What the Knowsley riot tells us about Suella Braverman and the Shawcross report
Last Wednesday, in the House of Commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman welcomed the Shawcro
“While obscuring the Islamist threat,” the home secretary told MPs, “Prevent has defined the extreme right-wing too broadly, encompassing the respectable right and centre-right.”
A police van was set ablaze, fireworks were launched at officers and vile accusations were chanted about the hotel’s residents as lawful protest descended into mob violence.
There’s no question that the far right played a major role in stirring up the terrible events in Knowsley. Big Tech must also answer for its culpability in enabling fascism: calls to action circulated on social media, including a YouTube video from the neo-Nazi group Patriotic Alternative.
But - and this should trouble the home secretary - there is plenty of evidence that the “respectable right and centre-right” bears a heavy share of responsibility.
To understand why, let’s examine the claims underpinning the mob attacks.
Two moral panics
Knowsley saw the convergence of two moral panics: "Muslim grooming gangs" and an "invasion" of asylum seekers.
Both narratives have been heavily promoted in the mainstream press - fuelled by the Conservative government, including Braverman.
Just a day after a far-right terrorist attack on a migrant centre in Dover, Braverman called for an end to the "invasion of our southern coast". This language echoed both Nazi-era rhetoric and current white supremacist propaganda.
Braverman called for an end to the 'invasion of our southern coast'. This language echoed current white supremacist propaganda
Indeed the Guardian reported that government lawyers had previously warned Braverman that her "inflammatory immigration rhetoric risked inspiring a far-right terror attack".
Just as important was the second moral panic, virtually ignored in media reports, namely the baying chants of "nonces" (British slang for paedophile), graffiti with the same slur, and how various far-right actors explicitly linked the riot to "grooming gangs".
There’s no question that the far right has exploited this narrative.
The far-right has form both in courting genuine victims of child sexual abuse and exploiting false allegations. The official Telegram channel of far-right propagandist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who usually goes by the pseudonym of Tommy Robinson, posted footage of the Knowsley riot with the caption: "A clear message sent to the police, to the UK government and to the hotels who house illegal economic migrants accused or suspected of grooming school children."
But as with the “invasion” narrative, this propaganda has been enabled by Conservative politicians.
Widespread systemic failings
The trope is politically convenient, propping up a hardline anti-immigration agenda and detracting from the devastating impacts of austerity and widespread systemic failings.
When Braverman belatedly issued her statement about Knowsley, it was criticised for victim-blaming and implying that
It must be stressed that the roots of the "grooming gangs" discourse lie in a core of truly terrible cases involving men of Pakistani heritage. Over the past decade, however, a moral panic has been constructed on selective outrage, misinformation and outright disinformation.
Sight has repeatedly been lost of just how horrendously common child sexual abuse is - in general, not just the cases singled out by journalists, think tanks and politicians. The "grooming gangs" narrative harms both abuse victims/survivors and whole communities stigmatised as deviant.
Muslim boys and men in the UK have been mass-stereotyped as suspected 'groomers', or 'groomers' in waiting
The narrative has been inflamed by reporting in virtually every British mainstream newspaper, broadsheet as well as tabloid.
Successive Conservative home secretaries - Sajid Javid, Priti Patel and Braverman - have actively fuelled racial stereotyping around "grooming gangs" - the latter two even when faced with their own civil servants’ evidence to the contrary.
As a result, Muslim boys and men in the UK have been mass-stereotyped as suspected "groomers", or "groomers" in waiting. Such scapegoating and demands for collective responsibility sideline questions of individual culpability, which are fundamental to justice.
The convergence with the "grooming gangs" panic only adds to the dangerous imagery of asylum seekers as marauders set to exploit not just the British state, but (white) British girls themselves. In doing so, it echoes the international far-right trope of immigrants as a threat to white nationhood, whereby women and girls are framed not as people but as property to be defended.
The riot at Knowsley is the latest in extensive far-right actions targeting accommodation for asylum seekers, including hotels where unaccompanied children are housed.
It also follows several acts of outright terrorism with explicit links to far-right ideologies around "grooming gangs": last year’s firebombing in Dover, the Finsbury Park attacks and the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand - where the attacker’s ammunition was inscribed "for Rotherham".
Knowsley ought to be a long-overdue wake-up call about the dangers of toxic narratives around migrants, minorities and "grooming gangs".
Remember: another demonstration at a hotel housing asylum-seekers is already scheduled for a few days’ time. It will be in Rotherham - the town most synonymous with "grooming gangs".
Last week, Shawcross implicitly acquitted the “respectable right” - a category which presumably includes the Tory government and its supporters in the mainstream press - of any role in inflaming political violence against vulnerable minorities.
It’s no wonder that Suella Braverman embraced the report with such enthusiasm.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.