Pictures of Daniel Ezzedine show him to be a fresh-faced 17-year-old with a warm cheerful smile. His parents are Lebanese but he was brought up in Germany where he had just left school. His teachers brought him to celebrate his graduation on a trip to Canterbury, where he was assaulted and beaten half to death by a gang of youths in what local people are convinced was a racist attack.
It took place at 6pm on 6 June in Rose Lane in the centre of the city about 250 yards from Canterbury Cathedral. Daniel received a merciless beating from his numerous attackers, which left him close to death. Rushed to hospital in London by helicopter, he is still in a coma and doctors initially gave him only a 30 per cent chance of surviving. Seven people were arrested – six of them teenagers – but none have been charged.
The family had difficulty at first in getting visas to enter Britain to see their son because they are not German citizens, though they have lived in Germany for 30 years. “I pray and ask Allah for mercy and that you will soon be on your legs again my little brother,” wrote Bassam, one of Daniel’s five brothers. “You don’t deserve the dead!”
I live in Canterbury and often pass the spot near Tesco, Marks and Spencer and HSBC where Daniel was set upon. Details of what happened are sparse because the police are not saying what they know and Daniel remains in a coma. But it is telling that the gang chose a Lebanese Muslim to target out of all the passers-by in this well-frequented part of Canterbury.
The attack took place close to a pretty little park called Dane John, which in recent years has become a notorious haunt for gangs selling drugs. I asked one young man if he walked through the park at night. “I do not like to walk through it in day time,” he replied. He said that gangs there are often looking for victims and might easily target a Muslim or anybody different from themselves. A well-attended march against racism took place through the city on Wednesday.
The fate of Daniel Ezzedine is evidence that Britain is becoming a more racist country since the Brexit referendum. Pro-Brexit politicians like Michael Gove deny this, but a poll by Opinium found that overt ethnic abuse and discrimination reported by ethnic minorities has risen from 64 per cent at the beginning of 2016 to 76 per cent today.
But this understates the change for the worse that we are seeing. The Brexit vote promoted English national identity and questions about who is and who is not English – increasingly distinguished from being British – to the top of the political agenda, and this is not going away. One can see this in Canterbury, normally a liberally-minded and tolerant little city accustomed to large numbers of foreign visitors and students.
But since 2016 expressions of gut racism have become much more common. Soon after the poll, an Argentinian woman asked for directions from a guard at Canterbury Cathedral and was told: “That way to Dover, love.” More recently, a homeless person in the high street told a friend of mine: “Soon the immigrants will go and I will be able to get a job.”
I have been travelling around the UK writing a series about “Britain in the age of Brexit” and I wondered if members of ethnic minorities believed that racism and racist harassment had increased. I asked three people in south Wales – chosen because it is so different from south-east England – from diverse backgrounds (Pakistani, Sikh, Caribbean, Portuguese) if they had experienced greater racist abuse since the Brexit vote.
Shavanah Taj, a national officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose father came from Pakistan to work in a steel plant in south Wales in 1958-59, said that racist harassment had risen in the past three or four years, though it had also been bad in the past: “In the 1980s, we used to regularly have dog shit in Tesco bags pushed through our letter box and ‘Pakis Out’ in big letters written on the side wall of our house.” That sort of thing had ebbed but is now back and more virulent than before.
As an Asian woman with two small children, she finds her way often deliberately blocked by white men in the street. She and her Nigerian husband have asked themselves for the first time “if we will get to the point when we will no longer think of this country as our home”.
Amarjite Singh, a Sikh who works for the Royal Mail and wears a distinctive red turban, agrees that open racism fell away from the end of the 1980s up to 2016. He is alarmed today by the degree to which the far right is more active, holding rallies up and down the country at the same time. He says that many Sikhs – there are about 2,500 in Cardiff – voted Leave because they feared that their jobs were threatened by East European immigration, but they found that they were also being subjected to anti-immigrant abuse.
Singh speaks of one incident that struck him as a sign of escalating racism: “Two weeks ago I was on a bus and there was a Somali woman with a baby in a pram which could not be put in the space allotted for it because a young man was blocking it. When the bus driver told him to let her park the pram there, the young man replied: ‘Who does she think she is? She’s only a foreigner.’”
Andrew Woodman, whose mother came here from Portugal in 1952 and his father from Guyana, says that the Brexit vote has emboldened people, “as it does in Trump’s America, to say in public what they used to say in private. I have been called the N-word and that had rarely happened in recent years”. He adds that all you need to generate racial hatred “is to persuade people that those who are different from themselves are the reason they are poor”.
Al-Qaeda and Isis attacks from 9/11 to London Bridge all contributed to Islamophobia, but the Brexit crisis is having much greater and longer-term impact because it is redefining English nationalism in a more exclusive and confrontational way. This affects women of Pakistani origin shopping with their children, but it also leads – so a university vice chancellor was telling me this week – to a high flying German scientist, who can easily get a job elsewhere, deciding that he no longer likes the UK and going back to Germany.
Eurosceptic leaders are in denial about the degree to which the Brexit project depended on beating the anti-immigrant drum. But look at how many Conservative and Brexit Eurosceptics found time this week to denounce Jo Brand and the BBC for expressing purely rhetorical violence. And then consider how few of them have expressed dismay at the real violence that inflicted terrible injuries on young Daniel Ezzedine in the centre of Canterbury.
*Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.
This article was published at Counterpunch and reprinted with permission