement to riot.” (Penal Code Section 404.6.)

Following this 300-year-old law, before making arrests, the authorities today still address the crowd and “read them the riot act.”

The phrase “read the Riot Act” has become so common that it has entered our vernacular to mean, “using a stern reprimand or warning of consequences.”

(See: “Riot Act,” Wikipedia)

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