A woman in badger costume looks toward the Houses of Parliament in central London. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on bigotry: Extremists chased through London by women dressed as badgers – that makes me proud

But that feeling faded when I saw a drunk woman draped in a St George’s flag dragging an angry pitbull through the police line to scream, “I’m not racist!” in the faces of some bewildered Asian students

Bigotry makes a lot of excuses for itself but when it arrives on your street, it takes dedication to look the other way. On 15 August, I watched as police and UK Border Agency officials raided beauty stores specialising in black and Asian hair products on Kingsland High Street in east London. Kids on their way home from school held up camera phones as shop workers were led out in handcuffs and forced into the back of a van that was parked outside an Irish pub, which was adorned with a sun-faded sign promising “a hundred thousand welcomes”. We were told we had “no right to know” where police were taking our neighbours.
 
“You can understand how that looks a bit racist,” said a campaigner from the grassroots activist project Anti-Raids Network, arguing with one of the officers at the scene. He asked why all the new, posh coffee shops staffed by Australians seemed to have no problems with immigration.
 
“How is it racist if you’re arresting people who are committing offences?” replied the young constable, with that flawless logic of a jobbing PC evading a question. The law, naturally, is never racist, nor are laws ever applied in a racist way. This is why, despite the plethora of minor crimes that they commit on Kingsland High Street on an hourly basis, I have not once seen the wasted white hipster kids who spend Saturdays self-intoxicating on every spare square of pavement being marched away in handcuffs.
 
“This is racist – bang-on racist,” said one bystander, fiddling nervously with her phone. She was afraid to give me her name. At first, I was confused – did she actually think I might have missed the clear overtones of a bunch of white border officials muscling Asian shopkeepers into a police van on a Thursday morning? – but I shouldn’t have been. In recent months, many white people in Britain have gone to a lot of trouble to excuse and overlook creeping racism in our communities.
 
 “I’m not racist but . . .” has ceased to be merely a polite way of letting your friends know that you’re about to say something racist and would prefer not to be held to account. It now signals something darker, a sort of violent unseeing. Redefining racism has become urgent, angry – a squabble over semantics that obscures truth rather than revealing it. It’s been a long, hot summer of lies and the worst ones have been those we’ve told ourselves about what’s going on in this country.
 
In July, the Home Office paid for vans with the words “Go home or face arrest” printed on them in big, ugly letters to drive around some of the most ethnically diverse areas of the capital, to the presumed delight of vacillating Tory voters who might otherwise have defected to Ukip. (For his part, Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, said that the language used was “nasty, unpleasant, Big Brother”.) The vans weren’t racist, though, because there was small print on the posters promising advice and help to any illegal immigrants who were seeking to return to their countries of origin. Never mind that the phrase “go home” echoes 50 years of fascist graffiti. There was some small print. So it’s not racist. So it’s fine.
 
Then there are the attacks on British mosques. According to the campaign group Tell Mama, since May – when a soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered by Islamist extremists in Woolwich, south-east London – there have been 28 attacks on mosques across the UK, which include firebomb and arson attacks. The latest was in Harlow, Essex.
 
Rigby’s murder received blanket press coverage for almost a fortnight, whereas the mosque attacks have been reported calmly, leaving space on the front pages for such urgent news as the impending birth of a panda cub at Edinburgh Zoo. Pointing out this pattern of Islamophobia, however, instantly draws a horde of angry explainers keen to point out that technically Islam, like Judaism, isn’t a race – it’s a religion. Thinking that those Muslim community centres might have had it coming is technically not racist. So it’s fine.
 
Then there has been the mustering of the fascist English Defence League and BNP, who have been out on the streets exploiting the anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise in popular Islamophobia following the Woolwich murder. Granted, when members of the Scottish Defence League tramped through Edinburgh on 17 August, they were mistaken for a particularly innovative Fringe show; and when the BNP attempted to march on the Cenotaph in June, it was met not only by hundreds of anti-fascists but by a large number of people in furry costumes who were very cross about the forthcoming badger cull. (Nobody had thought to check what other protests were scheduled that day. Never had the slogan “Black and white – unite and fight!” been more appropriate.)
 
Fascism isn’t funny but headlines such as “Far-right extremists chased through London by women dressed as badgers” made me briefly proud to be British. That feeling faded when I saw a drunk woman draped in a St George’s flag dragging an angry pitbull through the police line to scream, “I’m not racist!” in the faces of some bewildered Asian students. She was a member of an antiimmigrant, anti-Muslim gang that has been intimidating black and ethnic-minority people in deprived areas of the country for years but she was convinced that she wasn’t racist. So that was fine.
 
The thing about racism is that it isn’t like a parking ticket or a poor exam grade. You don’t just get out of it on a technicality. Fifty years after the civil rights marches in the US, we seem to have reached a consensus that racism is pretty awful – but rather than tackle it in our communities, we are redefining it so we don’t have to think less of ourselves. 
 
Laurie Penny is contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.