The season of goodwill? The month around Christmas 2000 revealed a level of racism hitherto practically unknown in the UK.
Politicians playing the race card, papers headlining the asylum threat, decomposing bodies found in fields below flight paths, stabbings and assaults. But the most frightening thing about it all was the way in which this whole panoply of racism went unremarked and uncontested as though it were part of everyday life in the new millennium.
Blink and you would have missed the report on BBC Network Southeast that an Asian male had been found dead in a suspected racial attack near Hornchurch; bang the oven door on those mince pies and you wouldn’t have heard the single news announcement about a murder in Middlesbrough. Worse, no connection was being made between the surge in racial violence (principally against asylum seekers but spilling over into the whole black community) and the highly charged racial atmosphere created by Hague, Widdecombe and Heseltine and shadowed by the media.
Working on two fears
There were essentially two themes being played out nationally: fear of asylum seekers and fear of crime. The first intimated that asylum seekers were flooding the country, the second that crime was rife in black areas (or black crime rates were high) because of Macpherson’s recommendations. As one theme reached a crescendo and died away, the second theme took over. And no politician attempted to restore any rational perspective to the debate, save Simon Hughes (who was partly forced into action by the proximity of his constituency to the site of both the killing of Damilola Taylor in Peckham and the stabbing of a Turkish asylum seeker).
In fact, one could say that it was the government which opened the Christmas affray, having decided that it had done its bit on institutional racism and eager not to cede any ground to the Tories where toughness on asylum seekers was concerned. In the second week of December, paper after paper reported how the government was tightening up procedures to prevent the hordes of would-be asylum seekers making their way across the channel from Europe. P&O Stena ferries began to search cars as well as lorries leaving Calais. Immigration officers were stationed in Calais, Lille and Paris to stop ‘illegals’ from attempting to enter Britain through the Channel Tunnel rail link.
Hague gets in on the act
But then on 14 December, William Hague, in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, enunciated the second anxiety. The Macpherson report’s recommendations had contributed to a collapse in police morale and recruitment. There was a crisis on the streets, evidenced in a rise in robberies and more violent crime, because police no longer dared to stop and search black people. In fact, Hague continued the next day, Damilola Taylor’s death on 30 November could be attributed to the fall in police numbers caused by the fall in morale and therefore fall in recruitment – all caused by Macpherson.
Even as Hague was being rebuked by everyone from Damilola’s parents and Neville Lawrence to CRE head Gurbux Singh, another young black boy was fighting for his life. On 16 December, 13-year-old Daniel Herbert was attacked by a white group and left for dead in a pool of blood on his street in Littlehampton, west Sussex. His family had recently moved to the south-east because of the racial harassment they had faced in Scotland.
The next week the media were back on the asylum seeker theme. ‘Find the seekers: £15 billion bill for asylum families…and where they live’ came from the Sunday Mirror, which kindly provided figures by local authority area with the proviso that not every authority filed its figures, so that the total was actually much higher. And on 23 December, as the Home Office published its monthly figures, many other papers joined in the refrain that a record number of asylum seekers had come to Britain.
The very next day 41-year-old Cumali Sinangili, a Turkish asylum seeker, was set upon by three white racists leaving a local pub as he left work at a Southwark restaurant and made his way home. He is still seriously ill in hospital after suffering severe head injuries.The night before, Sarfraz Khan, a 30-year-old taxi driver, was stabbed repeatedly and then burnt to death in his cab by white passengers he had picked up in Rotherham.
No connections made
Still, no-one made a connection between the heightened racial climate and the spate of racial killings. In Rotherham, too, there was a particular local dimension. For months a battle had been raging as to whether Safe Haven should be allowed to open a hostel for 30 asylum seekers at Wath-upon-Dearne, outside Rotherham. Local residents had protested about the potential crime, social disorder, child abuse and drug addiction they believed would come from such a hostel. After public meetings, petitions and campaigns, the planners kow-towed to ‘the level of perceived fear’ and refused permission. Did the poison linger in the air? Safraz was the second Asian man to be attacked in the area in the course of one month.
Meanwhile, Christmas goodwill sat ill with Christian Ann Widdecombe. With festivities out of the way, she was back on the asylum theme on 27 December, this time to declare that, after all, the Tories would lock up every asylum seeker – as a deterrent. (Perhaps she upped the ante because the prison service had already reported that Labour was preparing to detain asylum seekers at eight more prisons.) And as for taking responsibility for creating the climate in which violence flourished, taking a leaf out of her master’s book, the problem, she explained, was caused by a lack of policemen on the beat.
Racism: the voice of reason
Then on New Year’s Eve came a new dimension. The intervention came this time, not from hard-liners Widdecombe and Hague, but from One Nation Tory Michael Heseltine – presumably to deflect criticism of the Tories for playing the race card. Citing all his liberal and multicultural credentials, this former deputy prime minister told the BBC’s ‘World This Weekend’ programme that bogus asylum seekers were cheating British people out of access to housing and health services. ‘Let us not mince our language here…a large number of those seeking asylum are cheats…’
Heseltine was not coming out as an overt racist, but just as Hague had done on the issue of crime, he was posing as an eminently reasonable, even righteous man concerned to speak out about people’s genuine fears. It was his duty to point out that our economy was being raided.
Heseltine’s comments, reported in full in all the papers next day, were full of untruths. Asylum seekers are not living in homes that would have gone to local people. Asylum seekers have no access to welfare benefits. But on the face of it his remarks appeared plausible and, because the government has already managed, through a mixture of policy and rhetoric, to brand asylum seekers as bogus, no-one bothered to establish the truth.
But this seemingly acceptable, speaking-up-for-our-own brand of racism soon had its own fall-out. On the second day of the year Djamale Daikha, a 38-year-old Algerian, died after being stabbed in Soho by an African who had made racist remarks about his mixed marriage. And five days later London detectives were mounting yet another murder hunt after 36-year-old Gian Singh was found dead from head injuries outside Elm Park Tube station.
What is new
‘Race hate and race violence does not rise and fall according to the number of immigrants coming into Britain. It rises and falls to the extent to which people’s prejudices are inflamed and made respectable by politicians and newspapers.’ Veteran anti-racist reporter Paul Foot explained this a quarter of a century ago when, on a ‘What the Papers Say’ programme, he revealed the relationship between press scare-mongering over the entry of a few Asians from Malawi and a rise in violence. So what we are experiencing now is not new. What is new is the reaction – or lack of it.
In 1968 Enoch Powell was sacked from Edward Heath’s Tory government for his inflammatory remarks. Today it is the leader of the Tory party and his henchmen who are doing the inflaming. But because the discourse has changed and their remarks masquerade as concerned fears – of crime or of scroungers – it has somehow made racism part of a culture of acceptance.
In the mid-1970s, when Foot was writing, there were mass protests at any killing or serious attack. Almost every week there would be a local demonstration outside a police station demanding better protection or a mobilisation against state racism. There was then a whole infrastructure of local anti-racist anti-fascist committees and national mass organisations (from Indian Workers’ Asssociations to trades union branches) which could, at a week’s notice, mobilise thousands of people to move into an area over one case. And local communities such as Southall, Brick Lane and Newham began to organise their own protection till their areas became impregnable.
Today, as CARF has reported before, the government’s policies of dispersal have broadcast racism, and so attacks are taking place in new areas, on members of new communities or where black people are isolated and visible. And, worst of all, people are being trained not to see their contempt for asylum seekers as racism at all.