Brexit: The Poison and How we Clean it Up

The racism and xenophobia seen in the wake of the Brexit vote has a longer history. The way for society to begin facing up to past blindness is to stand up to abuse and hate in public and offer hope, or risk being an accessory.

July 1. 2016

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Brexit: The Poison and How we Clean it Up

The racism and xenophobia seen in the wake of the Brexit vote has a longer history. The way for society to begin facing up to past blindness is to stand up to abuse and hate in public and offer hope, or risk being an accessory.

Since a minority of the UK population voted to leave the European Union, there has been an increase in reported cases of xenophobic and racist abuse. Initial figures pointed to a 57 per cent increase in reported incidents of abuse between Thursday and Sunday compared with the same period four weeks earlier, which is a shocking insight into the potential coming climate.

Despite his government continuing Thatcher’s and New Labour’s legacy of society-dismantling neoliberalism and trying to harness divide and rule prejudice at every turn to shore up their power, David Cameron was compelled to condemn such abuse.

There seems to be a belief that the Brexit vote means people should be forced to leave the country

He said: “we’ve seen verbal abuse hurled against individuals because they are members of ethnic minorities… Let’s remember these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our country. We will not stand for hate crime or these kinds of attacks, they must be stamped out.”

Numerous cases have been highlighted in media reports and catalogued on social media, including the Facebook group ‘Worrying Signs’ and #PostRefRacism on Twitter.

The Polish and Social Cultural Association in Hammersmith has seen Go Home sprayed on its entrance. BBC Radio’s Sima Kotecha described being called a p**i, a word she hadn’t heard since the 80s. Jamelia was called a black b***h by a police officer in unprovoked aggression. Laminated cards that said “Leave the EU. No more Polish Vermin” and “go home Polish scum” translated into Polish on the back, were handed out not long after the Brexit result in Cambridgeshire.

People have been told to go home, abused on social media or physically attacked

Many of the reports of abuse seem to show a belief that the vote for Brexit means that EU citizens living in the UK (or anyone racists don’t like the look of or think is a parasite) will or should be forced to leave the country. Max Fras described to the Guardian how a man in a Gloucester Tesco supermarket queue on Friday night began yelling “This is England now, foreigners have 48 hours to fuck right off. Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign?”

There have been demands that people “go home”, unsolicited Facebook messages, abuse in the streets and in some cases outright violence – one reported case saw a firebomb thrown at an employee of a halal butchers in Walsall. Tuesday morning saw a video of abuse on a Manchester tram from one young male who threatened another man, demanded he get off to fight, argued he should be deported and had no right to “chat shit” because he’s a “fucking immigrant”.

The worrying part of this last exchange was that for the most part, the only vocal opposition to the angry, ignorant boy’s rant was the target himself. Aside from this there was a feeble non-response – the culprit was told “there are children here” when he sprayed some of his beer on the man and some passengers eventually shouted you’re a disgrace to England when he had finally left.

There needs to be a wake up to the fact that fascism didn’t just disappear

The response was symbolic of the failure of white English society to acknowledge and tackle ongoing racism and still-living fascism, linked in part to the failure to fully examine the benefits from structural white supremacy. Add to this the emergence of “I’m not racist, but…” as a narrative device as well as the murky line between pride in your country and a lack of acknowledgement of what violence, murder and oppression it took to make Britain “Great”. Being blind to racism and being polite and reserved as a bystander when it’s shouted right before your eyes is complicity. Standing aside while people are abused means you are an accessory.

There needs to be a wake up to the fact that fascism didn’t just disappear, its proponents could position themselves to take advantage of economic inequality, prejudice and disillusionment with the establishment if others fail to offer answers. The necessary work of fighting against racism, fascism, fear and prejudice has been made that much harder in light of the Brexit vote and the Leave campaign. Talk of victory from Farage and Johnson are coupled with equal elation on the ground and on hate forums online by those who see their racism and deep-seated prejudices legitimized.

This is not to claim that all those who voted Leave are racist (there are other concerns with accountability in politics and mistrust of the establishment) but there was a significant part of the campaign that was underpinned by it and a section of society that will now seek to spread it.

Brexit didn’t create the conditions for racism. It has worsened the climate, but it is not the sole cause

TellMAMA director Fiyaz Mughal noted the rising “chatter” from small violent far-right extremist groups often took cues from the referendum campaign – Johnson spoke of Turkey and pictures of churches with minarets photoshopped on were circulated, Farage talked of sexual assault and the term “rape-fugees” was born. The week Jo Cox was assassinated saw a disgusting triumphalism from these groups too.

