Gillingham Football Club recently issued a lifetime ban to a young fan following a racist incident during a football match. This led me to wonder if such incidents were frequent or isolated in this geographical area of Kent, which has a population of 270,000 and is practically on London’s doorstep. I have lived in Medway for over twenty years, and as an Irish man, I have never experienced any discrimination because of my ethnicity. Perhaps others who are not white and/or not indigenous to the area might not have been so lucky. In 2021, 5.6% of Medway residents identified their ethnic group within the ‘Black, Black British, Black Welsh, Caribbean or African’ category, which was up from 2.5% in 2011.
There are 24 wards across Medway – a combination of urban and rural. The urban wards (consisting of the Medway towns Gillingham, Chatham, Rochester and Strood) account for 30% of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in contrast to rural countryside wards, which account for the much smaller figure of 3%. Rail travellers passing through Chatham railway station may have noticed a plaque of Asquith Xavier (1920-1980) in its Platform 1 waiting room. Asquith lived in Chatham and was a pioneering champion who fought for black equality in the 1960s. He successfully campaigned to end the widespread racial discrimination in British Rail at that time and helped to create the 1968 Race Relations Act, a revolutionary piece of legislation making it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to anyone based on their ethnicity.
Some Medway residents say that having a plaque like this on display should not be surprising given that Medway has always been multicultural, and therefore, ethnic diversity is not by any means a new phenomenon. Geographically, Medway has always been considered an overflow from London. It has enjoyed a good ethnic mix from the times of the dockyard to the influx of Eastern Europeans in the late nineties, refugees and asylum seekers in the noughties and, more recently, those fleeing conflict in Ukraine. At least 30 home languages are spoken in schools, colleges and universities in Medway, representing every continent of the world. Colleges and universities have always had an outward focus, including an international stance, because of the ethnic diversity among their students. Medway Council decided to change the name of a controversial car park in Chatham town centre in 2020. The previous Sir John Hawkins car park was named after the Elizabethan sailor who played a pivotal role in establishing the slave trade in Britain. The car park is now known as St John’s Car Park as it sits next to St John the Divine Church.
Notwithstanding this, racism is endemic in some families and is often the result of generational ignorance that gets passed on. Some people are born into families with racist views and tag along without challenging the status quo, but others manage to break the cycle by abandoning racist views expressed by parents, grandparents and extended family members. These days, people are better at calling out racism, even on social media, where a single voice can easily become amplified by those who are uninformed or bigoted. But should there be more public campaigns across the UK like the ‘Calling it Out’ initiative that Sadiq Khan devised in London? It is said the Brexit referendum stirred the pot on immigration fears. Parts of the campaign was fear-based – for example, promoting unfound fears that up to 80% of Turkish people would descend upon the UK if Turkey were allowed to join the European Union. In the first few years after the referendum, it was noted that anyone in the Medway towns who looked or sounded foreign got caught up in incidents of xenophobia with chants of ‘go home’. This was directed at certain nationalities, including those from Eastern Europe, as opposed to skin colour alone.
Racism is a hate crime and subject to prosecution. Despite ‘Black Lives Matter’ in response to the murder of George Floyd in America, there has been an upward trend in hate crime, including racism, in recent years. More than 100,000 racist hate crimes were recorded in England and Wales for the first time in 2022. There were 4,809 hate crimes reported in Kent and Medway up to March 2023, compared to 4,942 for the previous 12 months. Medway is proactive in having two organisations that stand up to racism, including ‘Medway, Stand up to Racism’ and ‘Love Music Hate Racism’. These are watchdogs who stamp out racism before it takes hold. Any racist group like the far-right organisations (including Britain First and UKIP) have never been able to get a foothold in Medway because they have never received widespread support among its voters. Medway is home to people of many different religions and houses six mosques, several Sikh temples, a synagogue and numerous born-again Christian missions whose congregations are mainly from Nigeria and other African countries. A small number of Islamophobia incidents in Medway have occurred mainly relating to insulting behaviour, and the only antisemitism that has been noted was when the cemetery at the back of the synagogue was vandalised a few years ago.
There are a small number of youth gangs operating in Medway related to drugs and/or county lines. However, this is proportionate to any area on the outskirts of a major city, and given that London has a large gang and drug problem, it could be said that Medway and the wider Kent area are not necessarily proportionate of what could be expected in a bordering county to the capital. In 2020, Rochester Cathedral hosted the ‘Knife Angel’ – a striking 25-foot-high statue of 100,000 confiscated knives. The national moving monument was visited by over 26,000 people during its time at the cathedral before it toured many other venues across the country.
While police and authorities in Medway actively deal with incidents of racism, Romany Gypsies have in the past tasted racism and discrimination at the hands of officialdom. An example of this was the eviction and destruction of a Traveller site in Rainham in 2022, which resulted in seven families becoming homeless. After speaking to Vince Maple, the new Medway Council Leader, he acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past before adding that members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities can expect a better approach under his administration with more compassion shown than previously. Mr Maple said that welfare checks by public health officers are now regularly taking place with GRT communities, along with more engagement, dialogue and conversation to ensure that fair treatment is always practised.
In conclusion, it could be said that Medway does not present undue challenges to people whose skin colour is not white. Yes, pockets of racism and xenophobia exist, but the vast amount of broadminded Medway residents outweighs this. I personally have spoken to several BAME people living in Medway and have asked them if they have experienced racism in the area. They all confirm that they haven’t had any direct or indirect experiences. They would have been unable to say that if Medway was an unsafe, extremely racist and unwelcoming place to live. It’s not – and let’s keep it that way by stamping on incidents of racism and xenophobia by exercising zero tolerance for those who cross this murky line.
Racism is bigotry, hatred and discrimination based on a person’s skin colour.
Xenophobia is bigotry, hatred and discrimination based upon someone else being from a different country.