Baltimore: Time to Read the Riot Act

By | April 30, 2015 | 0 Comments

Freddie Gray dies in custody, apparently with broken neck. But cause of injury and cause of death remain in question until the autopsy is performed.
News report

Baltimore rioters injure more than 20 police officers, six seriously, and burn at least 20 businesses and 144 vehicles.
News report

There is no system right now that exists; we’re going to create that system.
Michael Moore

U.S. Constitution © 1787, all rights reserved.
− Anon.

Years ago, “read the riot act” was a common expression. When a boss set an employee straight, we might say, “Man, the boss really read him the riot act.” The expression has its origin in Great Britain. In the early 18th century, there was social unrest as industrialization began.

Local police forces were in the early stages of development or not yet in existence. There was reluctance to call in the military, but often there was no choice. In 1714, Parliament passed the Riot Act. If people assembled and acted in a disorderly or violent manner, force could be used to disperse them.

But first, the crowd had to be informed that the assembly was unlawful. The local mayor or sheriff had to announce the following:

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.

This was “reading the riot act.” The custom survives to this day in Britain and America, where police are required to announce that an assembly is unlawful, so that people have the opportunity to leave. But if they do not, the police can then use reasonable force to disperse them.

The U.S. Militia Act of 1792 was titled, “An act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” This is in accordance with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The Act provided that the president could “…command the insurgents to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within a limited time,” and it authorized the president to use the militia if they failed to disperse.

Otherwise, we would descend into mob rule. Although mob rule is sometimes confused with democracy, it is nothing but a violent minority imposing their will on the majority − the direct opposite of democracy. And democracy itself is majority rule, which may − or may not − be compatible with freedom. If you doubt this, look at Russia or Iran.

To believe that all people desire freedom is, as a lawyer would say, stating something not in evidence. Many people prefer other things to freedom − for example, Sharia law, or economic equality. And they may resort to violence to get it.

Those who condone mob rule may pose as friends of freedom, but in reality they are its enemies. In the face of mob violence, we must be prepared to read the riot act if necessary. Of course, in order to read the riot act, one first has to recognize that there is a riot. In contrast, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared:

It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well, and we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate. [Emphasis added.]

The mayor later claimed to have been misquoted, but the damage had been done. How do you balance the interests of “those who wished to destroy” against the interests of those who wished their homes, businesses, and vehicles not to be destroyed? Allow half of them to be destroyed? The idea borders on the irrational, even delusional. But it is “progressive.”

The demonstrators hope to provoke the police and then complain of police brutality. But we cannot go to the opposite extreme, and under-react for fear of over-reacting. This leads to paralysis and to more rioting. Yes, some of the demonstrators’ grievances are legitimate. Some police act irresponsibly, to say the least. But the demonstrators’ methods are not legitimate.

I know a little about riots. My wife and I were living in Los Angeles during the 1992 riot following the Rodney King verdict. The verdict was announced on Wednesday, and localized rioting began. By Thursday morning, we could see multiple fires through our bedroom window, in a line coming closer − clearly carefully planned. We drove to a market to get a week’s groceries, but others had the same idea, so the lines were long.

While waiting, I listened to a pocket radio and learned that a sporting-goods store less than a mile away was being looted at that moment. I regretted that I had been unable to break my habit of obeying the law. It is impossible to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in Los Angeles, but who would have known if I had a small revolver in my jacket pocket?

As is universally true, strict gun-control laws restrain only the law-abiding, but do nothing to reduce violent crime, and even less to control a riot. The police were overwhelmed, and in addition were inhibited by political correctness. The California National Guard was mobilized, but they could not deploy promptly. Their M16 rifles retained their full-automatic capability, and politicians did not trust the guardsmen with them. So armorers had to alter them, one-by-one, to fire only semi-automatically, and this took days.

Finally, even politically correct politicians realized that something had to be done. President Bush the elder sent in Marines from Camp Pendleton and soldiers from Fort Ord. But to comply with the Posse Comitatus Act and the Insurrection Act, he first had to order the rioters to disperse.

I recall a vehicle with a pedestal-mounted machine gun on the streets of Westwood near UCLA. I don’t recall what kind of vehicle it was − I was concentrating on the .50-caliber “Ma Deuce.” A colleague had to sleep on the floor of his office at USC for three days, because the streets were impassible. The tire store I patronize kept their window with the bullet hole for years as a memento. Medical clinics and businesses moved out of the area. Some never returned.

The riot finally ended after six days, but not before 53 were dead and perhaps $1 billion in damage had been done. Those who grumble about insurance companies should recall that fire, business, and home policies exclude damage resulting from war or insurrection. The companies might have refused to pay, and called the riot an insurrection − as did Congresswoman Maxine Waters. This would have intensified the economic damage. Those who make light of mob violence should consider these facts.

Serious damage was done to inter-racial relations. Korean American merchants felt − with some justice − that the police had abandoned them. In one revealing incident, the TV showed merchants on the roofs of their stores, defending their property and their lives with rifles − while talking heads called them “vigilantes” in a disparaging tone.

And it was months before I could look out our bedroom window and not remember the fires. Trust takes years to build, but it can be destroyed in minutes. In the end, loss of trust may be the most destructive effect of mob violence. If enough people no longer trust their fellow citizens to act in a non-violent manner, and they no longer trust their liberal mayors, liberal governors, and liberal president to suppress mob violence, what will they do?

They may turn to a leader who promises to restore order − even at the expense of their freedom. If a stagnant economy, increasing disorder, and decreasing confidence in the government do not make you uneasy, perhaps you should study the history of Germany in the 20th century.

Before that happens, we should read violent mobs in Baltimore – or anywhere else – the riot act.

Author’s Note: For a discussion of the role of the military during the Los Angeles riot, and the difficulties and confusion involved, click here (pages 56-68). For a cop’s-eye view of both the Los Angeles and Baltimore riots, click here.

Just a quick question: Is the resemblance between these two photos purely coincidental? Or is there some basic similarity between those who burned parts of Baltimore (left photo) and those who burned our consulate in Benghazi (right photo)? Do both of these destructive groups try to clothe their free-floating anger in the phony robe of some half-baked ideology? Are they just waiting for an excuse to vent their rage on anyone handy, rather than thinking things through and discovering who or what is the real source of their problems?


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