PHOTO: Protesters march in Leeds on Saturday (Harry Whitehead/Rex)
Yvonne Roberts writes for The Guardian:
In a room in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, south London, on Thursday morning, more than 80 people, spilling into the corridor, talk about their experiences since the referendum result.
They are mainly from South America, holding Spanish passports, still members of the European Union, legitimately in the UK. Half a dozen had been expected. Barristers María González-Merello and John Samson hold a free weekly legal advice clinic for Spanish-speaking cleaners who work for government departments and major companies in the city. This was different.
“We called an emergency meeting because we’ve had so many people telling us about incidents [of apparent racism and xenophobia],” González-Merello says. “One woman had a cut in her pay packet, and when she complained she was told if she didn’t like it she should go back home. Another man was waiting for the night bus at 2am to go to work when a stranger said: ‘Haven’t you heard the news? You should have left.’”
At the meeting, packed with babies, toddlers and anxious adult faces, one woman says she has worked for an employer for six years. On the Friday of the referendum result she was offered a new, less attractive, zero-hours contract.
Another young woman says she and her friends, all with Spanish passports, regularly visit a Watford nightclub. Last weekend they were refused entry. “Is this because of Brexit?” they asked. The answer was yes.
González-Merello, who has lived in Britain for 20 years, says she was talking to her son on a bus in Spanish and a man said: “You fucking foreigners, you are always making a noise.”
Victims such as her, she says, are now self-policing, taking care, for instance, not to speak in a language other than English in public. Her 12-year-old son recently asked: “Mama, are you going to be deported?”
“It’s the hurt and humiliation,” she says. “And the concern that we don’t know where it may end.”
Surgical staff send out a message about their diversity
A Climate of Fear
For many at the meeting, their working day on the minimum wage may begin at three or four o’clock in the morning and may still require travelling for an hour to work. “They don’t use the NHS,” González-Merello says. “Because they can’t afford to be sick.”
She reminds the people that have come to her for advice that abuse comes only from a minority but if they experience racism or discrimination at work they must report it. “A wrong is a wrong.”
“People have very little protection,” says Samson, whose parents came to the UK from Germany in the 1930s. “Cuts to legal aid, little trade union support, and the option of going to a tribunal on grounds of discrimination is out of reach because of cost.
“People on low wages who come to us experiencing employment problems, resentment and even hatred are already on the edge. What we see here isn’t worry, anxiety or apprehension, it’s a climate of fear.”
A climate of fear affects lives but doesn’t register in statistics. Even so, by Friday, True Vision, the police-run site to combat hate crime, had recorded a fivefold increase in reports from the public, 331 incidents, since the day the referendum was held. Usually the weekly average is 63 reports.
Yet, while hate crime showed an 18% increase in 2014-15 from the year before, the annual crime survey suggests that such crime has fallen by 28% over the past seven years. So how do we keep a sense of perspective?
How Do You Put the Monster Back in the Box?
Citizens UK is an organisation that promotes community organising across England and Wales. Neil Jameson, its executive director, says that it has heard of hundreds of incidents across the country since the referendum. “It’s not physical violence, it’s violent words and stares and hostility. Its unwelcomeness and being told, ‘Go home’.”
In London, six out of 35 of the charity’s core staff have experienced racist hostility, most for the first time, in the past week.
“Half of us were born and brought up here,” says Shazia Ejaz, Citizens UK’s head of media. “We are fiercely proud to call London our home. I tell people they must report. We want it to be part of the statistics to understand the scale of the problem. My concern is that this feeling was clearly below the surface. Now, how do you put the monster back in its box?”
Intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination, expressed in public, may be manifesting themselves more significantly now, says Professor Ruth Wodak, author of The Politics of Fear, and a specialist in linguistics and national identity. But in the UK, as elsewhere, it’s politicians, disguising racism in outwardly reasonable rhetoric, and the media, often using more blatant language, who over the years have prepared the way. A study of all the UK print media Wodak and her colleagues conducted from 1996 to 2006 demonstrated how migrants, illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers were demonised and merged into one – “Others”.
“This process constructs a ‘panic’ state of affairs among [the] readership … urging them to take on a more active role within this constructed ‘stand-off’,” she says. “Cameron has repeatedly said he would roll out the red carpet for the very rich immigrants, but otherwise you are not welcome even if you have a legitimate right to be here.”
She continues: “Politicians must address social inequalities and offer emotions other than threats, anger and fear, otherwise it’s too easy to mobilize against scapegoats.”
Demonstration in Southampton on Saturday (Morten Watkins/Barcroft Images)
Solutions Within Communities
Even for a closet racist, it’s still a major step to abuse a stranger in public. What’s the trigger?
“Events such as a referendum put tolerance to the test,” explains political psychologist Tereza Capelos. “Ironically, tolerance begins from a negative starting point. You have an intention to share benefits with others even when you don’t like them. Everybody dislikes somebody, but if you believe that others have rights and you engage in a society, which is open, you accept this.
“If you feel marginalised you may have weaker civic values. A spark can encourage you to see another human being as ‘the other’. You dehumanize him or her. They are ‘not like us’.”
Some on the margins of society feel betrayed and don’t know who has betrayed them so they turn on “the other”. “That’s why politicians, journalists and academics have such a responsibility for the narratives they develop.”
Citizens UK is handing out leaflets and stickers for an hour from 8 am at dozens of London tube and railway stations and instructing people how to report incidents. People are also wearing a safety pin (#Safetypin) to show their support.
“Look out for your neighbours,” Jameson says. “Don’t look to Westminster for solutions. Solutions lie in your own streets and communities. People can stay together.”