Cristina has stopped calling her mother when she leaves work. She would have to speak in Spanish on public transport and after the 23rd of June she prefers to avoid it. The same day on which 52% of voters in the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union she suffered a xenophobic incident on the bus she takes home every day.
“I sat in the seat next to the driver, as always. My mum called and we chatted about how our day had been.” She was distracted when the bus braked sufficiently sharply to make her jump and think that there had been an accident. But no. “The driver stopped the bus and got out of his seat to shout at me that if I wanted to continue speaking in my ‘shitty language’ I should go upstairs.”
No one said anything. “There were about 12 people who said nothing. I felt impotent and outraged.” Cristina puts it down to the referendum result, “without doubt”. There has been a climate of tension since then, and this had never happened to me before in the two years I’ve been living here in London,” she said.
Hours before, in another part of the British capital, Laura and Elena were also shouted at on the street. “A man asked us why we weren’t speaking English,” Elena says, still shocked.
The British Police reported a 57% increase in racist incidents in the first four days after the Brexit result was announced. This data only counts the cases that have been reported at police stations and on the website used to record them, but the increase has also been identified in the testimonies reaching NGOs.
Tell MAMA, which supports victims of anti-Muslim hate, received reports of 69 incidents against Muslims in the first 24 hours after the result. “We know that they are related to the Brexit vote because the aggressors say things like ‘we voted for you to leave’,” according to their director Fiyaz Mughal.
One week later, several Spanish and Turkish restaurants in the London borough of Lewisham had their windows broken, while the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith was discovered one morning daubed with several xenophobic statements.
In Huntingdon, where there is a large Polish community, the parents and children of a primary school found that the school doors had a poster saying “no more Polish vermin. Leave the EU.” In the same neighbourhood several people reported having received racist threats in their letterboxes.
“No one can tell me that Brexit has played no part in this increase in racism,” said Natalie Pitimson, a student who was verbally attacked on a packed rush hour train for carrying a bag with a Hebrew word written on it. “They told me to ‘fuck off back to Israel with the other yids’,” she recounts with impotence on the internet. Again, no one said anything.
Twitter to combat post-Brexit racism
Twitter and Facebook have turned into the mouthpieces for many victims, the retweet and share buttons working furiously, with messages condemning the incidents and supporting a campaign to raise awareness that started thanks to a the anger of Karissa Singh, a young woman who couldn’t believe that this could happen and had to do something.
On the day of the referendum a man of average height approached her and her brother to tell them that they would never be “real Brits”. “This happened in a student bar in London full of people and he told her, “When we voted to get out of the European Union we were also voting for all of you to leave. I don’t care if you’re here to be a doctor, lawyer or whatever, just get out and do it in your own country.”
The next day Karissa set up the Twitter account PostRefRacism that now has 9000 followers and a large number of tweets denouncing all kinds of racist incidents that have occurred since the Brexit result. “I decided to set up a space to document these aggressions, to combat their normalisation, and encourage people to call out such incidents,” she explained.
Cristina didn’t hesitate to go to her local police station the next morning after the incident on the bus. “That afternoon the police came to my house to take my statement. The officers were charming and understanding. I’m happy I reported it. It’s a behaviour that I will never allow, not here, nor in any other part of the world. Not against me, or anyone else,” the Spaniard assured.
The importance of reporting
For Alan Anstead, the director of UKREN, to report it is the only way to stop the situation causing harm on a longer term. “Anyone who experiences any kind of racist discrimination must report it to the authorities. Legal measures against racist aggression is the best way to deter future crimes of this kind,” he explained.
Anstead insists that the vast majority of London society condemns this kind of “deplorable” behaviour. “Even the Prime Minister criticised it in Parliament a few days after the referendum,” referring to this story in the Guardian.
NGOs say that it’s not generalised. Although xenophobic speech seems to have gained strength, it continues to be a minority. “It’s simply ridiculous to say that all those who voted in favour of Brexit are racists or prejudiced. People voted for very different reasons, the majority, on the basis of a legitimate political ideology that has nothing to do with racism,” pointed out Fiyaz Mughal.
Legitimising latent discourse
Nor is it only something happening today, nor this week. Aggressors and NGOs say that racism in the United Kingdom was present “under the surface”, and that it has gained strength as a result of the discourse of some parties in the campaign and that it has exploded after the Brexit victory.
“It seems that the aggressors have forgotten that racism is unacceptable and that the majority of people they attack are Black and Asian British who were born in the United Kingdom,” Mughal said.
Karissa recalls the man that came into the bar because she wasn’t “really British”. When asked if she had experienced similar situations, the young student replied that “it’s not something that appeared overnight.” “The only thing that’s different after the referendum is that if before someone shouted something at you they ran away, now they don’t seem to have any problem in coming up to you publicly and assaulting you. Politicians must accept their role in the creation of a climate that could feed these kinds of attitudes,” she said.
The anti-immigration campaign in the weeks prior to the referendum played a key role in all of this. Politicians such as Nigel Farage used a discourse against the arrival of refugees and immigrants, publicising a poster in which hundreds of refugees could be seen in a queue in the Balkans.
“When he did this he knew perfectly well what he was doing. He was creating fear of immigration in people and saying that if they didn’t vote for Brexit the consequences would be to have a queue of “dark people” waiting to come into the United Kingdom. That was the button that he was pushing in society, the xenophobia button disguised as a legitimate political campaign,” Mughal said.