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Teamsters, armed with pipes, riot in a clash with police in the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 during the Great Depression. Battle strike 1934.jpg
Teamsters, armed with pipes, riot in a clash with police in the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 during the Great Depression.
Rioters wearing scarves to conceal their identity and filter tear gas Bastille 2007-05-06 anti Sarkozy 487633669 93d13b826b o.jpg
Rioters wearing scarves to conceal their identity and filter tear gas

A riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property, or people.


Riots typically involve destruction of property, public or private. The property targeted varies depending on the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, and religious buildings. [1]

Riots often occur in reaction to a grievance or out of dissent. Historically, riots have occurred due to poverty, unemployment, poor living conditions, governmental oppression, taxation or conscription, conflicts between ethnic groups (race riot) or religions (sectarian violence, pogrom), the outcome of a sporting event (sports riot, football hooliganism) or frustration with legal channels through which to air grievances. [2]

While individuals may attempt to lead or control a riot, riots typically consist of disorganized groups that are frequently "chaotic and exhibit herd behavior." [1] There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that riots are not irrational, herd-like behavior (sometimes called mob mentality), but actually follow inverted social norms. [3]

Dealing with riots is often a difficult task for police forces. They may use tear gas or CS gas to control rioters. Riot police may use less-than-lethal methods of control, such as shotguns that fire flexible baton rounds to injure or otherwise incapacitate rioters for easier arrest. [4]


New York police attacking unemployed workers in Tompkins Square Park, 1874. Tompkins square riot 1874.jpg
New York police attacking unemployed workers in Tompkins Square Park, 1874.

Food riots are caused by harvest failures, incompetent food storage, hoarding, poisoning of food, or attacks by pests like locusts. When the public becomes desperate from such conditions, groups may attack shops, farms, homes, or government buildings to obtain bread or other staple foods like grain or salt. T. S. Ashton, in his study of food riots among colliers, noted that "the turbulence of the colliers is, of course, to be accounted for by something more elementary than politics: it was the instinctive reaction of virility to hunger." [5] Charles Wilson noted, "Spasmodic rises in food prices provoked keelmen on the Tyne to riot in 1709, tin miners to plunder granaries at Falmouth in 1727." [6] [ verification needed ] In the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots, hundreds of thousands of people rioted after food subsidies stopped and prices rose. [7]

A police riot is a term for the disproportionate and unlawful use of force by a group of police against a group of civilians. This term is commonly used to describe a police attack on civilians or provoking civilians into violence. [8]

A political riot is a riot for political purposes or that develops out of a political protest.

A prison riot is a large-scale, temporary act of concerted defiance or disorder by a group of prisoners against prison administrators, prison officers, or other groups of prisoners. It is often done to express a grievance, force change or attempt escape.[ citation needed ]

In a race riot , race or ethnicity is the key factor. The term had entered the English language in the United States by the 1890s. Early use of the term referred to riots that were often a mob action by members of a majority racial group against people of other perceived races.[ citation needed ]

Student anarchist riot against the IMF March for Alternative - 25.jpg
Student anarchist riot against the IMF

In a religious riot , the key factor is religion. The rioting mob targets people and properties of a specific religion, or those believed to belong to that religion. [9]

A Starbucks after anti austerity protests and riots in Barcelona Starbucks Barcelona.jpg
A Starbucks after anti austerity protests and riots in Barcelona

Sports riots such as the Nika riots can be sparked by the losing or winning of a specific team or athlete. Fans of the two teams may also fight. Sports riots may happen as a result of teams contending for a championship, a long series of matches, or scores that are close. Sports are the most common cause of riots in the United States, accompanying more than half of all championship games or series.[ citation needed ] Almost all sports riots in the United States occur in the winning team's city. [10]


St. Augustine's Church on fire during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots in 1844 Riots1844staugestine.jpg
St. Augustine's Church on fire during the Philadelphia Nativist Riots in 1844

The economic and political effects of riots can be as complex as their origins. Property destruction and harm to individuals are often immediately measurable. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, 2,383 people were injured, more than 12,000 were arrested, 63 people were killed and over 700 businesses burned. Property damage was estimated at over $1 billion. At least ten of those killed were shot by police or National Guard forces. [11]

Similarly, the 2005 civil unrest in France lasted over three weeks and spread to nearly 300 towns. By the end of the incident, over 10,000 vehicles were destroyed and over 300 buildings burned. Over 2,800 suspected rioters were arrested and 126 police and firefighters were injured. Estimated damages were over €200 Million.

