Bridget Chapman, Folkestone United, reports
I moved to the Kent coast in May 2014. I knew I would miss the diversity of Brixton, my home for the previous 15 years. I also knew that some attitudes on the Kent coast would be problematic. Fear of migration is always highest where levels of migration are lowest.
I’m a union organiser so I threw myself into union activities in Kent. While I was running a stall for the NUT one Saturday a woman gripped my arm and told me why she thought there was a shortage of school places. “It’s the Muslims”, she said, “They’re taking over. ”I looked up and down the crowded, and entirely white, high street and gently asked her, “Where are they?” She faltered, knowing, I think, that there really was no foundation for her assertion, and slipped away.
When the General Election build-up began in earnest, UKIP, which had a stronghold on the Kent coast, began ramping up its anti-immigrant rhetoric. I saw the impact of its relentless and blatant scaremongering. People became emboldened to say what had previously been unacceptable.
Working in Folkestone one day I entered into conversation with a man who was from Greenwich and, attempting to make conversation, I said that I had gone to school in Greenwich. “It’s awful round there now”, he said. He continued, “It’s all black. Do you know that there are schools where some classes are entirely black? If I had a gun, I’d shoot them.” He spoke in the bland, calm tones you might use to discuss the weather, and I realised that he assumed that I would agree with him. He didn’t think he was saying anything particularly shocking.
At moments like this you can see how the Nazis rose to power. If the negative rhetoric used by groups like UKIP isn’t challenged, it opens the door to more extreme views. UKIP are not fascists but they are a gateway to fascism and that is why we must challenge the language they use.
Along with others I formed a group called Folkestone United to do just that. We came together in January 2015 and did all we could to counter the negative messages being put out about migration locally. We had stalls in the town centre every Saturday, leafleted, and held days of action.
After the General Election result we decided to keep going. We could see that, although UKIP had failed to convert their growing popularity into significant electoral success, the peddling of anti-immigrant rhetoric was something that wasn’t going away.
That proved to be the case with the growing Calais migrant crisis. . We became increasingly frustrated with the irresponsible tone of the reporting. Stories of two thousand migrants “storming” the Channel Tunnel proved to be false and dehumanising words like “swarm” and “flood” abounded. The focus of the reporting seemed to be entirely on the inconvenience to holiday makers, and not on the desperate stories of the migrants fleeing violence, persecution and terrible hardship.
When we heard a young teenage boy from Sudan had been found dead on top of one of the Channel Tunnel trains it broke our hearts. We decided that we needed to send a clear message to the migrants in Calais that we stood in solidarity with them, and the way they were being treated was not in our name. We also wanted to speak directly to the media, to tell them that we would no longer accept irresponsible, inaccurate and dehumanising coverage of this issue.
Along with Thanet Stand Up to UKIP we organised an impromptu demo at the Channel Tunnel terminal. It was a difficult venue for people to reach and it wasn’t a huge protest, but in terms of press coverage it was a great success. News teams from all across Europe covered it and it was the lead story on the BBC and Channel 4 News that night. Since then we’ve had a steady stream of journalists coming to do follow-up stories. We’ve had visits from Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and French news teams, all keen to cover a story about a pro-migrant group.
We’ve now built links with L’Auberge des Migrants, a group working to support migrants in the Calais camps and are planning a solidarity visit in mid-September – taking donated goods and cash donations. The response from people in Folkestone has been overwhelming.
There’s lots more work to do and this is just the beginning. We’re looking forward to the challenges ahead, such as the European elections in 2019. One of our local MEPs is Janice Atkinson who, having been thrown out of UKIP, has joined Marine Le Pen’s fascist group in the European Parliament. It is a stain on the name of our town that she represents us. Come 2019 we want to make sure that she is given her marching orders.
And there is work to be done to build tolerance and reduce fear. The damaging myths around migration need to be destroyed. This is not the time to be silent.