Kurds and codes
Andrew Calcutt reports on a story of everyday prejudice in Hackney
'Traffic congestion is bad enough as it is. What will it be like if the centre opens?'. The speaker was unhappy about plans to open a Kurdish refugee advice centre in a disused library on the Milton Gardens estate in Hackney, north-east London. Other residents at the protest meeting complained that they already had to put up with 'overspill from Arsenal football ground', and that the centre would add to the problems of a 'highly stressed area'.
The Milton Gardens protesters seemed to be talking about the niggly little problems of everyday life. But they were speaking in code. Their main concern was not Arsenal fans or cars, but Kurds. The coded racism eventually came out of the closet at the protest meeting attended by about 80 residents. They weren't cartoon-character racists with big boots and Union Jack tattoos. They were single parents, pensioners, manual workers and unemployed: ordinary-looking people speaking the language of ordinary racism.
The meeting began with complaints about loud music and traffic access. But one speaker was more forthright: 'Their problems are not our problems and many of them are illegal anyway.'
That first mention of 'illegal immigrants' had the same effect as a starting pistol. From then on, speakers raced to make pejorative remarks about Kurdish people. One woman was convinced that the centre would be 'a gambling den after hours'. A homeowner foresaw that 'house values will go down drastically'. Another complained that Milton Gardens was 'in danger of turning into a ghetto for the disenfranchised'.
Cheats and vandals
As the meeting went on, a succession of speakers portrayed Turkish and Kurdish people as cheats, vandals and scroungers on the welfare state. 'I don't know how they can afford it but the Turkeys drive bigger cars than anyone else.... They've got community centres all over the place.... Look what they've done to the old Simpson's building in Stoke Newington, it's covered in filthy posters and refuse.... And don't tell me they're not receiving a grant for the new centre because I wasn't born yesterday.'
By the end of the meeting some were yelling about 'what the Kurds wipe their bottoms with', and threatening to 'burn it down'. The last word went to an irate white man who shouted at a junior planning officer representing Hackney council, 'Listen, girl, just tell them we don't want them here'.
Leading by example
It was no surprise to hear Milton Gardens residents express hostility towards Kurdish refugees. After all, they were only echoing the message currently being enshrined in law by the Tory government's Asylum Bill. Tory ministers speak in code too. Home secretary Kenneth Baker has denied all accusations of racism and said that the bill will cut waiting time for asylum-seekers. But the government is well aware that creating a scare about 'bogus economic refugees' will stir up resentment against 'immigrant scroungers'.
Put into plain English, the government's message to Kurdish refugees could be summed up as 'Just tell them we don't want them here'.
The anti-immigrant atmosphere promoted by the Tories has only been strengthened by the posturing and manoeuvres of the Labour Party. Labour-run Hackney council's stance over Milton Gardens is a case in point.
The allocation of Milton Gardens library to Kurdish refugees takes place against a background of council cuts. The Milton Gardens housing office, a laundry and an old people's centre have already been closed. The adventure playground is under threat. The library is disused only because the council shut it down as part of a cost-cutting exercise, ignoring a sit-in by residents trying to keep it open. A resident complained, 'I paid my rates. Now my kids have to go to a library in Islington because Hackney can't provide one. It's ours. We want our library'.
Politics of tokenism
Until recently, it was the fashion for Labour councils to make high-profile 'anti-racist' gestures. Playing off one ethnic group against another has long been the stock-in-trade of councils such as Hackney. In this context, Milton Gardens residents jumped to the conclusion that Hackney poll tax payers are forking out for Kurdish refugees to set up an advice centre in a library which had been closed due to lack of funds.
It so happens that Day-Mer, a Turkish and Kurdish solidarity group, offered to pay £100 a week rent. As one resident said, 'the council is not in sympathy with the Kurds, it's in sympathy with the £5000 a year they tendered to use the place'. But to many locals it must look like another costly episode in Labour's politics of tokenism.
At the protest meeting, council bureaucracy made the atmosphere more intense. A planning officer told residents that the council didn't need to tell them about the Day-Mer proposals because the library building was already 'designated for community use'. They protested, 'We are the community, not the Kurds'.
Big woolly hats
Having created the conditions for a backlash, the Labour council made things worse. The first reaction from councillor Cam Matheson was to try to reassure Milton Gardens residents that 'the Kurds are not noisy, they don't play loud music and most of them don't own cars'. This sounded suspiciously like more coded comments, implying that Kurds do not fit the stereotype of black troublemakers. He might just as well have added 'and they don't wear big woolly hats'.
At a subsequent council committee meeting, councillors asked Milton Gardens householders to show the Kurdish refugees some 'brotherly love'. In the atmosphere of prejudice and cynicism which the Labour councillors had helped to create, residents predictably witheld their blessing.
Milton Gardens is just one little episode in the everyday story of British racism as promoted by the Tories and accommodated to by the Labour Party. Crack the racist code and you'll find that every city has a thousand such tales to tell.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992