We all remember the girl in Mean Girls who says ‘I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school… I wish that I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and we’d all eat and be happy.’
When I was a kid I used to laugh at her, not understanding how she was so naïve. But as I started writing this, unsure of what I wanted to achieve, it was all I could come up with. I just want us to all get along. I just want us to smile at each other and be happy.
Even though I’ve lived in the same house all my life, the town I grew up in was nothing like the town I find myself living in now. Back then people had never heard of Rotherham and I was still living in a Golden Age where racism and sexism didn’t exist. Unfortunately, these days Rotherham is famous for all of the wrong reasons.
Last year a CSE scandal was exposed. It was reported that 1400 young girls had been exploited between 1997 and 2014. The crimes were extensive and one of the women accused had previously founded and run a children’s charity, but, for some reason, the media decided to focus solely on the fact that some of the perpetrators happened to be Asian. Since then the EDL and Britain First have descended on our town with their hate-fuelled vitriol no less than fourteen times. They have exploited the young victims further in order to raise their own racist profiles and condemned an entire religion rather than the few men who committed the crimes. For a while it seemed like every Saturday they stole our streets from us, and we’d warn each other, ‘don’t go into town this week, EDL are back.’ We all stopped feeling safe and many local businesses crumbled under the pressure.
But now, despite everything, I’m proud.
People expected us to do nothing, to just let the EDL carry on stamping through the heart of our town. Maybe they even thought we’d join in. Instead the people of Rotherham, and their kindness and their creativity, have fought back against all the odds.
Last September I saw the birth of Love Comes First, an initiative that opposes intolerance and hatred by celebrating the good things in Rotherham. I’ve been to the diversity festival and had my hands hennaed and wrote positive messages to Rotherham on everything from bunting to bedsheets whilst surrounded by people from all over the world and handmade signs asking only for peace. And on Saturday the 5th of September I attended a Unite against Fascism demonstration that objected to Britain First (and a few stray EDL members) yet again marching through our town.
We were a diverse group of people with children standing next to pensioners, Muslims next to Christians and Vicars next to non-believers. We were peaceful. We held banners and signs saying, ‘peace off’, ‘gi’yor’, ‘Rotherham says relax’ and ‘be kind’. People spoke passionately. We remembered the victims of child sexual exploitation with the respect they deserve and held a minute of silence for Mushin Ahmed, the 81 year old Yemeni Muslim who sadly died after being attacked whilst on his way to morning prayers.
Towards the end a few of us bumped into a small group of children who had attended our workshops in the past. They were all around ten and eleven and so amazingly brazen. They were ready for whatever Britain First threw at them, and told us that when they are older they’re going to join the police. It was amazing seeing them so young and so engaged with the politics of their community but my heart sank when one of them asked, ‘do they hate us too?’. The children are all Roma, and moved here from Slovakia. How do you answer that question? How do we live in a society where children are a target of hatred just because of the colour of their skin?
Britain First are angry people who get their points heard by preventing other people from speaking. I, and so many other people have been blocked from commenting peacefully on Britain First’s Facebook page and our opinions have been removed. But I’ve trawled through the comments, and none of ours are angry, or disrespectful or threatening. They talked about peace and justice and humanity. They listened to both sides of the argument and made careful and considerate answers. But from members of Britain First I’ve seen genuine hatred. The following are all quoted word for word from comments on their Facebook page: ‘scum thay should all be shot’ (sic), ‘Muslim = dirty scum peodos’ (sic), ‘should of just petrol bombed the lot of them’ (sic) and the most sickening of all: ‘throw em a 9 year old virgin. That will calm em down. Peedo’s’. (sic) Personally, I’ve been called a ‘paedophile sympathiser’ for being opposed to racism and bizarrely one woman tried to undermine my argument by calling me educated. Worryingly when these comments were reported to Facebook I received a generic response saying that they didn’t violate their community standards.
So far there has been little mention of the positive events in the news; only the negative is interesting enough to be covered. But this needs to be heard. We shouldn’t be ashamed to come from Rotherham and I don’t want to live in a community where people feel unsafe in the towns that they, their parents and often even their grandparents call their home simply because they’re muslim. It can’t go on.
We need to stop hiding our stories, and silencing our voices because we are the real people of England and the real people of Rotherham. Not the racists.
I am so proud to have stood side by side with the people who took off their shoes and prayed in the middle of a protest. The people who got up on the steps that stood in for a stage and talked about how we are one Rotherham and that no one can divide us. The person who kind of joked but was also kind of serious that it would be great if we could swap the members of Britain First for a few thousand refugees who need just need a safe place to stay. And those children, who waved their signs in the air and were ready to take on the world. I’m proud, and I’ll carry on been proud for as long as I share my town with these people.