Fighting racism in Waltham Forest

Sophie Bolt, chair of Stand up to Racism Waltham Forest, on how the borough has responded to a recent rise in hate crime

Waltham Forest Islamic Association

An anti-racism protest outside the Waltham Forest Islamic Association in Lea Bridge Road (credit Waltham Forest Islamic Association)

Waltham Forest is incredibly diverse, with over half the population from minority ethnic backgrounds, and a quarter of Muslim faith.

This diversity is what makes the borough such a vibrant place to live and is one of the reasons cited for its success in winning the first London Borough of Culture award.

Yet repeatedly Waltham Forest has been targeted by racists and fascists, and residents have suffered first-hand from the government’s cruel ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies.

The borough’s anti-racist movement has a strong track record of uniting the majority of the community against the politics of hate and division. The current climate offers us both challenges and opportunities which we must address.

In April, Waltham Forest residents were among those sent vile ‘punish a Muslim’ letters, which were part of a nationally-coordinated Islamophobic campaign. Stand up to Racism Waltham Forest worked closely with the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques, campaign group Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), local councillors, and residents, to organise a series of successful actions to give public expression to solidarity with the Muslim community.

Residents joined local councillors, council leader Clare Coghill, and Mayor of Waltham Forest Yemisi Osho, at a gathering in Walthamstow Town Square. Hundreds encircled Lea Bridge Road and Faizan-e-Islam mosques, joining the mosques’ special open days. Community leaders from across the faiths, including Canon Steven Saxby and Rabbi Richard Jacobi, signed a statement condemning the attacks and urging everyone to stand up to Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and racism in all its forms, declaring: “Every person should be able to practise their religion and live their lives free from hatred and persecution.”

Parents also distributed ‘Stand Together against Islamophobia’ stickers at school gates to show Muslim children and parents solidarity and support.

The Islamophobic letter campaign arose in a context of intensifying racism following the EU membership referendum of 2016. The vicious anti-migrant rhetoric led by the UK Independence Party, supported by ‘Brexiteer’ Tories and the right-wing media, has whipped up hatred and intolerance against migrants and refugees. It created the toxic climate in which MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered by Britain First supporter Thomas Mair. Homosexuals, as well as Muslims – particularly hijab-wearing women – have suffered an increase in hate crime.

A large proportion of street attacks have been against Muslims, which have become more and more violent. For instance, in June last year Makram Ali was killed and nine others injured after Darren Osborne drove a van into Finsbury Park Mosque. In September, Zaynab Hussein suffered life-changing injuries in an absolutely horrific attack in Leicester when Paul Moore deliberately and repeatedly drove  his car into her.

According to the Metropolitan Police there were 68 Islamophobic hate crimes recorded in Waltham Forest in the year from May 2017 to April 2018. The previous year had seen 48 such crimes, while there were 37 recorded in the year prior to the referendum.

Waltham Forest MEND run an Islamophobic Response Unit, carrying out data monitoring on Islamophobia, as well as legal support, advice, and referral services. But they warn: “We are aware that these statistics are likely an under-estimate given a reluctance to report hate crimes.”

The group urges anyone who has been a victim of a hate crime to report it.

Waltham Forest was also targeted by a chemical poisoning hoax when, in June 2016, letters containing white powder, with crude drawings of mosques crossed out and messages of racist abuse, were sent to mosques in the borough.

In December 2016, when a Muslim women was attacked and dragged along the street in Chingford, Stand up to Racism Waltham Forest helped organise a large vigil in order to give public expression to the local community’s outrage and solidarity with the young woman.

The response to these repeated attacks has strengthened unity against racism across the borough. The challenge for us all now is to not only halt the rise of Islamophobia but to reverse it and all forms of racism.

The inhumane treatment of the ‘Windrush’ generation and their children has revealed to millions of people the shocking reality of the government’s racist immigration policies. It is vital that the maximum pressure is now brought to bear on this government to end the ‘hostile environment’ policy.

Shadow Home Secretary and President of Stand up to Racism, Diane Abbott, has announced that a Labour government would reverse it, including closing Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres, and scrapping minimum income requirements for spouses to join partners in the UK.

Friday 22nd June marks the 70th anniversary of SS Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks from the Caribbean. Let’s make that anniversary not only a celebration of the incredible contribution the Windrush generations have made to Britain, but also about restoring all their legal citizens’ rights and repealing the 2014 Immigration Act.


To get in touch with with Stand up to Racism Waltham Forest:

Email wfsutr@gmail.com

For more information on Waltham Forest MEND:

Visit mend.org.uk/working-groups/waltham-forest