On 27 November, a heartbreaking video of a child brutally attacking a Syrian refugee went viral. It’s shocking, both because of the level of violence displayed, and because it shows children. The fifteen-year-old boy already has his wrist in a cast, and it’s now known that he and his family fled to safety from Syria in 2010. The alleged attacker has been summoned to appear in youth court. But along with the video, his name was widely shared on social media. The Canary has seen his profile and, while there is no excuse for his actions, it revealed a shocking truth.
The alleged attacker is only 16. Yet, over the past year, he frequently shared posts from Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson’).
No matter how many times he tries to reinvent himself, Yaxley-Lennon is a vile racist who spent years pushing a harsh anti-Muslim message. Although now banned from Twitter, it doesn’t take much to find evidence of his extreme anti-Islamic bile.
Yaxley-Lennon has reportedly defended the attacker and claimed that the refugee child attacked somehow “isn’t innocent”.
This is the same Yaxley-Lennon who’s championed by the Trump administration and Steve Bannon. And the founder of the English Defence League (EDL) is currently advising UKIP leader Gerard Batten. Week after week, he pushes for greater legitimacy and a bigger political platform. And it seems like he’s getting there. But this recent attack shows beyond doubt just how dangerous this actually is.
Can we just be honest about it? Yaxley-Lennon shares hate speech. And that, as this video showed, has devastating consequences. There’s no doubt for anyone who’s seen the video that it’s a racist attack. Part of the bigger issue is that, as Brexit chaos continues, Yaxley-Lennon’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ideology appears close to becoming normalised. So much so that it seems kids have also taken it on board.
The UK is pumping out a story: there is an enemy. The enemy is not British, the enemy is other, the enemy has dark skin. Now, we’ve seen this narrative played out by a child in school uniform.
This is England
As Yaxley-Lennon continues to push for political legitimacy, other versions of his rhetoric seep everywhere. There’s absolutely no defence for this child’s actions, but it’s time to ask bigger questions.
No wonder Yaxley-Lennon is creeping towards UKIP these days. It’s fully established that UKIP support helped to swing Brexit and that this was directly linked to the impact of Tory-led austerity. A study identified that the rise of UKIP was directly related to areas with the greatest “exposure to austerity since 2010”, and this was a key factor in the Brexit vote.
We’ve got a prime minister who announces with relish almost daily now that Brexit will put “an end to the free movement of people once and for all”. Let’s not forget either that this is the same woman who was the architect of the UK’s ‘hostile environment‘. And nor should we ignore the Tories’ shameful record on sanctuary for asylum seekers and refugees.
No action was taken against Boris Johnson, Theresa May’s former cabinet minister, when he described Muslim women as ‘bank robbers’ and “letterboxes”. A Yaxley-Lennon Facebook group created a meme that seemed to find this funny. And the boy accused of this violent act shared that meme. The child he attacked, meanwhile, said:
When I came to the UK I felt I was going to be safe, and none of that happened.
This is England.
For every warm and kind-hearted individual in this country, there’s a callous government spreading an insidious message of hate and bigotry. Behind them, UKIP is gathering voters, pushing a more overt brand of this same message. And then out there in front of it all is Yaxley-Lennon – whom some school kids share on their Facebook feeds. These things are all connected.
The alleged offender shared Yaxley-Lennon’s posts. This suggests to me that he was radicalised by the vicious rhetoric. Yaxley-Lennon is a potentially radicalising figure who spreads hate speech. Can we deal with that now?
Allegedly, schools have a system in place to spot the signs of radicalisation and extremism. But it’s deeply flawed and inherently racist in itself. I know this from experience.
Launched in 2003, Prevent is a Home Office policy that claims “to safeguard vulnerable people from being radicalised”. Prevent is a controversial counter-terrorism strategy to stop extremism. But it was described in a 2017 UN Human Rights Council report as “inherently flawed”. Linked to Prevent, is the Channel programme. It’s only taken a few years for huge issues with these programmes to reach landmark court cases.
