Brexit: new racist incidents and Jo Cox. How will history remember this?

I wasn’t going to write a blog about the referendum, as I didn’t feel like I had anything to say that somebody hadn’t already said. However, yesterday I saw a collection of tweets detailing racist attacks across the country since Friday morning, and I now feel like everyone needs to speak out to condemn these acts – even if it’s just in a small way.

I know that racist attacks are not exactly uncommon in this country. I did a Master’s dissertation on second generation Chinese migrants in Britain, and one of the focuses was on racism. So I know people still encounter lazy racist stereotyping and hurtful abuse. What makes these new reports different is not only the number reported in different parts of the country over a short space of time but that the abusers clearly feel the referendum result has legitimated their disgusting opinions. I am not branding all Leave voters with this, I know it is a very small minority and many people voted Leave for what they feel to be sound economic reasons. I don’t understand what EU regulations have done to some British fishermen but I was in Whitstable yesterday and there were several signs out thanking people who had voted Leave. I sincerely hope that if the result does go ahead that they get what they wanted.

Of course, the Leave voters who are now hounding migrants of all kinds across this country are not going to get what they want. They seem to be under an illusion that voting to leave the EU means all migrants in this country need to ‘get out’ – and quickly, as one man was apparently calling for ‘all foreigners to get out in the next 48 hours’. The total lack of information about what would actually happen if we voted to Leave is now being shown in all its alarming starkness. We have no fucking idea, and it doesn’t seem like anybody else does either. Some people were apparently surprised at the sudden drop in the value of the pound, despite it being forecast many times before the referendum. Presumably people will be even more surprised when businesses start to move elsewhere creating job losses, when even those who are still legally allowed to stay choose to leave to get away from racist abuse- with subsequent issues in NHS staffing for a bloody start; when the universities suffer even further as their EU funding and grants get pulled, and so on. Here is the change people so desperately thought they wanted, but for now at least it will be change for the worse.

I understand that many people in the UK feel powerless and wretched with our current state of affairs. While economic hardship has been blamed on immigrants for decades if not centuries, I still blame the media and politicians for exacerbating this belief and somehow making people believe that voting Leave would bring about some magical change in how Britain works. The people here who do not tick the ‘White British’ box on a census are not going to immediately leave, or even slowly leave, or quite probably leave at all (as one Vote Leave authority said at the weekend, that migrant numbers will likely stay the same). And thank fuck they aren’t going to leave. My (Canadian) partner said at the weekend, what would happen in this country if all the immigrants went on strike tomorrow? The hospitals would be screwed, universities would lose half their staff, I would lose two of my own expert colleagues, building, plumbing, and electrical work would decrease, etc. etc. I am tired of being lied to by these politicians, and the media’s ill-considered coverage of their plots and schemes. I believe politicians from all sides need to make announcements now, to explain exactly what voting Leave has meant, and to explain that it will not mean the immediate exodus of our non-white British residents. Brexit campaigners are already saying that the ‘facts’ they have been peddling for months are total horseshit, which many of us knew already having done any research at all – but if you’re desperate and you want change then statistics sound so beautifully plausible. Quite apart from telling us exactly how much money we’re going to save (certainly not £350 million) and what will happen to immigration, something needs to be said immediately to protect people from this awful racist bullying, driven by a belief that this racism has been validated by the election result.

All the time that I was reading these stories, of a Muslim girl being cornered by a group of men in Birmingham while they shouted ‘Out! Out! Out!’, notes put through the letterboxes of Polish residents in Huntingdon mere hours after the result, and so many more, my mind kept returning to Jo Cox. She was in many ways the first victim, and I am devastated by how quickly her death has been forgotten. Farage actually had the unreal shittiness to say that they had won ‘without a single bullet being fired.’ And this was hardly reported as the utter arseholery it was; I only saw it on Sunday night catching up on The Last Leg. I think many of us had a rather distasteful and unspoken hope that her death would cause a rise in awareness, that some people voting Leave would realise what side they were on, a side with someone who was undoubtedly ill but who was also spurred on by the Vote Leave campaign’s repulsive rhetoric to murder someone for wanting to promote equality. Although  I decided not to make studying history a career, years of examining events from the viewpoint of the future makes me wonder how people will study this period in fifty or a hundred years. What will happen? Will these racist incidents increase? Will we get a more right-wing government bent on removing the rights of those who were not born here, and doing even more to stop more people coming here to live and work and share their knowledge? It is already extremely difficult to get leave to stay here, how much worse will it get? Will those who find this all a hideous nightmare leave, removing some bastions of decency and normalcy? Will people looking back see the murder of an MP in broad daylight – and the swift amnesia that followed it in the minds of some – as the beginning of the country’s downfall?

