The thin blue line of police held in Woolwich — but their job was to protect firefighters tackling blazing businesses, not prevent looters in this poor southeast London district from emptying the shelves of stores they usually shop in.
Half a dozen police officers in riot gear and their trademark dark blue uniforms guarded fire crew hosing down the blazing Wetherspoons bar, too few to prevent the wholesale looting of Powis Street just a stone's throw away.
Paving stones piled in the street for workmen giving the rundown area a facelift were seized upon by the looters to stave in the windows of mobile phone shops, pawnbrokers, jewellers, electronic goods and gaming stores, clothing boutiques and designer footware stores.
Looters made off with their haul in suitcases stolen for the purpose. Others emerged from shattered store fronts with armfuls of women's clothing or boxes of designer sports shoes.
Some balanced flatscreen TVs or gaming consoles on their heads, slowly edging down the street, more afraid of slipping on the broken glass than arrest.
Far from being angry or edgy, the atmosphere when the looting was at its height was mostly relaxed, with many in the crowd giggling or looking on in wonder at the flames, queuing up to take photographs or shoot video of the burning stores on their mobile phones and cameras.
Some locals blamed PM David Cameron’s austerity policies for the violence sweeping London and other British cities.
“The people are angry,” explained Joshua, a Nigerian resident of Woolwich who has lived in Britain 38 years. But that view was not universal.
David Hill, 33, who works in the financial services sector, said: "They have burned out the places that they drink in, that's the funny thing about it.”
Simon Mills, manager of a pawnbroker and jewelry firm, said he had lost goods worth upwards of 60,000 pounds ($98,000).
“I just don't know if we'll be able to bounce back from it. I don't think terrorists could have done a better job than what they have done here,” he said."To be honest, people knew it was coming, so if everybody knew it was coming, why did they (police) leave it so late to disperse people?" asked shop manager Grace, 26.