In 2016, I had to undergo Prevent training to work as a teacher. I was livid because there’s a choice of two ‘scenarios’: one involves Muslim extremism, the other a far-right narrative. There’s no option to explore both, so it’s entirely feasible to complete the training and sign off without ever understanding the very real and present danger of the far right.
In my time as a teacher, I’ve met kids who spout racist bile. It’s heartbreaking. You do your best to provide inclusive lessons, but seeing young people throw far-right rhetoric back at you is shocking. I’ll never forget the time I marked a kid’s book and saw he’d written: “Muslims are dirty, they should all leave our country”.
You flag it up. Management is supportive and suggests you call home. You call the parents, and they tell you that they agree with that sentiment. Then what?
You could, I suppose, follow it up through Channel – if you ignored the controversy around the programme. As the UN said, the policy is so flawed it risks “dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population”. In other words, it perpetuates and entrenches the issues it claims to ‘solve’. And anyway, lines like this child wrote aren’t a terrorist threat. Nor is sharing a Yaxley-Lennon meme on social media.
We live in a society of normalised racism. This is a far, far bigger threat to all our children than potential or imagined child terrorists.
As rapper and activist Lowkey has pointed out, huge numbers of very young children have been referred through Channel:
2) There is something active in schools as part of Prevent called Channel, which is a pre-crime diversionary programme. The youngest child to be referred on this programme is 3 years old. Around 2,500 children under the age of 9 have been referred.
— Lowkey (@Lowkey0nline) November 29, 2018
In 2015-2016, only 10% of the children referred to Channel were flagged for right-wing extremism. These statistics suggest that the government’s policy is as racist as the issues it claims to challenge. The child who suffered this abuse tried to seek help. He told ITV News that he tried:
following the law, trying to be safe, and none of that happened. I was trying to call our council to help us, but they didn’t. I was trying to tell the police, they didn’t listen to me either.
Hearing these words, I have to say from the bottom of my heart: Prevent, Channel, and the government that imposes a system which refers three-year-old Muslim children as extremists but ignores a refugee, can all fuck off.
Running to where?
And let’s not forget that, while this video has shocked thousands of people, many of those same people ignore the violence that children suffer every day in Palestine, Gaza, Yemen, and around the world.
In September 2015, devastating images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi – who drowned fleeing Syria – shocked the world. The plight of refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged countries still made headline news in 2016. But since then – although barely reported in the UK media now – the crisis hasn’t stopped. When European borders closed, thousands of people were stranded. They still are.
The UK government is also still fully complicit in the ongoing tragedy in Syria. In 2017, US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria rose by nearly 50%, causing an estimated 215% rise in civilian casualties and a 55% rise in civilian injuries – mostly women and children. The US and UK are both part of this coalition – and casualties are still rising. Refugees are still running. To what? To where?
According to Refugee Action, there were around 6.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide in 2016. At this point, the UK pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrians. In 2018, 13.1 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, but the UK has still only met half of its 2016 target. And for those few who do reach the UK, what comfort and safety do they find?
Not in my name
It would be easy to blame the parents or blame the school for this act of violence. But that’s not a solution. Attacks like this will only end when we tackle the deeper causes of decay in our society. Because it’s exactly this that gives racists like Yaxley-Lennon any kind of influence. And this is all entrenched by an establishment media that’s the “most right-wing in Europe”.
That we live in a country that doesn’t label him for hate speech says it all. We now have a government that whitewashes Yaxley-Lennon’s stance and pumps it out in policy every day.
Yes, we must push for the UK to welcome more refugees and do this with open arms. But we also need to make sure that those who arrive find true sanctuary. Children aren’t born violent, it’s something they learn. And while there is absolutely no excuse for this recent brutal attack, it doesn’t take long to see where the blame should be placed.
We have to hold out hope for the child who committed this vile act, that one day, very soon, he’ll live in a country where Yaxley-Lennon’s voice is reduced to the cowardly, racist whimper that it really is. For that, we also need a country that isn’t governed by legitimised racists. And we all have a part to play in that.
Featured image via screengrab/ITV News
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