It’s enough to make you feel sick to your stomach. A video of a group burning on a bonfire an effigy of Grenfell tower. The mood is jovial. An England flag flutters in the background. “Stay in your flat. We are coming to get you!” says one, referring to firefighters’ instructions to residents to remain in their homes while the fire burned. Laughter erupts amongst the group. “Ah, ah, help me! Help me!” another one says mimicking the cries for assistance of the Grenfell dead. Laughter again.
Someone went to the bother of constructing the miniature tower as a little party trick, with the faces of crudely drawn brown people on the side looking out their windows, including a “ninja” – a woman wearing a niqab – a detail that one of those attending finds particularly funny. “Jump out the window!” shouts another guest to more howls of laughter. “That’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent,” says another, chuckling. It’s racism at its most grotesque.
Last June, 72 people burned to death alongside their family and friends in Grenfell Tower. Millions watched across the country on their television sets, horrified at the loss of human life and the ensuing stories of alleged council complicity in the tower’s destruction. Others – who knows how many across the country – seeing the tower was in a multicultural area, hearing stories of how many of the residents were in fact undocumented and illegal, decided that these people’s lives weren’t worth their sympathy. We’ve now seen the video evidence of these kinds of people and it isn’t pretty. Before coming to the attention of the papers, the video was circulating on WhatsApp over the weekend. These people aren't as small a minority as we’d like to believe. There’s clearly an audience for racism.
How have we created a society where people can view the misery of other humans as so frivolous? How could these people be so callous when confronted with the suffering of others? How could they – only 18 months after the incident happened – laugh at the plight of those who burned to death in the tower? In a way, we should be grateful for this video. It shows us what we’re up against. For it depicts, beyond any doubt, that many in this country view the lives of brown and Muslim people as of inherently less value than those of their white counterparts. The dehumanisation of the Grenfell dead is because of the racism at the heart of our society.
But none of this behaviour should really be surprising. Immigrant-bashing has been a hobby of mainstream politicians and journalists for decades. UKIP’s rise, rather than being an anomaly – an electoral gust entering the political mainstream to shake politicians out of their complacency – is in fact just a continuation of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of both Labour and the Tories throughout the Noughties. Labour’s aim was to appeal to a white, working class who were supposedly sick of the ravages of globalisation and the mass immigration that it brought with it.
This side of Blairism is often forgotten: the cosmopolitan Britpop image often remembered in favour of a slightly less palatable tough on immigration stance. While it's arguable that there is little use in equating New Labour with an emerging far-right, it is important to understand the environment from which they sprung – an era typified by anti-immigrant rhetoric presided over by Blair and Brown. In order to understand how people can burn an effigy full of immigrants and find it funny, we need to look at how this kind of dehumanisation came about.
In 2005, with his Tory opponent Michael Howard focusing on asylum and immigration in the upcoming general election, and the right-wing press its usual xenophobic self, Blair decided to launch a press conference on the white cliffs of Dover to wrest back control of the narrative, and to talk about those very issues to camera with a specially invited all white audience behind him. Rather than counter Howard’s rhetoric – “our communities cannot absorb newcomers at today’s pace” – Blair, David Blunkett and later Gordon Brown decided the best thing to do was to assuage the “legitimate concerns” of those who disliked immigrants moving into their communities.
“Concern over asylum immigration is not about racism,” said Blair, as he promised to crack down on illegal entry into the country and “illegitimate” asylum claims. In 2002, then home secretary Blunkett refused to apologise after saying asylum seekers were swamping British schools. Brown’s use of the phrase “British Jobs for British Workers” in 2007 – copied straight from the BNP playbook – was a particularly low moment. David Cameron’s “swarm of migrants” used to describe those trying to reach the UK from Calais must also never be forgotten.
Rather than appeasing the right wing newspapers, and the racists, New Labour should have countered these negative tales of immigration. “We should welcome asylum seekers and immigrants because they are human like us,” the line should have been. New Labour’s kowtowing to the right wing press who propagated the lie that those who come here illegally, and who are mostly poor and desperate, are undeserving of our sympathy has been a costly one. And now, sprouting from the anti-immigrant sentiment that was laid, have arrived UKIP and far right figures like Tommy Robinson. And groups of people who burn effigies of towers populated by immigrants. And laugh.
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