This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
On the 29th of August, Arek Jozwik was eating a pizza in The Stow shopping arcade in Harlow, Essex, when he was set upon by a group of young locals. He died from a single punch, causing him to fall to the ground and bang his head. His attack is being investigated as a possible hate crime. In one way, this wasn't an isolated incident: last year, the Harlow district was reported as the site of a hate crime almost every two days from 2013 to 2014, with central Europeans as most victims. Hours after the vigil to commemorate Arek's death, two more Polish men were attacked. So is Harlow really such a hub for xenophobia? And if so, why?
You'd have to look back a bit to try and find out. In 1992, Harlow was the birthplace of Combat 18, Britain's best-known far-right terrorist group. Five years later, it was the site of a murder stemming from in-fighting within the group. According to Nick Ryan, who spent time with the group while working as a journalist and now runs communications for anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate, the incident related to an ideological split within the group, with one faction wanting to take the organisation in a more extreme direction.
The town continued to harbour some far-right roots in the years to come. In 2010, a Muslim Research Centre report from the University of Exeter described it as having a "strong extremist nationalist presence that adds to the sense of siege for the small Muslim community". The report noted that a mosque had all its windows smashed even though they'd been reinforced and were protected by a metal cage. Three years later, the mosque was set ablaze.
At a glance, there'd seem to be a combination of neo-Nazi sentiment and a sustained flow of racially motivated incidents at play in the town. But racism and xenophobia are two different things. Until recently, those with more melanin in their skin might have been more visible targets, but assaults on Polish people add another dimension to the story. I wanted to know what had changed, so headed to Harlow on the day of Arek's public funeral ceremony to see what I could glean.
When Harlow first came into being in the 1960s, it seemed destined for great things. It was a new town used to re-house London's urban poor, with exciting, experimental new building designs, and a myriad of green spaces. We were met with a "welcome to Harlow," shouted by a passersby who noticed our photographer taking pictures.
On the way to the crematorium, I asked our cab driver what he thought of the murder, and was surprised to hear he didn't think that it was motivated by prejudice. He told us that he lived in a block of flats overlooking the street where it happened, and that groups of youths would congregate there each night, starting fights because they had nothing better to do. "I don't think it was anything to do with racism. No way," he said. I was curious to see if the Polish community shared his views. Perhaps the racism in Harlow had died down, and the main problem was now one of general crime and disorder.
The service was well-attended, with both Polish and English people paying their respects. "Don't forget Arek," said his friend Eric Hind, in a speech. "He never wanted to make anyone cry, he wanted to make everyone happy." Prayers were said in Polish, and the clergyman assured Arek's friends and family that he was in a better place.
Afterwards, Eric said he felt the murder was definitely a hate crime. He believed that although there was anti-Polish sentiment in Harlow prior to the Brexit, after the results were announced, people felt emboldened to express it more. I also spoke to Mira Gustmajdzimski, who's been the victim of a hate crime herself. She successfully pressed charges against a former neighbour for racial harassment. "Brexit's opened everything up, and now there's more hate," she said.
Next, I spoke to a lady called Lorraine, pictured above, who told me she felt there was a big problem with xenophobia in Harlow. She didn't think it was anything to do with Brexit; she thought it was a long-standing issue. Others thought the Brexit had stirred up resentment. "Brexit's fired it all up, with people thinking they're taking their jobs, they're taking their houses," said James, sat on a bench in the town centre. He was disgusted by what had happened, and linked it both to xenophobia and uncontrollable kids.
A Nigerian immigrant who gave his name as "D" told me that the focus had shifted away from racism against black people, towards targeting Eastern Europeans. "When I first came to England, it was 'black cunt, fucking nigger', but now they've moved on to the Polish," he said.
There's no simple explanation for Arek's tragic death. One day in any town could never help you form a complete picture of it, and that's clear here. While Harlow was once home to far-right groups, that can't be connected in a direct line to what happened at the end of August. Instead, you find a town – like many others – that's grappling with underfunding and a shortage of jobs. Incidents explode from time to time, but once the national press has left again, there's no easy headline to write that sums Harlow up. Sadly, its become a place where a trip to the pizza place cost one man his life.
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