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.