Helping the police with their enquiries

“Union Jack Bleeds 3” by bixentro is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Police interpreting: racism and xenophobia ‒ hardly a new phenomenon

The southwest of our country has always attracted many Europeans, and not just tourists: many work in our schools, hospitals, hotels and restaurants, for example… and one mustn’t forget the language students who attend language schools in so many of our towns and cities. They have not always been welcomed by some locals, and for 30 years and more I was involved as an occasional police interpreter in many cases of the (unfortunately) inevitable friction.

All too often these incidents stemmed from the racism which festers deep down in some of us, stemming from fear of difference. In most people (fortunately) it is stifled by the prefrontal cortex, as explained in “A large role in emotion regulation comes from the areas of the brain involved in control of emotion that is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). [….]  One of the PFC’s functions is to enable us to understand and learn the potential for negative consequences from (over)reactions to emotionally-charged situations.”

The PFC is a major element in inhibitory control: the self-control which inhibits most people from outwardly expressing internal xenophobia. It is interesting that so many commentators have observed that the 2016 EU Referendum was swung at the last minute by the Leave campaign playing upon voters’ emotions, in no small measure winkling out and exploiting latent xenophobia against migrants, Turks… and EU citizens.

One of the common features of most of the police interpreting (Spanish, French and Italian) that I did over those three decades was the racial prejudice and xenophobia behind the attacks perpetrated on foreign victims, usually EU citizens. The victims were often youngsters in the UK on language courses, spending their money here and contributing to the income of their host families.

(I have removed or changed some specific details for reasons of discretion.) One of the early cases, about twenty years ago, was when an Italian student had a lit cigarette stubbed on his bare arm by a teenaged girl who passed him in the street. Coinciding with this and other minor attacks on the foreign students themselves, one host family had a brick thrown through their lounge window.

On another more recent occasion, a miscreant well-known to the police repeatedly shot his BB-gun at a group of foreign students walking near the seafront with their adult leaders and English tutors from their language school. There were no serious injuries, but the culprit repeated the attack the following day.

I became involved in taking and translating statements from the students and their leaders. A few months later the case came to court, and I was called in again. We waited for hours until the court official announced that SERCO, (yes, the same SERCO whose performance in so many government contracts has been dubious!) had taken the lad from the youth offenders’ institution in which he was already serving time for a previous offence, to the wrong city a hundred miles away! Think of all the wasted expense of engaging interpreters, setting up video links from the court to the foreign students (who by then had returned home), the witnesses who had to take time off work, and of course police time wasted. The trial was re-scheduled, but by then the miscreant had decided to plead guilty anyway!

I remember interpreting for a young French woman working in the area who had been attacked by a local woman; a Romanian living and working in Cornwall, who was attacked by a neighbour with a hammer; a Spaniard attacked by his ex-boyfriend with a kitchen knife; another Spaniard attacked with a baseball bat by a former friend. One can’t be sure whether racism was at the root of all of these, but it seems very likely.

However, the most memorable case I was involved with, about 25 years ago, was most certainly racially-motivated. A Spanish and an Italian student at a local language school were victims of a pretty violent attack outside a nightclub. The Spaniard was a big, strong lad, and the Italian was a body-builder. After the attack, the perpetrator was seen by the police to roll up his sleeve, point to the Union flag tattoo on his arm with ‘ENGLAND’ across it, and shout: “I did that cos I’m ENGLISH!”.

The Spanish lad went home minus three teeth, with five stitches in his jaw and a nasty scrape across his back where he had been dragged across the rough edge of the pavement. The eventual decision was not to prosecute “owing to insufficient evidence”. I had to write the letters to the parents explaining this decision. I was ashamed of my country.

All of this was before Brexit, when societal pressure meant that xenophobic Brits had learned to suppress their prejudices. The Brexit campaign exploited their hateful views and gave them legitimacy – or so it seemed to them. The cases of xenophobic attacks which occurred during the campaign and subsequently are pretty well-documented. Now, of course, the government and the elements of the press which manipulate readers to feel fear of ‘the other’ seem hell-bent on aiming invective and vilification at the EU on a daily basis; the Daily Express in particular, with front-page headlines like this one on 26 March: “EU can’t stop us! We will all get jab by July.”

