The rise of the far-right in Cambridge
The Tab investigates this swell of hatred, and how it is being combatted
Far-right populism has been making headway internationally over the last year. Only a few weeks ago, extreme populist Jair Bolsonaro was elected President in Brazil, surfing a wave of popular discontent. Germany's AfD party has for the first time made it to the Bundestag. Marine Le Pen, defeated at home in France, is hoping to win the elections to the European Parliament. The Swedish government is shifting further and further to the right as it cooperates with the populist Sweden Democrats. We don't even need to talk about Trump and the re-emergence of overt racism since his election.
This phenomenon is not isolated to high politics: it is becoming a real issue in Cambridge. Over the past 6 months, students and townies alike have reported a rise in both blatant harassment and subtle intimidation. The most widespread evidence of a far-right resurgence is the swarm of stickers anonymously plastered around the city.
These bold plastic stickers, bought online to evade discrimination laws, contain the names and slogans of extremist groups, such as the European Brotherhood and the Identitarian Movement. Although seemingly small, sticker bombardment is not inconsequential. This is a way of promoting discriminatory agendas without recourse. In the words of Anglia Ruskin student, Ismael Jalal, they tell him "you don't know who we are, but we know who you are".
Subtle but pervasive, sticker harassment can have a real effect on a community's sense of security. This is especially true when the equivalent tools used by anti-fascist groups, in an attempt to counter intimidation, are defaced. A swastika – the unmistakeable symbol of Nazism, white supremacy, and far-right nationalism – was carved into an NFA sticker on Parkers' Piece earlier this term.
Leader of Cambridge Stand Up to Racism, Zareen Taj, told us tale after tale of prejudice and discrimination in this 'liberal' city. One woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, was harassed for wearing a headscarf as she walked her children to primary school – when interviewed by the police, she felt like she was being blamed for the incident. In anticipation of the so-called 'Punish a Muslim Day' on 3rd April 2018, one University of Cambridge student contacted both her DoS and Taj, expressing fear of becoming a target. Similarly, Cambridge citizens suffered intimidation when a rally in support of English Defence League co-founder Tommy Robinson centred around Parker's Piece in July – Jalal counted at least fourteen Nazi salutes in the crowd.
Indeed, Labour MP Daniel Zeichner has condemned the "pollution" of the city – a term he uses to described EDL members visiting Cambridge from Luton to stir up fear. An anonymous ex-muslim student also reported considering a name change and revoking his Pakistani citizenship in order to avoid harassment. He said that it was "strange" now to work with the Muslim community – in a form of collective security – after choosing to distance himself from Islam for a long time. He believes "fascists" have made him consider altering his identity.
Both Zareen Taj and Ismael Jalal are part of the Cambridge branch of 'Stand Up To Racism'. This group has been taking steps to challenge racism in the city: organising a bus walk to the school in solidarity with the predominantly Muslim women that were scared to leave the house following harassment; campaigning to turn 'Punish a Muslim Day' into a day of love ('Hug a Muslim Day'); blocking "the well-known multicultural" Mill Road when 'Free Tommy Robinson' targeted it in their protest.
Even smaller acts, such as printing their own stickers or hosting a regular stall in Market Square to raise awareness of anti-racist efforts are part of the agenda. Jalal calls for a "quadfecta of Cambridge University staff and students, and ARU staff and students" to combat the perceivable growth in far-right activity. Meanwhile, Taj says that it is not enough to say "I'm not a racist", it must now be "I'm an anti-racist" – in other words, a call for action in place of passive disapproval.
Girtonian and representative of Stand Up To Racism, Oisin Flynn, has plans to form an associated group to focus efforts within Cambridge's vast student population. "In Cambridge, we are not immune to the national increase in racist hate crime and scapegoating of refugees, Muslims and migrants. And there is pressure on the university to tackle the under-representation of BME people in their intake, and in their curriculum.
"SUTR understands the power of grass-roots organisation. Through local groups, student societies and trade unions across the UK, we have built a broad, organised anti-racist network that empowers us to respond quickly to racist incidents, challenge systemic racism and shift public opinion.
"I aim to establish a SUTR society in Cambridge that will work with other anti-racist campaigns to fight racism, islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Activists in Anglia Ruskin and the UCU are doing the same. I’ve been involved in Stand up to Racism in South London for over 2 years. We’ve organised refugee solidarity convoys to Calais, emergency vigils after racist and Islamophobic incidents and large public meetings. At our National Conference Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot, and rapper Lowkey have urged for a broad movement against racism.
"A student society in Cambridge will empower students to challenge the racism that they face at university, and nationally. Look out for events on Facebook and get involved. We can make a difference. On November 17th, we have a coach to London for the National Unity Demonstration. Students can book through Eventbrite."
Although recent months have seen an increased far-right extremist presence in Cambridge, they have also seen concerted efforts to document and combat racism. Not only have anti-racism groups amped up campaigning, the University too has taken steps. Earlier this month, the 'End Everyday Racism' project was launched. This is an anonymous reporting system with the aim of documenting the extent of racism in Cambridge. The goal is to better inform anti-racist activism and enable CUSU to lobby the University for institutional change more effectively. Although more in-depth than the University's own anonymous reporting system, End Everyday Racim has no punitive capacity. Nonetheless, gathering information is the first step towards effecting real change in a University that is predicated on colonialism with a grossly under-representative BAME community.
Similarly, the Black Cantabs Research Society has set up an exhibition in the University Library for most of this term which aims to "re-write the history of this institution to demonstrate the active presence of Black students in Cambridge". Furthermore, the "intersectionality" that Zareen Taj argues is so important in social justice campaigns can be found within the University of Cambridge community. FLY, a "network and forum for women and non-binary people of colour", cannot be ignored.
CUSU President, Evie Aspinall, supports these efforts: "We must together stand against racism in Cambridge. We must strive to make Cambridge a welcoming and safe place for everyone. CUSU, and the CUSU BME campaign, continuously lobby against the institutional racism in the University, and beyond. We are proud to support the End Everyday Racism campaign and hope that it will encourage people to think about the significant impact racism and unconscious bias play in society."
Racism is not exclusive to the far-right. The rise of far-right activity in Cambridge has not revived a dormant racism; indeed, it has been manifesting itself in different ways throughout the University's existence. It is institutional. However, extremist stickers, neo-nazi symbols, increased harassment, and intimidation are not to be ignored. Community and University efforts to counter this are encouraging, but they must be viewed as mere developments, not the goal itself.
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