Anti-migrant rhetoric led to racist graffiti in Stephen Lawrence suburb, locals and MP say

Anti-migrant rhetoric by politicians over small boat crossings has led to racist graffiti appearing in the suburb where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, the local MP and residents have told i.

Six weeks ago residents in Eltham discovered garden fences and street furniture in the south east London suburb had been daubed with racist slurs and far-right symbols.

It was the start of a new spate of hate-inspired vandalism which has periodically plagued the area for three years. The latest outbreak has continued since March, with at least two further sets of night-time scrawlings painted within a mile radius targeting groups including small boat migrants, Afro-Carribbean people and the Irish community.

In a incident two weeks ago, a term deeply offensive to black people was painted close to the memorial stone marking the spot where Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racist thugs. Last month, commemorations were held at the memorial to mark the 30th anniversary of a killing from which shock and revulsion still echoes strongly in Eltham and beyond.

The result was disquiet and anger this week at crude and repeated attempts to sow division and racial hatred in a community which shoulders an unsought burden of being seen as a barometer of race relations in the capital, if not Britain as a whole.

Graffiti including a stylised version of the initials “NF”, denoting the far-right National Front group, has appeared on fences and street furniture in recent weeks (Photo: Cahal Milmo)

On Thursday, Ray Gibbon, 64, was walking his dog past the spot where one of the racial slurs had been painted along with a stylised version of letters “NF” – a reference to the far-right National Front group which was at its zenith in the 70s. The telecoms equipment cabinet which had been defaced still smelt of fresh paint – a sign of the determination of the Royal Borough of Greenwich to remove the graffiti wherever it is found, usually within hours of it being reported.

Mr Gibbon, a former youth worker, said: “To be honest, it makes me want to smack whoever it is back into 70s or whichever dinosaur age they come from. After everything that this area has been through and the work that has been done here and everywhere to deal with racism, to find this sort of pondlife spreading poison is really disappointing. This sort of thing never represented this place and it really doesn’t now.”

Senior community figures told i that the graffiti did not appear to be linked to the Lawrence murder or the recent commemorations. Instead, the flurry of daubings, which include the use of the words “aliens out”, were being seen by some as racial animosity stirred up by political rhetoric over small boat crossings from Calais.

Concern about the public discourse over migration is shared by Eltham’s Labour MP Clive Efford, who has represented the area for 26 years and is fiercely determined that whoever is behind the graffiti should be brought to account. He told i: “The first bit of this graffiti happened straight after the illegal migration bill was debated in Parliament at the end of March. Politicians should be thinking really carefully about the language they use when they address these issues. I am determined that we catch the individual responsible for [the graffiti] as quickly as possible.”

It has left some with a growing sense of fear.

Hannah, 42, who has a mixed-race son and has lived in Eltham for eight years, first spotted the graffiti at the end of last month when she noticed the “aliens out” slogan painted alongside the “NF” initials on a fence near her home.

She told i: “I actually could not believe my eyes – this is not something I have ever seen before while living here. It’s very sad to see because this is a very diverse place filled with lots of really, really lovely people just getting on with their lives.

“Whoever is doing this clearly has a problem with that and no one would give them the time of day. But at the same time it angers me because we heard so much rhetoric from politicians against migrants and refugees. I feel it is emboldening those with extreme views. I’m genuinely scared for my son’s safety. It may be a lone person doing this, but they won’t be the only one holding these views.”

Indeed, there was some impatience that graffiti attacks have persisted in the area over several years. It is understood by i that the issue dates back to at least 2020 and that since January 2021 there have been 31 incidents of racist graffiti in Eltham.

In 2020, the Crimestoppers charity offered a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible for a series of near-identical racist slogans, including the use of the same “NF” initials. There have also been graffiti attacks in adjoining Charlton and Blackheath, where anti-semitic slurs and swastikas have been painted on buildings, although it is not clear if these are linked to the Eltham incidents.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich emphasised that investigations led by the Metropolitan Police were continuing to catch the vandal. In a statement the local authority said: “We are appalled by the vile, racist graffiti in Eltham. An investigation is ongoing and we’re working closely with the Metropolitan Police to bring the perpetrator to justice. This is something we take extremely seriously, which is why we have been removing the graffiti immediately.”

Alongside disquiet, there was also a sense of defiance at the attempt to spread discord. One woman pushing a pram which passing a fence carrying two “NF” logos still visible behind attempts to paint them out, said: “Actually, people get on around here, whoever this is doesn’t get out much.”

As coronation bunting from last weekend’s street parties still flapped in the wind and children from multiple ethnicities could be seen enjoying play time in a school playground, Eltham is much changed in terms of its demographic make-up. At the time of the Stephen Lawrence murder its ethnic minority population was just six per cent; it now stands at more than 32 per cent.

And while it is clearly not immune from racism, it is far from being any sort of hotbed for race crime. Metropolitan Police statistics show the area last year had 58 incidents recorded as racial hate crimes, a ratio of just under four for every thousand people that is about a third of the rate for the rest of the surrounding borough of Greenwich and seven times less than Westminster.

A Greenwich race relations worker, who asked not to be named, said Eltham had in the past suffered from extremists, among them members of the English Defence League and the British National Party, coming from elsewhere in search of confrontation. The worker said: “We are seeing less of that sort thing now but there is always a worry that they’ll try again. I think this is why things like the graffiti hit a nerve, no-one wants the past to come back.”

Or, as Mr Gibbon robustly put it: “This character needs to have his spray can put firmly where the sun don’t shine.”

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