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8 September 2016

The killing of a Polish man shook the town of Harlow – could more trouble be coming?

Residents came together after the death of Arek Józwik. But judging from the racism I encountered on my visit, Harlow still has some way to go.

By Stephen Bush

If you want to understand Harlow in Essex, go to Our Lady of Fatima Church on Howard Way. A magnificent example of the mid-century style beloved of the post-Second World War planners who built the town, it has been energised by the influx of Polish immigrants who have arrived in Essex since their country joined the European Union in 2004. The pews are full every week, and both of the priests here – Father Bogdan and Father Leszek – are also Poles.

But as I make my way to the church, a passing driver winds down his window and shouts “Oi! Paki!” at me. He is neither the first nor the last to do so. Outside the church, a group of men point and stare as I make my way past.

Our Lady of Fatima is the dominant architectural feature of the Stow, the Harlow community that was convulsed by the death of Arkadiusz Józwik on 29 August. The 40-year-old factory worker – “Arek” to his friends – had been knocked to the ground outside a takeaway two days earlier. He had lived in England for the past four years and, according to his brother Radek, had been eating a pizza when he was set upon because he was heard to speak in Polish.

A murder investigation has been launched and six teenagers were arrested in connection with the attack. Prosecutors in Poland are pursuing their own inquiries. They have suggested that, under Polish law, the attackers could stand trial in Józwik’s home country.

For some, the unprovoked attack in a public place was reminiscent of the killing of James Bulger, the toddler who was abducted, tortured and killed by two ten-year-olds on Merseyside in 1993. To many, Bulger’s murder became political – an emblem of 14 years of Conservative neglect of public services. Similarly, in 2016, Józwik’s death felt like the most violent manifestation of the emotions stirred up by Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

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Although the crime rate in Harlow is below the UK average, a Freedom of Information request by the Independent found that, in the weeks after 23 June, reported hate crimes surged, particularly in areas that had voted to leave. The increase in Kent was 143 per cent compared with the same period in 2015, 191 per cent in Lincolnshire and 121 per cent in Derbyshire.

Harlow voted for Brexit by a 36-point margin. Eric Hind, a Polish-born IT manager who has lived and worked in the town for 14 years, told the Guardian that “Brexit kind of gave the British people a kind of green light to be racist”. Hind helped to organise a silent march through the town in remembrance of Józwik.

“I genuinely believe,” Robert Halfon, the town’s MP, tells me, “that the vast majority of people voted [Leave] because they just believed we were better off out. They didn’t like the bureaucracy of the European Union.

“The only thing I would say,” he adds, “is that the Brexit thing allowed a small minority of horrific people to come out of the sewers and exploit division and hatred.”

Something has been stirred up in the town. In the Stow itself, where I attempt to talk to residents, an elderly woman sticks her head out of the window of her house to tell me “I’ve got my eye on you”, and threatens to call the police unless I move on sharpish.

“My family and friends have all been abused,” Hind told reporters. “It happens on a daily basis.” In one tower block, as I talk to a man who works at Stansted Airport, I hear a voice shouting about “the Pakis”.

“It starts,” Halfon says, “[with] a Polish person being told to get off the bus, told to go back home, a mother frightened to speak Polish to her a child in public. And it’s like a conveyor belt to violence.”

Halfon describes Józwik’s death as a “black cloud” over the town. Emotions are raw and people are nervous: I talk to one woman through a letter box and another through a window. Both are unwilling to give their names. After a Guardian journalist described Harlow as “a left-behind town where residents live in fear”, one resident described the article on Twitter as “sensationalist waffle” that had “the entire country looking down on us”. Certainly, some residents seem wary of further press intrusion and others of reprisals if they speak out.

Harlow has always been “a town of aspiration”, as Halfon puts it. It was the Attlee government’s fourth “new town”, designated as such in March 1947. It was a place for London’s bombed-out East Enders to start a new life. The town has retained this reputation through the subsequent decades: when I was growing up in the East End, Harlow was known as a place where people moved when they got together a little bit of money. Moving out to Essex became a sign of having “made it”, and much of the town looks like the East End at its Sunday best: the gardens better kept, the houses cleaner, with two cars in every drive.

It’s what the East End would look like if its people were whiter, too. At 16 per cent, Harlow’s ethnic-minority population is high for Essex, but well below that of London – the city that many of its residents commute to and from each day.

That has long been an unspoken part of the story when people leave the East End – a place that, according to one man with whom I speak, is now “unrecognisable”, although I don’t press the point on whether he is talking about pop-up cafés or brown faces.

Economic change might not be making Harlow “unrecognisable”, but it is shaking the foundations of a town that was once a byword for upward social mobility. Although unemployment here is slightly lower than in the country as a whole, it lags behind the rest of Essex. But, as Halfon observes, the spirit of Harlow – as a place for people in search of a better life – is very much embodied in the town’s Poles.

“They are regenerating local areas,” he says. “They are ‘doing the right thing’: they are working hard, educating people; they fill up the churches. For them to feel frightened is terrifying.”

For many, the fear is that the death of Arek Józwik is the beginning of their post-Brexit woes, not the end. 

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers