The news of a 17 year old asylum seeker being brutally assaulted in Croydon on Saturday has been plastered across all major newspapers. The Evening Standard led with “Find Them” (referring to the attackers) whilst the Daily Mail and other right wing publications likewise condemned the attacks.
MP for Croydon Gavin Barwell tweeted his disgust, referring to the attackers as “scum” in an attempt to show his shock and surprise at what happened. It was, after all, an awful attack – a 17-year-old beaten near to death because he admitted to being a asylum seeker.
— Gavin Barwell MP (@GavinBarwellMP) April 1, 2017
The previously mentioned publications and the Conservative MP were quick to condemn the attack and likewise paint it as an isolated incident, but they were less quick to interrogate their own role in creating a climate in which such crimes are becoming more common then we care to admit.
Whilst some of the attackers have been identified as black, this does not mean it wasn’t racist. It also doesn’t make it any less detached from broader power structures, even if this does complicate matters – enabling those reading the Evening Standard to remark “see, they are racist too”.
Nevertheless, the skin colour of the attackers shouldn’t distract us from the broader point: we live in a society where MPs and the press condemn attacks that they often actively encourage. These attackers, whilst some were black, would have articulated a position for themselves as British and the asylum seeker as not British.
Within a grossly Islamophobic, xenophobic and anti-refugee political climate, with a multitude of media stories attacking these “cockroaches” entering the UK, it’s easy for anyone, of any race, who sees themselves as British, to become hateful in this way.
This climate partially explains why we saw some ethnic minorities vote for Brexit – they wanted to reduce migration. They became invested in an idea of Britain that was presented as being under attack and overwhelmed by aliens.
It is important to remember this context when analysing the responses to these attacks – thy do not happen in a vacuum, nor are they isolated. If anything they’re becoming increasingly common and they are inseparable from dominant press narratives.
In December a man was stabbed in Denmark Hill, South London, by a racist who chanted “death to Muslims” and “go back to Syria”. Whilst in Harlow in September of last year, Arek Jozwick was murdered by a group of young men after they heard him speaking Polish on the phone.
These crimes are happening against the backdrop of a reported 41% increase in hate-crimes since the Brexit vote and an increasingly Islamophobic, xenophobic and racist national narrative which is routinely downplayed in the press.
Britain is not a safe place for people who are not easily identified as British. This typically means people who are not white, but also those from Eastern Europe, who have been routinely targeted by a right wing press over the last decade or so.
As a result, we place a focus on media narratives and the broader context of these attacks at the centre of our analysis. When we do this, the tweeting of Barwell looks disingenuous. Let’s not forget it was an MP from his own party who wanted to check the teeth of refugees, and it was him and his colleagues who voted against allowing 3000 refugee children into Britain.
Not to mention David Cameron bemoaning the “swarms” of migrants coming into the UK or the general discourses around Brexit that romanticised “taking back control” and a Britain that was apparently at “breaking point” (because of people like the 17 year old child who was attacked).
Let no one forget that Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist nationalist who declared “Britain First” as he killed her. Yet this is too often ignored from mainstream media narratives.
Barwell, the Tories and most politicians, are not, and never have been, defenders of refugees, or anyone who isn’t white and British. This government and governments before it have actively tried to create, in their own words, a “hostile environment” for migrants.
Of course, Britain has always been a “hostile environment” for people who are not white, despite the historic and continued need of migrant labour.
Yet these are worrying times – reports about these kinds of attacks are only increasing (not to mention that most victims of hate crimes do not report them). Despite this, the government aren’t rushing to hold an emergency Cobra meeting, instead present them as one-off, isolated incidents.
Such a muted response is partially down to the fact that they do not want to interrogate their own role in promoting such violence (the UN blamed politicians and the press for post-Brexit violence back in August). It’s also because any honest conversation about these attacks would require a discussion around nationalism and ethno-nationalism that is so rife in Britain.
All types of nationalism must be rejected as they are inherently divisive and exclusionary. We must also analyse the structural nature of the problems, rather than individualising it to the work of “scum”.
Further we need wholesale reform of the press. Articles like those churned out by Katy Hopkins (which are informed by government narratives) should not be able to be published without any serious reprisals. If our legal frameworks don’t deem this to be hate speech then they are not rigorous enough and are not protecting the public.
We also have to be there to support each other, build solidarity and reject right wing narratives that suggest rises in racism and racist violence are nothing more than the complaints of metropolitan elites. Because right now it is clear that Britain is a hostile environment for anyone who doesn’t fit the nationalist mould.