Rosemary Schonfeld and Simon Chater have covered this brilliantly in their WCB article “Time to call out the hate that dare not speak its name”, rightly stating “We believe that, unless our leaders address the festering dislike or hatred of foreigners that is peculiar to the English, our society and economy will continue to stagnate or regress, while the dismantling of our democracy will persist unchecked. A new referendum on EU membership, if it were ever carried out, might well fail to deliver a convincing case for re-joining, so strong has been the media campaign to cast the EU as the villain.”

What is the solution? Well, for decades, language teachers and government education policy reports have highlighted the need to inculcate cultural awareness. As I mentioned in: “Has Brexit wrecked my life’s work?”, on our post-graduate teaching course for languages at the University of Exeter “we emphasised the need to impart tolerance and cultural awareness. ‘Trevor’, our notional unsympathetic Devon pupil, was only interested in his father’s cows and tractor. He’d never been further than Exeter and saw no point in learning languages; we worked hard to remedy such insular attitudes.”

The situation can only get worse. Language study is under attack from various quarters, and the opportunities for English students to spend time in EU countries have all but vanished for most, with the UK’s decision to leave the EU Erasmus scheme. Its replacement ‒ the Turing Scheme ‒ is a pretty shabby cut-down version which will favour those from families able to meet the considerable costs. And, of course, EU Erasmus students will be lost to UK universities, depriving them of the talent they contribute to scholarship here and the fees they pay. Even school pupils will lose out, as explained in

On the positive side, the considerable degree of autonomy afforded to the Welsh Assembly has enabled it to replicate Erasmus for Welsh students, and the Scots will probably do the same. English youngsters will be the only losers in our ‘Union’. Never mind, “I did that cos I’m ENGLISH!”

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

So, does any element of the government commission on race and ethnic disparities, which reported on 31 March, help to combat racism and xenophobia? Sadly, it seems not, focusing as it does on surface issues rather than root causes: As the Independent states: “It’s right to get rid of ‘BAME’ – but this report minimises racism in the process”. Other commentators have branded it ‘a whitewash’.

To conclude, it is interesting to note that 1 April is the date when, in 1939, Generalísimo Francisco Franco declared the end of the tragic and bloody Spanish Civil War and appointed himself as ‘Caudillo de España’. Thus began his 36-year dictatorship, characterised by his claiming ‘right’ via his new found religiosity, brandishing the flag and other symbols to support his authority, social division, triumphalism, often brutal repression of dissent and dissenters, and international isolation.

When I spent a year in Spain as a student in 1969-70, the country was a somewhat quaint, almost surreal, semi-pariah state, with a protected market producing shoddy goods for the sake of stifling reliance on imports. But it was also a state in which protests were put down brutally, as I (almost) witnessed in 1969.  In front of a university building I came upon the embers of a Spanish flag, burnt by protesting students, and saw the spatters of blood on the cobblestones resulting from the heavy-handed tactics of the police sent in to break up the demonstration.

Our police force has figured in the news a great deal recently, particularly in relation to groups of citizens protesting for what most rational people would deem understandable reasons: not a good look in the foreign press. Brexit fcaused me to demonstrate on the streets for the first time since the 1960s, and I would like to think that I will have the right to do so in the future.

I had nothing but admiration for the police officers for whom I interpreted over the years, finding them all to be very professional, meticulous and unbelievably patient with both victims and suspects. I fear that in recent weeks we have sometimes seen situations where the officers on the ground have been put into extremely difficult situations by those who command them and the policy-makers above them. A political situation characterised by the principle of ‘divide and rule’ will always result in a polarised society. On so many levels, it could be said that this is what Brexit Britain is becoming.

If we don’t all open our eyes and heed the warning signs in time, will we be the April Fools?