Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s former producer explains why sexual fears of non-white foreigners are being used to aggravate racial tensions in the UK.
Three years ago, before extricating myself from the online right and doing my best to make up for it by laying bare some of its inner workings, I was working for the Canadian hard-right online commentary site Rebel Media.
The organisation ran on ‘social commerce’ campaigns, where the concerns of its viewers would be addressed via petitions and crowdfunding campaigns. It was on one of these campaigns, on a trip up to Sunderland on a hot summer’s day, that I first came across the words ‘Justice for Chelsey’.
We had heard that a young girl had been the victim of a horrific rape ordeal at the hands of a Syrian refugee. She had been on a night out with her mum and a couple of friends when something had been put in her drink, she had been forced into a taxi and later woke up mid-sexual assault.
The locals had started a campaign and hundreds of ordinary working-class people were regularly marching through Sunderland to protest the rape itself, but also the lukewarm response from the police. At the time they were doing this, no arrests had been made and no media coverage had been given to the incident. The white working-class citizens of Sunderland felt abandoned by proxy.
Once the march we were filming reached the town centre, it was the turn of ‘Tommy Robinson’ – Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – who was then a Rebel Media contributor to speak. He clambered onto a public bench in the middle of the city’s high street, his makeshift soapbox, and launched into a speech about the abandonment of every working-class community in Britain, about standing up against rape and violence towards our young women, our young girls.
Devoid of context, this seemed like a movement with the best of intentions. Working-class communities in the UK tend to feel ‘left behind’ by the political and cultural progression of the rest of the country. It is why many of these areas voted for Brexit. So when the police and the media had a less than enthusiastic response to the woman’s story, it was only natural that this could be seen as another instance of white working-class Brits feeling less important and less valued compared to the rest of the country.
The campaign took off on in an instant. I filmed and edited an interview with the woman, in which she had a chance to tell her story. Rebel Media published the campaign, a petition receiving hundreds of thousands of signatures in days. Enough money was raised to pay for a top lawyer and a billboard in the heart of Sunderland, with cash to spare.
In the following weeks and months, the marches not only continued but grew. New heroes of the movement emerged and everybody thought justice would surely be done.
It is an age-old myth of the racist-right; a toxic mix of ethno-nationalism and misogyny from the days when what someone did to your wife was as much an issue of property rights.
But it was not to be. Less than two months later, ‘Robinson’ revealed to me that things weren’t as they seemed. No police action was taken.
The story quietly died and, a year later, Gerard Batten made ‘Robinson’ UKIP’s official ‘grooming gang advisor’ – a move that proved the final nail in the coffin for the party’s popular support.
This story is not a unique one, nor is it particularly surprising. The myth of the working-class betrayed and sneered at by elites has been a primary driver behind the vote for Brexit in the UK and for Donald Trump in America. But there is another, more insidious myth behind them.
‘Robinson’ recently made headlines for a speech he gave in Russia titled The Rape of Britain. If his remaining sliver of social media is to be believed, this is also the title of a documentary he is planning on releasing in the coming months.
The premise is a simple one: that the sexual violence of non-white foreigners and the national decline of Britain are inextricably linked. This is a popular meme on the online right and a belief far more commonplace than simply among alt-right ultra-nationalists or fringe race hate groups. The virtue and purity of white women is under threat from dirty migrants and barbarian, usually darker-skinned, foreigners.
This is why ‘Robinson’ campaigns against Asian grooming gangs and not the systematic grooming of boys in the Catholic Church, or the majority of white men convicted of rape or paedophilia in the UK, or even against Billy Charlton, the de facto leader of the Sunderland campaign who was charged with possessing indecent footage of children this year.
White women are held up by these groups as the paragon of untouchable Western virtue, so when they are assaulted, groomed or made the victims of rape, who has done it becomes the key factor in determining the level of outrage. Extreme right influencers and groups like Mark Collett, Generation Identity and ‘Tommy Robinson’ use these cases – which make up an absolute minority of sexual attacks – to stoke the narrative that there are marauding bands of Muslims out to pillage our civilisation and defile our wives and daughters.
It is an age-old myth of the racist-right; a toxic mix of ethno-nationalism and misogyny from the days when what someone did to your wife was as much an issue of property rights as what they did to your land or possessions. This is why the campaign in Sunderland focused so heavily on the immigrant background of the accused. It is also why Birth of a Nation, the racist propaganda film cited as having reignited the Ku Klux Klan in America, featured a white man in blackface pursuing a delicate white woman until she ultimately throws herself off a cliff – choosing death over the prospect of being raped by a non-white man.
Trump making the arrival of ‘Mexican rapists’ to the US a key campaign message during the 2016 Presidential Election – while being on the receiving end of multiple sexual misconduct accusations himself – was inherently racist.
The point is that sexual violence against women and girls is not considered to be a terrible thing because of the nature of the act itself, but because it is an infringement of white men’s property rights. This is why extreme right figures constantly refer to ‘our women, our girls’.
The Sunderland campaign – and the marches and racist speeches at its heart – were sold as care and concern for the victims of violence and a way of celebrating women for their role as wives and mothers.
This campaign could have sparked a debate about sexual abuse and domestic violence against women in Sunderland, but it didn’t – even though in 2019 the city was one of the worst counties for domestic violence in Britain, with 3,200 cases in that year alone.
Sir Paul Ennals, the independent chairman of Sunderland’s Safeguarding Women Board, said it was costing the city £300 million a year and added that the community was too accepting of domestic abuse, that it was considered as “just what blokes do”. That same year, Debra Wright, a local mother-of-five, came forward to police and media about her terrifying ordeal of domestic abuse at the hands of her partner. She said she was never believed and had been called a liar by those in the community every day.
Where were Billy Charlton or ‘Tommy Robinson’ then? Where were the extreme right defenders of women when white men were the perpetrators? Where was the outrage from Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins when Jimmy Savile was found to have committed his crimes. Where is the outrage from these agitators on behalf of the #MeToo victims whose perpetrators are primarily wealthy white men?
The premise is a simple one: that the sexual violence of non-white foreigners and the national decline of Britain are inextricably linked.
This week, ‘Robinson’ has been in Barrow, at the defence of another white woman accused of making up an assault by an Asian grooming gang. Meanwhile, Farage has spent time on the English Channel, recording videos intended to terrify his working-class supporters into believing that the danger is arriving on our shores in rubber dinghies, a similar tactic used by ethno-nationalist Generation Identity’s ‘Defend Europe’ mission in the Mediterranean.
Although these kinds of online media ‘actions’ are a new phenomenon, the supposed ‘purity’ of white women being used as a justification for stoking race-based fear is not. In New York this week a video has gone viral of a white woman threatening a gay, black, Harvard-educated birder in Central Park with a lie, falsely claiming in a 911 call that “an African American man is threatening me”.
Although many of the tactics have changed, is the appearance of ‘Robinson’ in Barrow really so different from the KKK-inspired Birth of a Nation? Is Farage pretending to be on the side of the ‘ordinary man’ to stoke the same fears not just the same thing? In 2020, have our iPhone screens simply replaced the silver screen of 1915?
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