James Crow joined Britain First at the age of 18 after becoming fascinated by far-right content online while still at school. Now 24, he has left the organisation and is working with the campaign group Hope Not Hate to oppose far-right extremism. This is his story, as told to Sally Weale
I grew up in a small village on the outskirts of Rotherham. It’s quite a diverse area now, but when I was at school it was predominantly white. I went to the local secondary and it was like five years in the slammer. It was pure torture. I was bullied 24/7.
It was just horrible. I started developing anger management issues pretty early on, and then I made some friends in the year above me. They were openly racist, but they protected me at school. They would make Islamophobic comments. I was a big fan of wrestling, and they were wrestling fans, so we’d go from talking about wrestling to talking about Islam. They would pick on the Pakistani guy who ran the local shop. I was on the sidelines watching. I was just a naive little kid.
When they left school, it left a void and that’s when I started to look at far-right content online. After school I’d lock myself in my bedroom and get on the internet. I was looking for videos all the time and it’s such a big rabbit hole. With the algorithms, one far-right video leads on to another and another, and the next thing I know I’ve spent hours online.
I was a big Minecraft player at the time. It was my last year at school and there was a really bad bullying incident one day and I thought: “Right, I’m going to make these bullies pay for it.” I made the decision that I was going to try to attack and kill some of the bullies.
So I built a replica of my school in Minecraft, and I practised going around to the classes where I knew some of the bullies were that I wanted to hurt. On the day I decided to do it, I took a knife out of the bread basket at home. I put it in my bag and I thought: “Some time in maths I’m going to launch my attack.”
I remember my heart was pounding. I was starting to sweat. That day one of the bullies was giving me a really hard time, but I remember looking at my bag and thinking: “Don’t do it, it’s not worth it.” And luckily for everyone involved, I chose not to. I put the knife back where it belonged and just carried on.
It was all around the time the Jay report [into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham] came out and Britain First did a demo in Rotherham. I became fascinated by it. The online stuff was in its infancy then. The far right were looking at this new tool and seeing how they could use it.
I’d been seeing far-right videos online for years. I turned 18 and I felt like it was time to join up. Then in January 2016 I joined Britain First. I think I was missing friendship. I felt lost. I felt like I needed to go there to get some protection from the bullies. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was struggling with depression.
I started going to demonstrations. My first was in Dewsbury. We got flags and banners and we were walking in a big formation into town and it just felt so powerful. It felt like we were unstoppable. The speeches were pure Islamophobia. At first I was nervous, but then it always felt like that layer of protection was there because they have their own security guys.
We’d go into a town or city with a large Muslim population – Dewsbury, Leicester, London – and we’d have no idea what the plan was, and we pretty much always got a hostile reaction. I got addicted to that adrenaline rush. I’d always get psyched up. You’d be in the car or on the train, and you’d feel butterflies in your stomach and you couldn’t wait for it.
And then we went to a big demonstration in Birmingham. I think it was one of the highest turnouts at a Britain First rally. Everybody got drunk in the morning, it was absolute chaos. People were fighting with the police, trying to get through to an anti-fascist counterdemonstration across the road. I was controlling the Facebook camera feed and I said in the commentary: “The police are attacking us” – and that wasn’t true. I remember thinking afterwards: that’s wrong. What I did was pure propaganda, it was nowhere near the truth.
It didn’t really feel the same after that. I quit and it felt like I’d lost a family member. I went back online and started looking for another group to join. I attended a few meetings – For Britain and Generation Identity – but I eventually said “no thanks”.
Since then I’ve struggled a lot. During lockdown I was working from home and I had a really bad episode where I was self-harming. I was working in a call centre and if customers gave me abuse, I’d be openly crying on the phone. And then my parents got me counselling. So I started talking openly about being bullied in school and being in the far right, and that’s when the penny dropped. I’d been misled.
Since then I’ve had my whole outlook on life turned. I’m a socialist now. I went from screaming at Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott to being their supporters. I’ve got a proper, secure job and I’m just about to move into a new place. I’m hoping eventually to become a Labour councillor. My parents were always Labour.
It feels like an alternative life that I’ve lived, like I’m looking over into a parallel universe. I felt shame at first. I regret hurting the people I hurt, but I’ve got a new lease of life. I just want to use my story, so if any kids in school are going down the wrong path, I want to convince them to get off that path.
I think parents need to watch what their kids are doing online. And teachers need to keep an ear out for any signs that kids are in trouble. At school they need to be looking out for those early warning signs that something’s wrong. Looking back on it, I think it would have been fairly obvious that I was in a dark place. They need to be looking out for pupils who are becoming reclusive, not talking to anyone.
I have been threatened after leaving the far right. But at the end of the day somebody needs to come out and say these things. If I didn’t say anything and I could see the far right flourishing and going from strength to strength, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. We need to stand up to these people.
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