When Ealing Burned: A Dispatch from the London Riots

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Toby Melville / Reuters

A car burns on a street in Ealing, London, on Aug. 9, 2011

The police called the pub at 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 8, with a warning, telling the manager of the Grove to close up. Two hours later, says the manager, who declined to be named, "it was pure bedlam. There were just hundreds of them." Gangs began looting and setting fires to the main shopping areas in town. After they were through, says Emilian Sokoli, the deputy manager of the ransacked William Hill betting shop, "the place looked a bit like a war zone. I couldn't believe it. This is Ealing."

Ealing is a western suburban borough of London. Its unofficial nickname is "Queen of the Suburbs": very middle class, with many large Victorian houses and a big Polish community that dates back to World War II, when Poles flew with the Royal Air Force located in the area. It is home to Britain's iconic Ealing Studios. Ealing may not have been as badly treated as Croydon, in south London, but it took more than a fair share of hits.

Patrick, a middle-aged electrician, says he was on his bike heading for home when he ran into the gangs. He says there were about 100 men — some apparently teens but mostly young men in their 20s and even 30s wearing hoodies and balaclavas. Quite a few cars were on fire, he says, "and the police just stood by and watched them. They let them get away with this." He claims that when he got home, he and a friend saw several rioters approach his friend's Mercedes-Benz. "We asked them what they were doing, and they yelled, 'F--- off.' But when we approached them, they ran off. They're cowards." He says the smashing and looting of shops and the fire that gutted the Ealing Green Local grocery store were all done within 5 to 10 minutes. Patrick says he saw the intruders steal a city bus and drive it into a streetlight. "They tried to burn it too but couldn't get it started."

Shop owners and witnesses give the police mixed grades. Some claim the police clamped down quickly in trouble spots; others say the police stood and watched as looters attacked businesses and set fires.

Most of the vandalism was directed against shops and restaurants — both locally owned ones and big brands, including a Starbucks. In a couple of areas, the rioters seems to hit every shop in a row. For instance, all the shops leading to the Ealing Green Local were vandalized, as was the Grove pub across the street. And on the northeast corner of Haven Green, near the Ealing Broadway tube station, a line of shops and restaurants was trashed. On other streets, vandals seemed to mainly pick on posh shops: Bang & Olufsen and an art store called For Arts Sake that has been in business since 1984.

Brian Davis, owner of For Arts Sake, says his manager got a call from the store's alarm company at 12:30 a.m. Davis got to his shop by 1 a.m. "But the police had control of things by then," he says. His shop's windows were smashed, and the door was kicked in. Some pictures were broken, and there were some scorch marks. The police apparently got there just in time to save the place from going up in flames. "It could have been a lot worse," Davis says. "All this flammable material." Over the years, his place and others have sustained the odd broken window from drunken revelers. "But this is a whole new ballgame," he says. "It is different from anything I've seen in the past. There is no agenda — it is just anarchy." He says he thinks his place was picked on because it looks upscale: "Just because we sell products associated with people who have money."

"They're a lot of unhappy kids," says Simon Kirby, the owner of Flower Haven, a family-run florist that was badly vandalized. "But I'm not sure if they live around here." Though he calls the violence meaningless, Kirby says he is somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the "kids." "I am, up to a point. If they had something to do, if they had money and jobs, they wouldn't do this. All they see on TV these days is wealth. They see footballers and people like Jordan [the stage name of British glamour model Katie Price] who all have lots of money but aren't very bright, and they want to know why they don't have any." He adds, "This is madness. It's a bit like football hooliganism. There is no point."

Sokoli from the betting shop says he has no sympathy for the rioters and that the looting has nothing to do with anger over the police shooting of a young man in Tottenham — the ostensible spark for the three days of street violence. "This is pure criminal damage," he says. "They're just doing it because they can." He adds, "The police haven't got a deterrent for it. It's a joke but not a very funny one. We're fighting three wars overseas, but no one is protecting us at home."