Matt Clement: A People's History of Riots, Protest and the Law: The Sound of the Crowd

By Cengiz, Fatih Cagatay | Capital & Class, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Matt Clement: A People's History of Riots, Protest and the Law: The Sound of the Crowd


Cengiz, Fatih Cagatay, Capital & Class


Matt Clement

A People's History of Riots, Protest and the Law: The Sound of the Crowd, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016; 225 pp.: ISBN 9781137527509

The mainstream media has a propensity to portray protests as manifestations of instability that must be tackled as well as presenting protesters as criminal mobs' that must be controlled. For instance, the French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy belittled the 2005 rioters as racaille (rabble); the Daily Mirror represented the 2011 English riots with images of a masked young man wandering down the street near a burning car with the headline Anarchy Spreads' and the pro-government Yeni Safak lashed out at the 2013 Gezi protestors in Turkey by calling them capulcus (marauders) easily mobilised by 'foreign agents'. Despite dominant narratives of blaming the victim, Matt Clement's A People's History of Riots, Protest and the Law: The Sound of the Crowd is a radical challenge to both mainstream criminology literature, which regards riots, protests or mobilisations as deviant, pathological events that should be avoided, and laws that function to express the will of a ruling elite who control the state apparatus.

In each chapter, the book provides an historical account of 'appreciating events labelled as criminal or the product of a deviant subculture' (p. 4). The 'Democracy and protest in the ancient world' chapter values Athenian direct democracy that represents the vox populi (voice of the people), as well as the tribunes of the plebs in the Roman republic. The following chapter, 'Medieval riots', analyses the riots in England between 1000 and 1500, as well as the 1378 revolt in Florence (known as the Ciompi Revolt), through the lens of demands for social justice. According to Clement, the protesters who initiated occupy movements against powerful financial institutions in New York and Hong Kong echoed poor citizens' demand for debt abolishment--especially wool combers--during the Ciompi Revolt. The chapter also warns against the possible threats of the retreat of riots or uprisings, which can lead to the emergence of counterrevolutionary waves. As an example, Clement points to Nazism and the Holocaust following the defeat of the German Revolution (1918-1923) and the return of military rule or the emergence of the Islamic State following the defeat of the Arab Uprising. By vividly inviting the reader to take a journey from past to present, Clement supports Karl Marx's observation that historical events occur the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce'.

The writer continues to refer deja vecus in the following chapter, Artisans and citizens: Riots from 1500-1700', by drawing analogies between the iconoclastic 17th century English Revolution, which overthrew James II in 1688, and the 21st century Occupy movement; between the English government's attitude toward the 1833 Coldbath Fields clashes in the 19th century and the French Government's attitude to ban climate protests in 2015 using the state of emergency. The writer aptly argues that riots emerged out of resistance to the degradation of dispossessed people's communal rights, a process that can be seen in enclosures and land-grabs of communal land by 15th century hedges.

In chapter 5, 'Custom, law and class', Clement makes a particularly iconoclastic argument: what the law presents as 'theft' is indeed 'the act of robbing the poor of their customary entitlements' (p. 103). This leads him to conclude that the poor's resistance to this threat is a clear manifestation of their 'redress of grievances' (p. 104).

Chapter 6, '1968: Protest and the growth of a critical criminology', aptly addresses 'the anti-social sources of crime'--such as exploitation, oppression, racism and sexism rather than blaming the offender. It directly suggests that capitalist society--a barrier to human emancipation--is itself deviant. The chapter therefore suggests that we need to appreciate the context of 'deviant' acts, riots and protests and take into account the insider's perspective, without demonising them. …

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