I have read elsewhere a comparison to 1930’s Germany, which I’m glad and not glad someone else made – I thought I was being melodramatic so I’m glad I wasn’t the first, but I’m not glad others share my opinion of how frightening all this is. I haven’t studied the social history of the Nazis, so I don’t know exactly how many people were against Hitler from the beginning. But being in this country while we are slowly dragged to the right makes me think of all those who were sitting in Germany nearly a hundred years ago, with this sick feeling of dread in their stomachs at what they were seeing.

People think London would be a safe place for migrants still, being as it is such a multicultural and inclusive city. Yet there have been reports of racist incidents here too. I am apprehensive, hoping that I don’t see anyone being abused, because I would hope against all hope that I would be one of the ones to step in and stop it. But I know it isn’t as easy as proclaiming ‘YES I WILL DEFEND YOU ALL’. I had an incidence of this just recently. I was on a train with my partner, and we were stopped at a station. A man was standing in the doorway looking out at the platform. He started speaking to somebody we couldn’t see: ‘What are you doing spotting trains? Why don’t you go and do something real with your life? Get a girlfriend! Became a computer whiz! Go to the gym! You’re too young for this! It’s just sad!’ I wanted desperately to say something but the man speaking was several inches taller than me and about twice my body weight. I was frightened of what he would say to me or my partner if we got involved. He was radiating aggression. But I felt so bad for the boy, especially when we pulled out of the station and we saw him, standing pale and sheepish with his camera phone. I regret not putting my head out and saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not hurting anybody, so you just carry on doing exactly what you like. We need more people with passions like you, who follow their interests against the grain. And I know that just because you enjoy trainspotting doesn’t mean you don’t have a girlfriend, or that you’re gifted with a computer, or that you do exercise. There are so many sides to all of us and you don’t need to hide them.’

I wish that the people spouting this frightened abuse at people they don’t know could see beyond something as accidental as skin colour or place of birth. If they got talking to all these ‘vermin’, wouldn’t they find that they share some interests? Most of us can find some side of ourselves that matches with others, and sometimes you have several sides that match and you get on like a house on fire. Or even hardly any match at all and you still get on like crazy because you love each other’s differences. I am a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a partner, an amateur historical anthropologist and an even more amateur dancer. I am a part-time seamstress and an increasingly part-time Formula One enthusiast. I am getting into cloud watching and, aged 28, have recently become re-addicted to Ribena. I have studied for five years at SOAS, part of the University of London, and there of all places we embrace all sides of people and focus on learning about others (it is, I believe I’m right in saying, the only university in Britain that doesn’t study the country it is sitting in). I am desperately afraid that it will now face closure, as getting enough funding there was already a tricky question. It would be devastating to lose an institution that prides itself on debate and allowing people to be every side of themselves. I wish people would make more of an effort to embrace this way of thinking, rather than judging people so quickly and with so much anger. I know I am guilty of judging others quickly too, but I hope it doesn’t change my behaviour towards them too much, and I know that I would not abuse them pointlessly when they had done nothing to offend me or anybody else. And more than anything I wish that the leaders of the Leave campaign had not used the words and the ideas that they did to win this vote. ‘Take our country back’, always menacing and without any solid meaning (take it back where? Removing what?) now has an even more sinister edge after these reports of racism and people being told that the nation has voted for them, specifically, to get out. Little Polish girls at school were crying to their teachers, afraid that they were going to be deported. We need someone to stand up and eliminate all the confusion, tell these people that their behaviour is reprehensible and founded on lies, and that they must stop.

I don’t know what the future will bring us. I know most of us are still in denial, hoping desperately that some loophole will be found so that the referendum result will not go ahead. Perhaps it will, perhaps not. But I hope that this spread of hate and disunity stops before it goes any further. Jo Cox needs to be remembered for all the sides of her legacy. The sides of her that I am sure are most immediately missed are her identities as a mother and a partner and a friend. But she also needs to be remembered as a campaigner, a passionate MP, and as a murder victim – and, I hope, not remembered for being only the first victim in the beginning of an onslaught of violence. I am astonished and saddened that such a unique event as the death of an MP for political reasons has been explained and swept away as the result of ‘mental illness’ – a catch all term which I am not saying wasn’t a part of her death. But I do believe like her husband that it was not the only reason, that it was not random, that it was in some way a result of the viciousness of the Brexit campaign.

The saddest and most infuriating thing about our whole situation is that it was all lies. I feel desperately sorry for the people who voted to Leave, believing in these ridiculous claims. But I feel even more sorry for the people who are now being attacked as a result of people’s feeling of ‘triumph’ in this result. Let us hope that things do not continue on this trajectory, and that history will not remember this summer as the beginning of a slide into hate, terror, and persecution.

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