The three men had been drinking for several hours by the time they arrived at The Stow shopping centre in Harlow. It was approaching midnight on a warm bank holiday weekend towards the end of August. Arkadiusz Jozwik and his two companions – the men were Polish and lived and worked locally in the troubled Essex town – were hungry and tired. Jozwik bought a pizza from a takeaway and sat on a wall to eat it. It was then that he and his companions noticed a group of teenagers nearby, some of them on bikes. The boys, and they were boys, aged fifteen and sixteen, approached and there was a confrontation. The men became loud and antagonistic, and, as each group goaded the other, one of the boys slipped out of the pack and sneaked up behind Jozwik, landing to the back of his head what would later be described in court as his ‘Superman punch’.
Jozwik fell – perhaps partly because he was drunk, perhaps partly because he was off balance – and hit his head hard on the pavement, after which the boys panicked and fled. Jozwik was unconscious and blood leaked from his ears as he was taken by ambulance to the town’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, from where he was transferred to Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge.
The next day Essex police described the attack as ‘brutal’ and called it a ‘potential hate crime’ – the suggestion being that Jozwik was assaulted because he was heard speaking Polish. Which alerted the media that what had happened on the night of Saturday 27 August 2016 at The Stow shopping centre was more sinister than a routine late-night altercation that had gone seriously wrong. It was a hate crime, a political crime.
This was the febrile summer of the European referendum when the air was rancid with accusation and counter-accusation and England had never seemed more divided between those who wanted the United Kingdom to continue as a member of the European Union and those who wanted out; between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’. Like hundreds of thousands of other Poles who had moved to Britain in the years after former Communist states from Eastern Europe joined the EU, Jozwik, who was single, believed life in England offered opportunities that his home country could not. In 2012 he followed his mother, a widow, to Essex because he did not want to be alone in Poland. He lived with her in Harlow, where he found work in a sausage factory.
The day after the attack in The Stow six youths were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. Then, on 29 August, Arkadiusz Jozwik – Arek to friends and family – died in hospital, having never regained consciousness. He was forty years old and had suffered a brain injury and a fractured skull.
No one has established the exact motivation for the attack – a witness reported that Jozwik racially abused one of the boys, who was black or mixed race – but whatever the motive, the impact of the punch that felled Jozwik was felt around the world: the New York Times incorrectly reported, for instance, that he was ‘repeatedly pummeled and kicked by a group of boys and girls’. And soon it was being called the ‘Brexit Murder’.
Every district in Essex voted Leave in the referendum of 23 June 2016 (the pro-Brexit vote in Harlow, which has high unemployment and areas of deprivation, was 68 per cent compared with the national average of 52 per cent). After Jozwik’s death, the Polish president Andrzej Duda wrote to religious leaders in Britain requesting their assistance in preventing further attacks on Polish nationals and the Polish ambassador to Britain was taken on a tour of Harlow. Around the same time, Polish police officers were sent from Warsaw to patrol the area around The Stow, and the Polish community organised a solidarity march in the town.
‘We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being beaten up, harassed or even murdered in the streets of Essex,’ the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said in an annual state of the union address on 14 September.
The subtext of Juncker’s intervention was this: the death of Arkadiusz Jozwik was a manifestation of the xenophobic forces unleashed by the Brexit referendum, and Harlow and its people were implicated.