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  1. Politics
10 August 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:50am

Reporting on a riot that didn’t happen

When does a lack of a riot need an explanation?

By David Allen Green

Last night there was not a riot in Bromley. All yesterday afternoon rumours were tweeted that there would be some disturbance in this south London suburb, which also prides itself as being in north Kent.

The night before there was minor trouble: the two shops by the bypass selling electronic goods were looted, a single window was broken at Primark, and – pointlessly – glass was also smashed at a rather good independent fish and chip shop. But, according to excited tweeters, it was “all going to kick off in Bromley” last night.

Except that it did not. So does the lack of a local riot need as an intensely anxious explanation as one which does take place? Normally, one would not feel any need to explain the lack of a riot in any suburb on a Tuesday night. However, last night was special: further riots were predicted throughout Greater London, and riots did take place in Manchester and Birmingham (where a local barrister reports the front glass doors of the Crown Court were kicked in).

If any explanation is needed, one factor is that the high-value electrical goods shops with an escape had already been done over, and were boarded-up last night. Any other looting of expensive goods would have needed to come further into the pedestrianized centre, making it less easy to take the products away.

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But that, of course, was not the main reason for the lack of a riot. Far more significant were the twenty to thirty officers who were in the centre of Bromley at any one time. From around 7 pm onwards, police officers outnumbered civilians at a ratio of about two to one. Anyone coming into Bromley looking for trouble, or a free television, would see at least six fluorescent jackets on any road coming in. The Market Square was usually deserted. In these circumstances, it was difficult to see any significant disorder occurring, and indeed none did.

And whilst Bromley was left to wandering pairs of police officers and almost-empty buses, idiots on Twitter were publishing breathless misinformation. The Glades Shopping Centre was on fire (it wasn’t) and there were explosions (there weren’t); it was “shocking” what was going on (but nothing was going on); and – inevitably – it was “all kicking off” (it really was not at all). The boring and simple reality was that Bromley was quiet all along: I know, I was there. It was almost as if some Tweeters wanted to get up momentum in the hope that there would be trouble. No doubt at such point, those tweeters would then all go “OMG”.

So last night a suburb did not have a riot, and this was primarily through a heavy one-off presence of police. But this raises further questions. What happens when such policing is no longer possible? And was it right to use such substantial policing instead of, say, deploying military resources? The answer to the second of these questions is surely that, as a matter of basic principle, it is never right to not use civilian police to police civilians although other parts of the country may feel rightly upset at the switch of policing to London (especially from Manchester and the West Midlands). And as for the first of those questions: we have to wait and see whether the rioters and looters decide to attack the centre of Bromley again, when all the police have gone away.

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