The Government sponsored vans going round London’s streets urging illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest” have been grounded, I’m glad to see.
The whole debate brought back to me two incidents in London almost thirty years ago.
The first was when my (white English/Welsh) mother and I were walking down Kensington High Street, chatting, looking out for a restaurant to have lunch at. Suddenly a man stood in front of me and screamed in my face that I should “F*ck off back to your own country”, and then he continued walking in the opposite direction. “Did you hear that, Mum?!” I gasped. My mother was silent – I assumed she hadn’t noticed. Later I overheard her telling my father that she was so stunned by it that she couldn’t speak. All she could think about was where to find a weapon to attack the man with. Luckily weapons are not easy to find on Kensington High Street or this would have been a story about how violent words can lead to violent acts.
The second incident was in an Indian restaurant in Putney where I was having dinner with my friend Nizwar. The only other customers were a couple of middle aged white businessmen and, at another table, a group of young girls. At some point a group of lads wandered in and spoke to the girls for a few moments. Soon after they had left, the girls left too. Then there was an almighty crash as a metal dustbin came flying against the window. There were shouts of “Go home, pakkis!” and then footsteps running away. But the truly shocking bit of this story is what happened when the police arrived.
The restaurant owner was in shock and almost weeping. “They’ve smashed my window!” he kept repeating to the two white police officers, who made no effort to conceal their exasperation that he wasn’t answering their brusque questions about the sequence of events and that his English wasn’t perfect. Eventually they sat down with the businessmen and started a jovial conversation with them over a cup of tea that they made the owner bring them and which they never paid for. After complaining that it was “Like the black hole of Calcutta in here”, they began questioning the businessmen about the incident. The businessmen’s descriptions of the lads who had come in – presumably to warn the girls to leave before their attack – were sketchy. Their descriptions of the young girls, on the other hand, were very detailed including every curve, curl, button and bead.
The policemen weren’t particularly interested in mine or Nizwar’s eyewitness reports. As we left the restaurant (in a taxi – we were too scared to walk) we saw shadowy figures of Asian men emerging from dark alleyways and coming towards the restaurant. I went back to the restaurant the next day to ask how they were getting on and whether the police had been able to find the perpetrators. The owner shook his head. “We dealt with it ourselves” he said. I didn’t ask what he meant by that, so I don’t know if this story is evidence of how one violent act can lead to another…
I have been fortunate that in all my forty years in the UK these are the only two examples of racism I have experienced. I was also heartened by the outpouring of outrage that met what the Twitterati dubbed #racistvans. But I would not be surprised if Government-sponsored slogans appearing to legitimise the “go home” mentality did not lead to violent thoughts and possibly violent acts – especially appealing to those for whom the distinction between legal or illegal immigrants is irrelevant. Sadly, many immigrants are no strangers to violence. Often that is what they are fleeing when they leave their countries. Even if what they are fleeing is poverty; poverty is a form of violence in itself, causing physical harm and humiliation just as direct violence does. The illegal stop-searches being conducted by the UK Border Agency in London’s tube stations are not outright violence, but they are humiliating and menacing. But sometimes the violence immigrants face is nothing less than that. Pure, brutal deadly violence. For Steven Lawrence it came from UK citizens. For Jimmy Mubenga, it came from UK authorities when being ejected from the country. For both it ended in death.
Perhaps David Cameron has learned something from the Taliban – even they have acknowledged the power of words.