Riot control and laws

Law enforcement teams deployed to control riots often wear body armor and shields, and may use tear gas Police fighting against anti-Sarkozy with tear gas (487645695).jpg
Law enforcement teams deployed to control riots often wear body armor and shields, and may use tear gas

Riots are typically dealt with by the police, although methods differ from country to country. Tactics and weapons used can include attack dogs, water cannons, plastic bullets, rubber bullets, pepper spray, flexible baton rounds, and snatch squads. Many police forces have dedicated divisions to deal with public order situations. Some examples are the Territorial Support Group (London), Special Patrol Group (London), Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (France), Mobiele Eenheid (Netherlands), and Arrest units (Germany).

Water cannon during a riot in Germany, 2001 Wasserwerfer.jpg
Water cannon during a riot in Germany, 2001

The policing of riots has been marred by incidents in which police have been accused of provoking rioting or crowd violence. While the weapons described above are officially designated as non-lethal, a number of people have died or been injured as a result of their use. For example, seventeen deaths were caused by rubber bullets in Northern Ireland over the thirty five years between 1970 and 2005. [12]

Risk of arrest

A high risk of being arrested is even more effective against rioting than severe punishments. [13] [ dubious ] As more and more people join the riot, the risk of being arrested goes down, which persuades still more people to join.

National laws


In India, rioting [14] is an offense under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

England and Wales

The Brixton race riot in London, 1981 1981 Brixton Riots.jpg
The Brixton race riot in London, 1981

Riot is a statutory offence in England and Wales. It is created by section 1(1) of the Public Order Act 1986. Sections 1(1) to (5) of that Act read:

(1) Where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.

A single person can be liable for an offence of riot when they use violence, provided that it is shown there were at least twelve present using or threatening unlawful violence.

The word "violence" is defined by section 8. The violence can be against the person or against property. The mens rea is defined by section 6(1).


See R v Tyler and others, 96 Cr App R 332, [1993] Crim LR 60, CA.

Mode of trial and sentence

Riot is an indictable-only offence. A person convicted of riot is liable to imprisonment for any term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both. [15]

See the following cases:

  • R v Luttman [1973] Crim LR 127, CA
  • R v Pilgrim, 5 Cr App R (S) 140, CA
  • R v Keys, 84 Cr App R 204, 8 Cr App R (S) 444, [1987] Crim LR 207, CA
  • R v Cooke, 9 Cr App R (S) 116, CA
Association football matches

In the case of riot connected to football hooliganism, the offender may be banned from football grounds for a set or indeterminate period of time and may be required to surrender their passport to the police for a period of time in the event of a club or international match, or international tournament, connected with the offence. This prevents travelling to the match or tournament in question. (The measures were brought in by the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 after rioting of England fans at Euro 2000. [16] )

Compensation for riot damage

See the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 and section 235 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Construction of "riot" and cognate expressions in other instruments

Section 10 of the Public Order Act 1986 now provides:

  • (1) In the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 ... (compensation for riot damage) "riotous" and "riotously" shall be construed in accordance with section 1 above.
  • (2) In Schedule 1 to the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (form and rules for the construction of certain insurance policies) "rioters" in rule 8 and "riot" in rule 10 shall, in the application of the rules to any policy taking effect on or after the coming into force of this section, be construed in accordance with section 1 above unless a different intention appears.
  • (3) "Riot" and cognate expressions in any enactment in force before the coming into force of this section (other than the enactments mentioned in subsections (1) and (2) above) shall be construed in accordance with section 1 above if they would have been construed in accordance with the common law offence of riot apart from this Part.
  • (4) Subject to subsections (1) to (3) above and unless a different intention appears, nothing in this Part affects the meaning of "riot" or any cognate expression in any enactment in force, or other instrument taking effect, before the coming into force of this section. [17]

As to this provision, see pages 84 and 85 of the Law Commission's report. [18]

Common law offence

The common law offence of riot was abolished [19] for England and Wales [20] on 1 April 1987. [21]


In the past, the Riot Act had to be read by an official – with the wording exactly correct – before violent policing action could take place. If the group did not disperse after the Act was read, lethal force could legally be used against the crowd. See also the Black Act.

