Nothing spoke of the fractious atmosphere in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum more than the death of 40-year-old Arek Jozwik in a shopping centre in Harlow, Essex in August 2016. What might, on any other weekend, have been passed over as just another grubby Saturday-night incident on Britain’s drunken high streets became elevated into a symptom of Brexit-induced racial hatred. James O’Brien, an LBC radio talk-show host, declared that certain Eurosceptics had ‘blood on their hands’ as did ‘anybody who has suggested speaking Polish in a public place is in any way undesirable’. This was the premise of almost all reporting on the story: a man seemed to have been murdered for being Polish.
Viewers of BBC1’s News at Six were told, ‘the fear is that this was a frenzied racist attack triggered by the Brexit referendum’. The story was taken up by the world’s media with the New York Times writing that Jozwik ‘was repeatedly pummelled and kicked by a group of boys and girls’ because, according to his brother, he had ‘been overheard speaking Polish outside a takeout pizza restaurant’. Razem, a left-wing Polish party, released a statement saying ‘the racist and xenophobic attitudes are reaping an increasingly horrid harvest.’ In Harlow, residents held a candlelit vigil to protest against what was explained to them as a wave of hate. To people at home and abroad, Britain seemed to be a far less pleasant place.
The idea of anti-Polish murder in post-Brexit Britain was understandably shocking. But what was the evidence for it? Crimes take time to investigate, the truth takes months to come out. When the answer came in Chelmsford crown court last week, there was far less media interest. Given the prominence of the story, it’s worth setting the record straight.
The killer, a 16-year-old, was sentenced to three years’ detention for manslaughter. The court ruled he threw a punch which caused Jozwik to fall to the ground and sustain fatal head injuries. Rightly, his violence has been punished, but was it an unprovoked hate crime? It emerged from the case that there was a racial element to the incident — although the racism was not aimed at Mr Jozwik. On the contrary, the court heard it was Mr Jozwik and his friends who made racist comments against the then 15-year-old and those he was with. As the defence counsel put it: ‘They made racist remarks to the youngsters, then invited violence from them, and they were considerably bigger and stronger than the young people.’
The tragic death of Mr Jozwik brings shame on Britain for conditions in town centres late at night. But what evidence of a link to Brexit? None at all. Drunkenness and violence have been a problem for decades.
So what about the great surge in hate crime that was reported after the Brexit vote, of which the death of Mr Jozwik was said to have been part? In October last year, the Home Office reported a spike in reported hate crimes in the July — 5,468 of them, a 41 per cent increase on the same month in 2015. Quoted in a Guardian article which carried a photograph of Mr Jozwik, David Issac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, declared that the figures ‘make it very clear that some people used the referendum result to justify their deplorable views and promote intolerance and hatred’. Maybe; but then again maybe not. The figures have to be considered in the context of rising reports of ‘hate crime’ since it was first introduced as a category of crime five years ago. In 2013/14 there were 44,577 hate crimes, followed by 52,465 in 2014/15 and 62,518 in 2015/16. Interestingly, the figures have spiked in July each year, perhaps as people take advantage of long evenings to spend more time on the street. If Britons have been becoming more hateful over the past few years it is a trend which began long before the EU referendum.
An alternative explanation is that there has been an increase in reporting of this type of crime owing to the publicity given to it, aided by the somewhat loose official definition: ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards someone based on a personal characteristic.’
In other words, for a ‘hate crime’ to be recorded no one has to prove that a crime was motivated by hate on the grounds of race, nationality, sexual orientation or so on — mere perception is enough. When you consider that an Oxford physicist last year tried to report the Home Secretary’s speech at the Conservative party conference as a hate crime, you see the problem. In the event, the police recorded Amber Rudd’s speech as a hate ‘incident’ but decided it wasn’t a crime.
Mr Jozwik’s death was not the only reported post-Brexit ‘hate crime’ which turned out to be nothing of the sort. Among other high-profile incidents, the window of a Spanish restaurant was broken in Lewisham — recorded on that trusty record of crime, Facebook, as a result of Brexit-induced hate but later treated by police as a burglary. Then there was the abusive graffiti which appeared on a Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith. This produced understandable horror and a local MP, Greg Hands, underlined that Poles are welcome. Only later did it emerge that the graffiti read ‘Fuck you OMP’ — OMP being a Polish centre-right think-tank which had backed Brexit.
The Jozwik case provides a salutary lesson for anyone who is tempted to jump to conclusions about crimes before the full facts are known. Such reactions are themselves a form of prejudice, which in this case has been committed by people who considered themselves to be standing up against prejudice. Racism and xenophobia should never be tolerated, and it is good that greater efforts are being made to stamp them out than in the past. We should rightfully feel ashamed that Mr Jozwik met his death here and ask what is it that makes our town centres at night such breeding grounds for violence and aggression.
But the idea that the referendum unleashed a frenzy of violence against foreigners culminating in the murder of Arek Jozwik — something which caused a lot of soul-searching among Leave as well as Remain voters at the time — has turned out not to be true. On that point, people on both sides of the Brexit divide should surely be relieved.