Dover Attacks

Initially the slashing incidents in Dover in August were put down to "refugees", denomination uncertain. Whether they be Kurds or Kosovans appeared to be largely a matter of indifference. No one, not least the media, seemed particularly bothered about the facts, much less securing any agreement on the identity of the guilty party. With battle lines drawn on the basis of the editorial line being either in the pro or anti immigrant camp, truth rather inevitably was the first casualty.

Playing fast and loose was certainly the Guardian style with this interpretation of events: "The violent scenes, as local knife wielding thugs clashed with asylum seekers leaving 11 people wounded gave a nightmare glimpse of the future that may face those who arrive in Britain each year to claim refugee status" (24.8.99). "Local" in this context, presumably meaning white. Socialist Worker was a trifle less gung ho. While denying "lurid pictures" of refugee violence as "filthy lies" it tacitly accepted some refugee culpability in the affair. In mitigation adding that the community had been provoked beyond endurance, and "in the face of racist taunts one asylum seeker had gone for local youths with a knife... allegedly". Whatever the damage done, (of which there is no reference) this was 'a lone nut' for which no one else should be held to account was the SW spin. Complaining that the Dover Express, which last year described refugees as "human sewage" and this time round under a title "blood bath at funfair" illustrated the piece with "a graphic picture of a slashed Kent youth", the Observer expressed outrage that the papers coverage seemed so "completely one sided". "The paper does not" fumed the Observer "highlight that at least one Kosovan had his face slashed" (Observer 22.8.99). Curiously neither, when presented with the opportunity, did the Observer.

In any case having nailed its colours so firmly to the mast last year, being 'one sided' is hardly a charge the Dover Express is likely to refute. But what of the Guardian, Socialist Worker and the Observer itself? It would be hard to imagine the Observer absolving anyone else of blame, regardless of provocation, if for instance on a ratio of ten to one, the victims had (a) not been white and (b) not been working class. Here as with the race killing of Richard Everitt, the liberal press allowed itself to appear entirely neutral. There are of course two sides to every story, but their reticence speaks volumes. When in the liberal mind such things, the slashing of a couple of ten year old girls, or even a racist murder is ignored, dismissed as 'hype', presented as understandable, or if done in the right cause even meritorious, it is easy to see the danger signs. Promoting a minority over majority, policy regardless, is reverse nationalism, not anti-racism. Automatically, from this stand-point, the interests of refugees or other minorities are counterpoised to the interests of, as the Guardian described them, the "locals". And with the white working class cast as the enemy designate, 'round up the usual suspects' is the watchword. Quite simply liberals wants to abolish 'the abuses of society on the basis of the same principles that gave rise to those abuses', so the entire race question is approached from a moral stand-point - only. Nasty 'locals' versus 'nice' refugees and vice versa. Talk of extra funding to 'grease' proper integration is considered impossibly vulgar. Thus in the competition for dwindling resources the most impoverished are set against each other. Politicians and the media merely choose sides. "In Oxford a racist gang took its cue from the right wing press" according to SW " [and] with iron bars, axes and bottles attacked a house where Kosovan refugees lived." Local papers in Oxford however presented a very different account. Again, somebody, somewhere was telling porkies.

Obviously when the media take sides on the basis of race, without regard to objective truth, it makes it harder and harder for everybody else to discover what is actually happening. The general uncertainty as to what is really going on only makes it easier to for a fundamentalist agenda to find favour. Truth might be the first casualty but in a war of half truths the 'big lie' will always be victor. And we all know who has the pedigree in that department.

Ascribing to refugees a host of virtues highly prized in middle class culture but assumed to be absent in the host community (usually the toughest of neighbourhoods incidentally) is self defeating. Particularly when not true. Particularly when impossible to live up to. A compound error being to lie, when as in Dover, the unpalatable happens.

By contrast authentic anti-racism is to recognise that when you really get down to it 'refugees are as bad as the rest of us'. So for anti-fascism 'no better, no worse' remains the anchor. To attempt to 'improve' reality for some imagined political advantage stumbles, perhaps unwittingly, into the camp of those for whom racial preference is second nature.

Just recently Anti-Fascist Action was denounced as "racist" in the letters pages of a weekly left-wing paper for questioning the efficacy of liberal anti-racism. But 'Refugees welcome here!' is not a strategy, but a proclamation. And those who bawl it loudest, mostly hide, rather stand behind it. They hide from reality in other ways too. Not least the notion that they, as sterling defenders of the status quo, are at one and the same time, attacking militant anti-fascism from the left.

Ultimately the extent to which a positive outcome is possible depends entirely on how refugees interests can be shown to be a defence, not of narrow sectional interests merely, but of needs which are accepted by working class communities as universal.

Reproduced from RA vol 4, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '99