Early on Sunday morning, staff arriving at the Polish Social and Cultural (POSK) centre in west London’s leafy Ravenscourt Park were met with a nasty shock: a xenophobic obscenity smeared across the front of the building in bright yellow paint.
“It was a standard, unpleasant way of saying ‘go away’ – I’ll leave that to your interpretation,” Joanna Mludzinska, chairwoman of the centre, says the next morning as news crews buzz around the centre’s foyer. The message was cleaned off as soon as the staff took photo evidence – “we didn’t want people to walk down and be confronted by it” – but the sting of an unprecedented attack on the centre hasn’t abated.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Mludzinska tells me, shaking her head. “Never.”
The news comes as part of a wash of social media posts and police reports of xenophobic and racist attacks since Friday’s referendum result. It’s of course difficult to pin down the motivation for specific acts, but many of these reports feature Brits telling others to “leave” or “get out” – which strongly implies that they are linked to the public’s decision on Friday to leave the European Union.
Hammersmith and Fulham, the voting area where the centre is based, voted by a 40-point margin to remain in the UK, which meant the attack was particularly unexpected. “The police are treating this as a one-off, which we hope it is,” Mludzinska tells me. They are currently investigating the incident as a hate crime.
“But we have anecdotal evidence of more personal things happening outside London. They’ve received messages calling them vermin, scum [in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire]. It’s very frightening.” As one local Polish woman told the Mirror, there are fears that the referendum has “let an evil genie out of a bottle”.
For those unsure whether they will even be able to stay in Britain post-referendum, the attacks are particularly distressing, as they imply that the decision to leave was, in part, motivated by hatred of non-British citizens.
Ironically, it is looking more and more likely that we might preserve free movement within the EU even if we leave it; Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson are now claiming immigration and anti-European feeling were not a central part of the campaign. For those perpetrating the attacks, though, it’s obvious that they were: “Clearly, these kind of people think all the foreigners should go tomorrow, end of,” Mludzinska says.
She believes politicians must make clear quickly that Europeans and other groups are welcome in the UK: “We need reassurance to the EU communities that they’re not going to be thrown out and they are welcome. That’s certainly my message to the Polish community – don’t feel that all English people are against you, it’s not the case.”
When I note that the attack must have been very depressing, Mludzinska corrects me, gesturing at the vases of flowers dotted around the foyer: “It’s depressing, but also heartening. We’ve received lots and lots of messages and flowers from English people who are not afraid to say I’m sorry, I apologise that people are saying things like that. It’s a very British, very wonderful thing.”
Labour MP Jess Phillips has submitted a parliamentary question on how many racist and xenophobic attacks took place this weekend, compared to the weekends preceding the result. Until this is answered, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of the rise of hate crime over the past few days. From social media and police reports, it seems clear that the abuse has been directed at Europeans and other minorities alike.
Twitter users are sending out reports of incidents like those listed below under the hashtag #PostBrexitRacism:
Last night a Sikh radiographer colleague of mine was told by a patient “shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? we voted you out”
— Dr. M. Ali Abbasi (@drmaliabbasi) June 26, 2016
— Ash McGregor (@ashmcgregor) June 26, 2016
#postbrexitracism I was shouted at by an old white English man in wheelchair, something + ‘can you move out’, manchester arndale. So Sacry
— Lulu Yang (@yangfenglu) June 27, 2016
Police are currently investigating mutiple hate crime reports. If you see or experience anything like this yourself, you should report it to police (including the British Transport Police, who have a direct text number to report abuse, 61016) or the charity Stop Hate UK.
HOPE not hate, an advocacy group that campaigns against racism in elections, has released a statement on the “upsurge of hatred” post-referendum, calling on the government to give reassurance to these communities and on police to “bring the full force of the law” to bear against perpetrators.
The group notes that the referendum, “cannot be a green light for racism and xenophobic attacks. Such an outpouring of hate is both despicable and wrong.”
The National Police Chief’s council has now released figures on the spike in hate crime reports following the referendum. Between Thursday and Sunday, 85 reports were sent to True Vision, a police-funded crime reporting service. During the same period four weeks ago, only 54 were sent – which constitutes a rise of 57 per cent.
In a statement, Mark Hamilton, Assistant Chief Constable for the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Hate Crime, said police are “monitoring the situation closely”.