What the Knowsley Riot Tells Us About the Far Right Today
Friday’s violent scenes reveal the modern far-right’s tactics, its driving ideology – and how hate has been mainstreamed by the UK Government. Sian Norris reports
As the flames shot into the Merseyside sky, and the shouts of far-right rioters battled with the sounds of sirens and counter-protesters, an Afghan man held in the targeted hotel wondered what he had done to deserve this level of hate.
“I wasn’t safe in my country and I’m not safe here,” he told the NGO Care4Calais.
The riot which broke out in Knowsley on Friday night was shocking. But for those following far-right activity and the mainstreaming of far-right ideology media and policy, it was not surprising. From the targeting of hotels housing people seeking asylum, to the ‘justification’ that a local schoolgirl had allegedly been harassed, and the victim-blaming response of the UK Government, these scenes felt far too inevitable.
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“These acts of hate are the inevitable culmination of a decade of anti-refugees policies and dog whistles to the far right by this Government in a cynical bid to turn people against each other for political gain,” said Sonya Sceats, Chief Executive at Freedom from Torture.
In recent years, the numbers of people seeking asylum being held in hotels has risen dramatically. The number of people being housed in hotels jumped 10-fold between the start of the pandemic: from 2,577 people in March 2020 to 37,142 to September 2022.
A May 2022 report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration raised the issue that hotels were being targeted by far-right activists, with stakeholders warning that accommodation was “frequently” provided “in areas where there was an active far-right presence”.
That presence has led to the frequent organisation of protests and ‘visits’ by hateful groups, intimidating staff and residents in the hotels.
Far Right Plans, Far Right Response
Two weeks before the riot, Knowsley had been included on a list of hotels housing people seeking asylum on at least one UK far-right Telegram channel.
Telegram, as this newspaper has reported, is a crucial organisational tool for far-right groups planning to target hotels.
Footage of the alleged harassment of a schoolgirl, the purported excuse for the riot, was shared on the same channel. In response to the film, the admin said the man should be “castrated and deported”, while one poster calling for the perpetrator to be sent to Knowsley safari park “dressed as a female zebra so he can be anally raped”.
By 6.45pm on Friday night, members of the channel were posting an “URGENT APPEAL” to the rest of the community to go to the Knowsley hotel, sharing its location. Later that evening, Tommy Robinson News described the protesters as people “who are aggrieved with ILLEGAL ECONOMIC MIGRANTS (from third world s***holes where kiddy diddling is fine)”.
While the incident at Knowsley on 10 February was extreme, with a police vehicle set on fire and emergency responders sustaining injuries, it was not a one-off.
It was not even the only far-right protest outside a hotel that week.
Patriotic Alternative had organised a ‘banner drop’ outside the hotel a few days before, while Britain First posted how it had “previously visited” the site.
That same week, Britain First had protested outside a hotel in Manchester, and far-right groups have targeted multiple hotels already this year, including in Scotland, Yorkshire and the Midlands.
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If hate was being voiced in the run-up to the riot, it ramped up in its aftermath.
Before the debris had even been cleared, the anti-migrant hate and support for the rioters was emerging on social media platforms.
The journalist Sangita Myska shared comments sent to her LBC show, with ‘Johnny from Sheffield’ calling the rioters “patriots” and calling for migrant people to drown. Mark Collett, former British National Party member and founder of far-right group Patriotic Alternative, described the riot as an example of “the resistance against the replacement of the indigenous people of these islands”.
The alleged harassment of a teenage girl by an older minority ethnic man was the precursor to Friday’s riot, with far-right Telegram channels responding with messages of violence. On Twitter, this reporter received tweets complaining that “our children are unable to walk home without being accosted by paedophiles”.
There is no excuse for men’s harassment of women and girls. An investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed, with men harassing women with impunity. But sexual harassment is not the preserve of one demographic: teenage girls report this kind of intimidation starts when they are as young as 12, with the perpetrators only having one thing in common: they are male.
White supremacist and far-right movements have long used a professed desire to protect women from abuse by black and minority ethnic men as an excuse for racist violence. The Ku Klux Klan in the US committed terrorism against the black community, seeking to justify its violence with the lie that white women were under threat by black men. The rapes of black women by white supremacists and enslavers was rarely mentioned.
In more recent years, far-right groups have appropriated cases of ‘grooming gangs’ where primarily Asian men groomed and sexually exploited (mostly) white teenage girls. The understandable horror at these crimes was co-opted to push anti-migrant messaging, while the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls by white men was ignored.
The weaponizing of white women and girls by the far-right is a cover, however, for the movement’s own misogyny. This newspaper has reported the many ways in which women in the far-right itself are degraded and abused, while white supremacist and neo-fascist movements are themselves built on a ‘natural order’ of female inferiority.
Movements designed to call out sexual violence against women, such as #MeToo, were routinely mocked by far-right actors, while the alt-right turned to misogynistic subcultures including the Red Pill and Gamergate to fantasise about raping and mutilating women.
As the journalist Helen Lewis wrote, describing far-right misogyny after people seeking asylum in Cologne were accused of sexually harassing young women in 2016, “to me the unspoken coda to ‘You rape our women’ is always ‘… and that’s our job’”.
The Government’s Role
The Home Secretary Suella Braverman tweeted on 11 February to respond to the violence at Knowsley, writing how “the alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation”.
Such rhetoric fails to calm the waters.
The UK Government’s anti-migrant rhetoric has cleaved closer and closer to that expressed on far-right Telegram channels, normalising and mainstreaming the hate that flared on Friday.
Braverman herself has spoken of people seeking asylum as being “members of criminal gangs” and that we should “stop pretending they are all refugees in distress”. She was criticised for using a speech in the House of Commons to talk of an “invasion” – members of far-right Telegram channels refer to “invasion hotels”.
Much of the far-right conversation about hotels focuses on how they are populated by “fighting age men” – bolstering the accusation that this is an invasion and linking to a pillar of fascist ideology that the West is in a state of war. Although not a term used by Braverman herself, the Government has defended its immigration policies by pointing to how most of those entering the UK in small boats are adult men, not women and girls.
“Now is the time for Rishi Sunak to put an immediate stop to the hateful rhetoric and policies emanating from his Government in line with his pledge to lead the country with integrity and accountability,” said Sceats.