An Affront to #Peace and #Carnival: If #Riots are People’s Poetry then #Laws are a Lament for Love

On this day (August 23rd) in 1757 the first riot against the newly formed Militia Act occurred in the ancient village of Washingborough, close to the heart of Lincolnshire, England. The Act itself was created in order to forcibly conscript men to fight in Britain’s colonial wars, and to quell the growing food riots which were spreading across the country. If the powers that be thought that this might bring peace and prosperity to the nation they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Provoked by the arrogance of both their government and their King (George II), the riots spread across eleven more counties. The primary aims and activities of the rioters being the destruction of militia lists, attacks on government officials and raids on the homes of the gentry – who were themselves, of course, exempt from military service.

Of the riots the people declared:

“We will not fight for what does not concern us, and belongs to our landlords; let the worst happen; we can be but labourers and tenants as we are at present.”

Scarcity, hypocrisy, inequity, blind authority and economic warfare provoking riots among a disaffected population… does that sound strangely familiar to anyone?

Those participating in riots during the 18th may well have found themselves being read ‘the riot act’; a power introduced in 1714 to enable local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action… punitive action largely being (as the tragic Peterloo Massacre of 1819 so gravely illustrates) the very real threat of savage beatings, imprisonment or death.

French social commentator and political philosopher, Montesquieu (who lived at the time of the Militia Act Riots) famously said that “Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.”; true as this may be, laws are very rarely introduced if they are truly useless to those in power. As the Militia Act was an attempt to strengthen the military power of the state, the Riot Act was also used to ensure that a genuine people’s militia could not be raised to threaten the dominance of that state. If you, good citizen, were want to kill or die, it would be on their terms, and theirs alone.

And it wasn’t just uprisings and insurrections which were quelled by the Riot Act; the Carnival (that wonderfully spontaneous, reckless and unfettered act of collective imagination which has proved essential to every human society) was also brought to heel in bleakly puritanical Great Britain.

Of course Carnival is deeply embedded in human DNA (trust me, there’s bound to be a gene for it 😉 ) and cannot be kept down no matter how many laws they pass (the riot act was repealed on 18th July, 1973, but not without subsequent anti-assembly laws being created in it’s place – most notoriously the 1994 Criminal Justice Act). From Mock Mayors to Reclaim The Streets the law cannot stop the innate will to party!

Among the reactionary ramblings which flooded the media in the aftermath of the riots quicker than a portaloo floods at a festival were calls to cancel the Notting Hill Carnival. The rather twisted (but revealing) logic being that Carnival would encourage further riots. Thankfully Notting Hill was not canceled (though it will be very heavily policed and has been forced to finish early), but I can’t help thinking that a series of unsanctioned, underground and, frankly, illegal Carnivals is exactly what this country needs right now…

Carnival not only provides a time for feasting, dancing and merriment, but also a space for imagination, experiment and dialogue. What’s more it is a space which is untainted by hierarchy, prejudice and greed. As M. M. Bakhtin points out in his classic work ‘Rabelais and His World‘:

“[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age”

What could be more important, in one of the most blatantly unequal societies on earth, than to create an open, equitable and non-hierarchical space for change. So what if public assembly is ‘illegal’, that never stopped the Militia Act rioters 254 years ago, and it shouldn’t stop us today (although I should making it clear that I’m talking rave rather than riot).

It might get me nicked for incitement, but I say FUCK THEIR LAWS, LET’S PARTY! 😉






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