Let’s be clear, Brexit didn’t create the conditions for racism. It has worsened the climate, but it is not the sole cause. We should be wary of Cameron and others using calls for calm and condemning racist abuse in coming months as a means to deflect blame, paint themselves as the lesser evil and hurriedly pull the rug over years of divisive politics. Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral election campaign showed the establishment is just as capable of vile rhetoric as those once described as fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.

You can’t divide society for electoral gain, shift to the right and be ‘a bit more racist’ to get seats challenged by UKIP and then deny playing a part in carving space for the far-right. In the case of media complicity, you can’t platform bigots relatively unchallenged to make an ‘inclusive conversation’ and be surprised when the tone of politics shifts a bit more sinister.

A recent report pointed to a 326% increase in anti-Muslim abuse and attacks in 2015

Parts of society have been calling out the sharpest impacts of debates surrounding terrorism and immigration for a long time. Organizations such as TellMAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) have been highlighting cases of xenophobic abuse and harassment long before the referendum had a set date and immigration was emblazoned across newspaper headlines and hate speech became an editorial stance. A recent report pointed to a 326 per cent increase in anti-Muslim abuse and attacks in public areas in 2015, with women disproportionately targeted.

Twitter accounts such as Still Laughing at the United Kingdom Independence Party (@SLATUKIP) and Far Right Watch (@Far_Right_Watch) as well as the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US have worked hard to highlight the activities and connections of far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

These and other groups have been working to clear the mess and hold back the far-right at precisely the same time as more divisive bullshit was shoveled in to shore up austerity and the power of political elites. Expressing disgust at racist abuse and feeling ‘buyer’s remorse’ means either you couldn’t see it coming, which is intellectually and politically blind, knew it might happen and hoped for the best, which is pretty dark risking the lives of minorities, or secretly wanted it to happen.

Calling Leave voters stupid overlooks the power of newspapers that said for months and years that immigrants were to blame

It is justified to be scared about the prospect of the Brexit vote. It will provide a dangerous legitimacy to racist and white nationalist ideas. But we must understand that there is much work to be done beyond and hope in shifting anger and disillusionment with mainstream politics towards progressive ends.

Commenters on articles highlighting ‘how Brexit will affect you’ suggested it would have been good to have the information before the vote. While cases like this have prompted sneering at the working-class, calling Leave voters stupid overlooks the processes that influence decision making – the power of newspapers that said for months and years that immigrants were to blame and a growing mistrust of establishment duopoly politics.

There is a reason why figures like Katie Hopkins have newspaper column inches. Their arguments reinforce elite power by furthering societal divide and sowing prejudice, dehumanizing sections of society. The very worse end point of this rhetoric justifies the destruction of black and brown bodies, whether by the state or otherwise. This power to shape opinion to suit particular political ends is something we need to face and this will take more hard work from, and support for, independent media.


While searching for answers and ways forward, here are things readers can do (See @veedzo’s #aswellasapin):

  • Read, learn from and, if you can, help fund those media platforms amplifying the voices of people of color. Some examples to begin with are Media Diversified and gal-dem.
  • Show solidarity with immigrants, refugees and those in your community who are on the receiving end of abuse or scared for their future. This can be as varied as a note written to a neighbor; flowers; supportive messages on social media; attending protests and marches; protesting detention centers and deportation; smiles and conversations.
  • Don’t leave it to those on the receiving end to stand up and criticize xenophobia and racism in the press or in public spaces. Listen and believe that this is happening and do what you can to counter it in the spaces around you, workplaces, family and friends.
  • Be brave enough to shatter the bystander effect. If on public transport or elsewhere you encounter an instance of abuse, step in, stand up. It is likely that others will join too. Read one case of abuse and the emotional impact of a lack of support here.
  • Report instances of abuse to TellMAMA or Stop Hate UK. Catalogue them on Facebook and Twitter too.
  • Donate to charities fighting racism and xenophobia.
  • Understand the dangers lurking at the edges of English politics. Know that there are hateful groups that have uncomfortable proximity to figures in the Leave campaign. Follow @SLATUKIP, Hope not Hate and other antifascist groups. Hatred is not the answer.
  • Support independent media like the Leveller.
  • Demand a snap general election whatever the outcome of the coming leadership contests. There cannot be a rearrangement of figures at the top of parliamentary politics and a plodding onward without a clear plan presented to the electorate in a post-Brexit political landscape.
  • Further, don’t expect the real solutions we need to come from Westminster. Get organized and work to build a better future. Know that there is uncertainty and fear among the public that can be met with love and hope that redirects anger and disillusionment towards progressive ends. It will be hard, but the physical safety of the already marginalized is at stake.



Image: Botho


July 1. 2016