In the south London borough of Croydon, just before midnight on Friday, three teenage boys were set upon up by a large group of young or young-ish people. Two of the boys escaped with minor injuries, but one, a 17-year-old, was left with a fractured skull and a blood clot in his brain. He is currently in a serious but stable condition – although doctors stated on Sunday that his injuries are not life-threatening. So far, the police have arrested 11 people, charged five and are looking for three more.
But there’s one key detail which has transformed this attack from a merely horrible incident into something else. The boy is a Kurdish-Iranian refugee, something his attackers allegedly ascertained before attacking him. And with that detail the crime gains a prefix – hate – and a seemingly far deeper significance. It is no longer simply a crime driven by motives yet to be established; it is reported as a hate crime, a crime driven by ‘prejudice’ towards the victim on account, in this case, of his race and probably his religion, too. And with that, it becomes a crime of general rather than particular significance; a crime supposedly produced by social attitudes, rather than individual motivations; a crime that generates national rather than local news headlines; a crime deemed worthy of comment by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, rather than just the local authorities.
Thus constructed as a hate crime by the police, who have described it as such, and the media and politicians, who have responded to it as such, this horrible incident, about which little has actually been established, has effectively been instrumentalised, politicised. It has become a means to condemn not just the perpetrators, but those who supposedly share, at some level, the attitudes, the ‘hate’, of the perpetrators – those, for example, critical of government immigration policies, those who feel uncomfortable with multiculturalism, those who express nationalist views. These are the haters in our midst.
And here we see why the Croydon assault, almost before any real detail has emerged, has sparked such lurid fascination among the political and media class. Because, having been constructed as a hate crime, it can therefore be unthinkingly attributed, at some level, to Brexit. After all, as commentators and politicians have never tired of reminding us, Brexit has given xenophobia a license to act, racism a legitimacy, hate encouragement. It stands, no matter how distantly, as the source of the Croydon assault. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary and prominent Remainer, was one of the first to read from this all too prevalent cultural script. ‘Sadly’, she said, ‘[the Croydon assault] is not an isolated incident but part of a sustained increase in hate crimes… With right-wing politicians across the world scapegoating migrants, refugees and others for their economic problems, we are seeing a deeply worrying rise in the politics of hate. We must make clear that there is no place for anti-foreigner myths, racism and hate in our society.’
She didn’t mention Brexit by name, but then she didn’t need to. It’s there by inference, an accepted catalyst among liberals and leftists for the ‘deeply worrying rise in the politics of hate’. This was more explicit on that refuge for the right-thinking: Twitter. There, countless tweeters posted reports about the Croydon attack simply with the hashtag ‘#Brexit’. Others, linking to reports on the assault, put up images of Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘breaking point’, EU referendum poster, which showed a human train of Syrian refugees heading, presumably, towards us. The implication was clear: the visual and verbal rhetoric of the Brexit campaign has encouraged and inspired the likes of the Croydon attackers. Or as journalist Tanya Gold tweeted of the Croydon assault, ‘words have consequences’.