Section 515 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 formerly made provision for compensation for riot damage.

Northern Ireland

Riot is a serious offence for the purposes of Chapter 3 of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. [22]

See paragraph 13 of Schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962.


There is an offence under the law of Scotland which is known both as "mobbing" and "mobbing and rioting".

In July 1981, both Dundee and Edinburgh saw significant disorder as part of the events of that July, [23] [24] [25] while in 1994 [26] and in 2013, [27] two years after the English riots of August 2011, Edinburgh saw rioting, albeit localised to one specific area and not part of any bigger 'riot wave'. Events in 1981 were very similar to those in England, although sources are severely limited. Both Niddrie and Craigmillar saw riots in the 1980s. [28]


In 1988 the Israeli army issued rules of engagement for the use of plastic bullets which defined a "violent riot" as : a disturbance with the participation of three or more persons, including stone throwing, erection of a barrier or barricade, burning a tire. [29]

United States

The aftermath of a Washington, D.C. riot in April 1968 Leffler - 1968 Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. riots.jpg
The aftermath of a Washington, D.C. riot in April 1968

Under United States federal law, a riot is defined as:

A public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual.18 U.S.C.   § 2102.

Each state may have its own definition of a riot. In New York, the term riot is not defined explicitly, but under § 240.08 of the New York Penal Law, "A person is guilty of inciting to riot when one urges ten or more persons to engage in tumultuous and violent conduct of a kind likely to create public alarm."

See also

Related Research Articles

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An assault is the act of committing physical harm or unwanted physical contact upon a person or, in some specific legal definitions, a threat or attempt to commit such an action. It is both a crime and a tort and, therefore, may result in criminal prosecution, civil liability, or both. Generally, the common law definition is the same in criminal and tort law.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Affray</span> Public fight that disturbs the peace

In many legal jurisdictions related to English common law, affray is a public order offence consisting of the fighting of one or more persons in a public place to the terror of ordinary people. Depending on their actions, and the laws of the prevailing jurisdiction, those engaged in an affray may also render themselves liable to prosecution for assault, unlawful assembly, or riot; if so, it is for one of these offences that they are usually charged.

Robbery is the crime of taking or attempting to take anything of value by force, threat of force, or by use of fear. According to common law, robbery is defined as taking the property of another, with the intent to permanently deprive the person of that property, by means of force or fear; that is, it is a larceny or theft accomplished by an assault. Precise definitions of the offence may vary between jurisdictions. Robbery is differentiated from other forms of theft by its inherently violent nature ; whereas many lesser forms of theft are punished as misdemeanors, robbery is always a felony in jurisdictions that distinguish between the two. Under English law, most forms of theft are triable either way, whereas robbery is triable only on indictment. The word "rob" came via French from Late Latin words of Germanic origin, from Common Germanic raub "theft".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Riot Act</span> British legislation

The Riot Act, sometimes called the Riot Act 1714 or the Riot Act 1715, was an act of the Parliament of Great Britain which authorised local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled and order them to disperse or face punitive action. The act's full title was "An Act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", and it came into force on 1 August 1715. It was repealed in England and Wales by section 10(2) and Part III of Schedule 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967. Acts similar to the Riot Act passed into the laws of British colonies in Australia, Canada, and United States, some of which remain today.

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Unlawful assembly is a legal term to describe a group of people with the mutual intent of deliberate disturbance of the peace. If the group is about to start an act of disturbance, it is termed a rout; if the disturbance is commenced, it is then termed a riot. In England, the offence was abolished in 1986, but it exists in other countries.

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Violent disorder is a statutory offence in England and Wales. It is created by section 2(1) of the Public Order Act 1986. Sections 2(1) to (4) of that Act provide:

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  18. The Law Commission. Criminal Law: Offences relating to Public Order (Law Com 123). HMSO. 1983.
  19. The Public Order Act 1986, section 9(1)
  20. The Public Order Act 1986, section 42
  21. The Public Order Act 1986 (Commencement No. 2) Order 1987, article 2 and Schedule (1987/198 (C. 4))
  22. The Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, article 12(2) and Schedule 1, paragraph 4.
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  24. "Police report flare-ups Police at Dundee, The Kokomo Tribune". The Kokomo Tribune from Kokomo, Indiana · Page 1 July 13, 1981. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
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Further reading

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