Despite the last few years witnessing sweeping and hopeful social justice movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, climate strikes, and repeated protests against deportation efforts, instances of hate crime and discrimination in England are far from declining.
COVID-19 had a particularly compounding effect in not only increasing violence against women, girls and minorities, but also making reporting and accounting far more arduous. However, the pandemic isn’t the only explanation as to why the deeply rooted racism in our society is increasingly translating into instances of hate-based violence.
Of course, the initial answer as to “who is responsible” for this violence is always going to be the perpetrators of such acts.
However, it would be short-sighted to say that this is just “the way things are,” especially when put into the context of the global rise of right-wing extremism.
There are many factors that can account for the rise of division, isolation, and worsening relations in Britain, such as financial crises and inflation, the effects of Covid-19, and racist bias from the media.
But it is also important to take a deeper look at who is fuelling the fire of such existing divisions, increasingly turning them into instances of hate-based violence. In particular, we must take an honest look at the role our politicians and celebrities play in promoting narratives that can have lethal consequences on vulnerable populations while also skirting accountability for the way their words will be acted upon.
Donald Trump may be the most stark example of how a politician’s words and attitude can encourage populations to commit violent acts seemingly in their name: when a protestor was escorted out of his rally in 2016, he said himself that he’d “like to punch him in the face,” a statement that followed a long history of encouraging his followers’ violence with vitriolic remarks.
The UK is no stranger to far-right mobs inspired by words from British politicians. And they started long before Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own words were repeated to Keir Starmer by protesters who threatened violence earlier this year.
In 2019, it was Labour representatives campaigning for a second Brexit referendum that were attacked and abused by far-right demonstrators chanting Johnson’s name. In 2020, an acrimonious eight-tweet thread by Johnson claimed that Black Lives Matters protests had “been sadly hijacked by extremists intent on violence.” The Prime Minister decided to draw attention to alleged “attacks on the police” and “indiscriminate acts of violence” at the hands of BLM protestors, which he described as “intolerable” and “abhorrent.”
After he claimed that the Parliament Square statue of Winston Churchill was at “risk of attack by violent protestors,” swarms of supporters violently attacked BLM protestors, bolstered by their Prime Minister’s words and chanting his name.
Not only were his words careless and partisan, but they also provided extremists with the semblance of legitimacy and democratic endorsement, which was supported by the inaction of the Metropolitan Police. The violence that Johnson’s words triggered targeted peaceful protestors largely made up of marginalised communities.
Yet, there is only ever one answer to such instances: politicians repeatedly stating that they do not condone such violence, thereby skirting accountability for their words.
Nevertheless, in the same way that simply not being racist cannot be enough to bring racial equality, simply not condoning hate-based violence is but the bare minimum when one is supposed to represent and protect an entire country.
Angry speeches and hasty statements made by political representatives are part of the harmful discourse that perpetuates violence, legitimising it with the weight of the political institutions that come with elected officials. These instances cannot be seen as accidental, especially when they accompany systemic abuse by security forces, education policies, and laws that particularly impact vulnerable people.
The race to be relevant in the 24-hour news cycle combined with the trials and tribulations of increasingly living online — inundated by anonymous abuse — have got us used to angry words uttered ostensibly solely for their shock-value. But, this does not mean politicians and elected representatives can be absolved from responsibility when they use harmful rhetoric to divide, pushing racist and sexist agendas, and relying on old stereotypes in order to trigger support.
The House of Commons 2021 report on Hate Crime stated that “victims of hate crime were more likely to be affected emotionally and psychologically following a crime than victims of all crime.” This includes higher rates of anxiety and panic attacks among many other symptoms which are starkly higher than after non-hate-based crimes.
There needs to be a serious consideration of the weight carried by statements made by public figures, and a frank call for accountability on the real-life consequences that such speeches can have. Some might say that imploring society to be more careful about the words we use and the statements we give attention to is already a lost cause, but JAN Trust will not give up, as we believe that we can make a difference in the fight against hate and extremism.