The year is 1990. The place, Hackney in East London.
A man is walking along Homerton High Street accompanied by his children whom he is taking to join the public library. A builder’s truck passes by and a wooden plank is hurled at the man, accompanied by a shout of ‘Go home, you stinking Paki’. The man is hit on the head and falls to the ground in front of his horrified children. Fortunately, although suffering a serious head wound he lives to tell the tale and thankfully is not the victim of yet another racist murder.
Who was he?
He was a primary school teacher from Trinidad, of Indian heritage, a descendant of indentured labourers who were brought to the Caribbean from that great outpost of the British Empire, India, beginning in 1845, to replace the enslaved Africans who had moved away from the plantations following the abolition of slavery in 1838. He had never been to Pakistan or anywhere else on the Indian sub-continent. Before Trinidad won its political independence and became a republic, he had carried a British colonial passport.
Why was he on the streets of Hackney?
In the late 1980s, even as the inner London boroughs prepared to take over the running of education from the Inner London Education Authority following its abolition by Margaret Thatcher, London and indeed England was experiencing a massive shortage of primary school teachers. The International Monetary Fund had recently imposed conditionalities on the Trinidad Government as part of a “structural adjustment” programme which compelled the government to retrench significant numbers of public sector workers, including teachers. Trained and highly experienced teaching staff were therefore leaving the teaching service and seeking employment outside the country, even as domestic workers in North America. As the recently appointed Director of Education for Hackney, I felt justified in looking to that pool of staff to come and help raise education standards in Hackney and therefore recruited 50 of them, the majority primary school teachers.
I had no way of finding out, but it is conceivable that the teacher who could easily have been killed while going about his lawful business for being what his assailant decided was ‘a stinking Paki’ could have been teaching the child of that same would-be racist murderer.
Even the thorough induction I did for those teachers both before they left Trinidad and upon arrival in Britain could not have prepared that teacher for that horrendous, life threatening experience he had within weeks of arrival in London.
No one ever found out who the attacker was or whether he was a member of any one of the many neo-fascist groups that operated across Britain at the time. But, he did not have to be. For a full three decades prior to that incident, successive governments had sustained a debate and introduced policies which racialised immigration and cast ‘immigrants’ as unwanted, problematic, unwelcome, troublesome, ‘coloured’, ‘over sexed’ and ‘over here’.
At every turn and in practically every debate, the narrative was about challenges the immigrants were posing to the very fabric of British society as we knew it, including to the police, schools, health and social welfare and to ‘British culture’. Margaret Thatcher even voiced her fears that the latter was being ‘swamped’ (right). Those ‘immigrants’ of course were never New Zealanders, Australians or white South Africans. The state and its institutions, especially the police and the courts, unashamedly sang from the same hymn sheet as the leaders and members of the National Front, Column 88, and other neo-nazi groups that wore their racist and xenophobic credentials brashly and proudly. What is more, the latter knew that they had much more to fear from the Anti-Nazi League and the Anti-Racist Alliance than from the police and the courts.
The police, meanwhile, were more likely to question aggressively and charge a black person defending him/herself against a racist attacker than the neo-fascist or racist. Courts routinely sentenced black people for crimes of one sort or another with the attachment of a deportation order to be enforced once the person had served their sentence, irrespective of how long they had lived in the UK. One Birmingham MP, Jill Knight, even argued that offenders born in Britain of ‘immigrants’ from the Caribbean should be deported to the country from which their parents had emigrated.
This is the backcloth against which to frame attacks such as that which nearly killed the teacher in Hackney. You could almost hear the attacker brag: ‘So what’s the problem? They kill Pakis, don’t they?’….
That was a mere three years before Stephen Lawrence was murdered while he, too, was going about his lawful business.
Twenty years after that murder, representatives of the main political parties, including the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Leader of the Opposition joined the Lawrence family in a service of remembrance at St Martin in the Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square, a stone’s throw from the South African Embassy. What did David Cameron say then?
The senseless killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 was a tragedy. It was also a moment that sparked monumental change in our society – change that has been brought about by the tireless efforts of Stephen’s family in challenging the police, government and society to examine themselves and ask difficult questions.
I believe that many of those questions have been answered: from improved community relations to more accountability in policing. Much has been achieved, but we know that more still needs to be done. We owe this to the memory of Stephen.
By July 2013, however, the government’s own vans were running around London boroughs with a large ‘immigrant’ population and displaying huge billboards targeted at ‘illegal’ immigrants and telling them to ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’. What is worse is that the government lied not just to ‘illegal immigrants’ whom it wished to flush out, but to the public whom it wished to impress with its ‘zero tolerance’ stance on illegal immigration: ‘106 Arrests Last Week In Your Area’. It turns out that 106 was the total number of arrests across the 6 boroughs in which the vans had operated over a period of two days. Stephen’s family’s tireless efforts ‘in challenging the police, government and society to examine themselves and ask difficult questions’ have clearly been futile in the case of David Cameron and Theresa May.
Towards the end of the last government, Labour debated long and hard its proposal to introduce identity cards amidst vehement protests from civil libertarian and other groups. The idea was eventually abandoned, even by the Coalition Government. Now, however, the government appears to want to introduce apartheid-style ‘Pass Laws’ by stealth, despite David Cameron’s April pronouncement within earshot of the South African Embassy.
Over the years, it has been a common experience of youth workers and leaders of youth exchange groups taking young people to continental Europe that their fellow black workers and the British born black youths in their care are subjected to much more stringent scrutiny by immigration officers than their white counterparts. Many of those young people argue that they ‘take it in their stride’ because their ‘stop and search’ experience at the hands of the police prepared them for it.
A Home Office website invites members of the public to ‘report immigration crime or smuggling’:
This page explains how you can report suspected immigration crime (such as illegal immigration or illegally employing foreign workers), smuggling or terrorism.
We take public reports of crime seriously. If you suspect that someone is working illegally, has no right to be in the UK or is involved in smuggling, we want to hear from you.
A Mail Online report of 10 August 2013 states that:
Only one in every hundred reports of an illegal immigrant results in someone being forcibly removed from Britain, the Home Office has admitted. The figures are laid bare by a new hotline which was set up last year for members of the public to report suspected illegal immigrants.
Between September 2012 and June this year, there were 48,660 calls to the Home Office’s Allegations Management System (AMS). Of these, 2,695 led to a visit by an immigration enforcement officer. Those visits resulted in 1,840 arrests and 660 eventual deportations. This means just over one per cent of all reports actually result in a suspected illegal immigrant being removed.
David Wood, the new head of Immigration Enforcement is quoted as saying that allegations often do not provide enough intelligence for the authorities to act on. He said: ‘The intelligence we get from the allegations often do not provide information likely to lead to an arrest. Sometimes it is actionable.‘
So, one wonders what information was shared in those 48,660 calls and by whom. How many of those 1,280 people (out of 1,840) arrested as a result of those calls were not deported because they had a right to be here? What were they put through as a result of those arrests? What monitoring is the Home Secretary doing to satisfy herself and the public that the government has not simply put in place a snoopers’ charter for racists, xenophobes and ‘little Englanders’ to harass people fitting the description of ‘immigrant’ as defined by the beholder?
Human trafficking and the smuggling of children and young women as ‘sex slaves’ are heinous crimes. But, to conflate ‘suspected immigration crime (such as illegal immigration or illegally employing foreign workers)’ with ‘smuggling’ or ‘terrorism’ is not just disingenuous, it is downright irresponsible.
Since the ‘Go Home…’ vans appeared on the streets, there has been an interesting mix of reactions from the public, many of them entirely predictable, including ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ from anyone coming up to you and demanding evidence that you have a right to be here. Similar arguments are frequently used in defence of police ‘Stop and Search’ practices and they come most often from people who will never in their entire life be stopped by the police or by immigration officers at train stations. Their whiteness and even more their transparent Englishness simply does not impose the ‘ethnic penalty’ that goes with being African, or Asian, or Roma from Bulgaria or Romania.
Rather than dealing with the reasons why Britain’s borders are porous and why certain groups are targeted as ‘immigrants’ while other immigrant groups are not, the government is seeking to have the entire nation gripped in a moral panic about immigration generally and illegal immigration in particular, for purely cynical electoral reasons. It was ever thus. Yet, the same government is happy to champion the cause of ‘community cohesion’ and celebrate the ‘tolerant’, ‘welcoming’ and ‘fair’ society that Britain is. The fact that its stance on ‘immigration’ puts huge sections of British-passport-carrying citizens and those with residents’ rights at risk appears to be of no consequence.
The tragedy, though, is that among settled former migrant communities from the New Commonwealth are those who welcome the government’s initiatives on immigration because they believe that they are targeted mainly if not exclusively against Roma from Eastern Europe and ‘criminal gangs’ from the former Soviet Union. Some people from ethnic groups that were and still are vulnerable to attack from racists, fascists and xenophobes seem to have no difficulty in welcoming, totally without irony, the spectacle of vans appealing to ‘illegal immigrants’ to go home or face arrest. They appear to have superior intelligence that Theresa May’s Immigration Enforcement department will go after Roma from Eastern Europe and not them from the African or Asian Diaspora. Worse yet, they seem totally confident that this dangerous initiative on the part of the government will not result in them being targeted just as much as Roma, whether by immigration officers, the police or neo-fascists.
Civil unrest and inter-ethnic conflict in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001 gave rise to the ‘community cohesion’ agenda. While the issue of communities ‘segregated’ along racial lines was highlighted as a key underlying cause of those disturbances, the fact is that each of those communities had a history of racist attacks and of organised racist activity that, certainly in the case of Bradford and Burnley, had resulted in the South Asian community organising itself to resist the activities of neo-fascists and racists.
When I lectured at the University of Bradford, the leader of Bradford City Council then was one Eric Pickles, someone not unfamiliar with the history of racial conflict and organised racist and neo-fascist activity against the largely Asian population in that city. Now as Community Secretary, Eric Pickles is announcing to the nation the possibility that the ‘Go Home…’ vans will appear on the streets of other cities and towns, presumably those with a large ‘immigrant’ population such as Bradford.
Cameron, May, Pickles and that whole sorry bunch have managed to make even Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, sound like a radical anti-racist. His take on the ‘Go Home’ initiative is that “It’s gesture politics of the most inane and laughable sort’.
It is critical that as many of us as possible send a message to David Cameron, Theresa May, Eric Pickles and the rest of this government that the xenophobic society they are projecting and the nation of snoopers they want us to become is NOT the society in which we want to live or want our children to live. And we won’t ‘Go home…’, because for far too many of us, going ‘home’ means going to Manchester, or Leicester, or Brent, Bristol or Bradford.
Black Feminists have organised a petition “Tell Theresa May and @ukhomeoffice to stop public targeting of immigrants” on Change.org.
I have signed the petition. Please sign it too!
Picture (home): Pappzd – http://bit.ly/11sC2iG