08.09.11

Quiet Suburb Battles Rioters

Residents in prosperous Ealing unite to fight off looters arriving from other parts of the capital and demand zero tolerance as David Cameron doubles the police presence. William Underhill reports.

It was 11 at night when Jonathan Russell was roused from bed by his neighbor. A gang of youths was outside their apartment house in the London suburb of Ealing, using a wooden pole as a battering ram in an attempt to break down the front door. A barricade was urgently needed.

Together they managed to fend off the intruders. “I think we convinced them that there were more of us than there were,” Russell told The Daily Beast. Others were not so lucky. Some of the attackers broke into a neighbor’s apartment through an open window and stole her television and other valuables. Cars parked outside were trashed.

Such stories were hardly rare in Ealing today. The previous evening hundreds of young looters roamed the streets plundering shops and smashing cars and windows, in a tide of violence that swept over the city for a third night. “It’s rare that I feel ashamed of my country,” says Russell, a computer programmer. “But today I was.”

The shock and outrage are all the stronger because Ealing—once known as “the Queen of the Suburbs”—is a generally prosperous community with no name for violence. By common consent among locals, last night’s rioters were from outside the area. Some spoke of “people carriers” with darkened windows delivering black youths.

The authorities today announced a slew of measures in an effort to halt the violence. All police leave has been cancelled and the number of officers on the streets rose to 16,000 this evening—more than twice the number Monday night. By late afternoon, knots of officers were already in place around the center of Ealing and police vans cruised the streets.

Using emergency powers, Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament on Thursday to debate the disorder, and promised a tough line on rioting. “We will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain's streets and to make them safe for the law-abiding,” he said. “This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be defeated."

Ealing and other afflicted districts need plenty of reassurance. Today many of the stores closed early and broken windows had been hastily covered with wooden boarding. “It is a very worrying situation, “says local resident George Venus. “I have been speaking on the telephone to other people around London and they all say ‘it could be us next.' ”

And the police have so far failed to inspire confidence. Zaheer Khan, who runs a convenience store in central Ealing told about how 17 youths pushed into the shop Monday night and cleared the shelves of alcohol and chocolate within a few minutes. “It’s bad, very bad. There were police around outside but they did nothing,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

They would soon stop if they see the army being deployed.

Others see the use of maximum force as essential. “The only way to end this is through some sort of zero tolerance,” said one woman, a lifelong Ealing resident, who declined to be named. “They were taking anything and everything of value yesterday. I heard of one woman whose engagement ring was taken off her. (But) they would soon stop if they see the army being deployed.”

But she said residents also had a role to play, and was urging neighbors to confront any rioters who reappeared. “We are from this area and we want to show a presence. If they see a lot of people, then they don’t attack.” Underlying such talk is a mood of stunned surprise. “Can you imagine this happening in a civilized country?” she says.  In Ealing, until this week, it would have been hard.