LONDON • Two Polish immigrants were eating takeout pizza against a brick wall on a muggy night in Harlow, a working-class town about 32km north-east of central London.
As they chatted in Polish, witnesses said, a group of young boys and girls attacked them. The group repeatedly pummelled and kicked one of the men, Mr Arkadiusz Jozwik, 40, a meat factory worker, in the head. He died two days later from his injuries, in a killing that police are investigating as a possible hate crime.
The second man, who was not identified, was hospitalised with bruises and hand fractures.
Six boys from Harlow - five 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old - have been arrested on suspicion of murder in the attack, which occurred shortly before midnight last Saturday. All have been released on bail. Police said they were investigating reports the attackers had hurled racist abuse at the victims.
The brutality of the killing and its apparent targeting of immigrants shocked many Britons and prompted soul-searching. It renewed alarm among Eastern European immigrants that the campaign leading to Britain's decision in a June 23 referendum to leave the European Union (EU), known as Brexit, has unleashed a wave of xenophobia.
Before the vote, members of the far-right who supported leaving the bloc played adroitly on concerns about unchecked immigration, warning that the EU's open borders threatened the British way of life, made the country vulnerable to terrorism and hurt workers.
The killing has shaken the close-knit multicultural community in Harlow, which has a large Polish population. Dozens of residents participated in a candlelit vigil; some held signs saying "migrants and refugees welcome here". Others laid flowers in a makeshift memorial on the street where the attack took place. One note read: "Not everyone in Harlow is as evil as those people."
Poles constitute the largest number of foreign-born residents of Britain, with 831,000 in the country, and the assault in Harlow added to a string of attacks against them. In June, shortly after the referendum, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in the Hammersmith district of London, home to a large Polish community, was vandalised.
In early July, laminated cards with messages like "No more Polish vermin" and "Go home, Polish scum" were left on cars and at several properties in Cambridgeshire, north of London.
The death of Mr Jozwik has been devastating for his family. His brother, Mr Radoslaw Jozwik, said that his mother, who had worked alongside his brother at the meat factory, was struggling to cope with his death.
"My mum came back from holiday and did not know what had happened," he told reporters. "We had to meet her at Stansted Airport and tell her, and then take her straight to the hospital. She is really struggling."
Mr Arkady Rzegocki, Poland's recently appointed ambassador to Britain, said in an interview that he feared the decision to leave the European Union had given licence to display xenophobia, and that more minorities were being targeted. He visited the crime scene in Harlow on Wednesday and met Mr Arkadiusz Jozwik's family. He plans to participate in a "march of silence" organised by the Polish community today.
According to the National Police Chiefs' Council, the number of reported hate crimes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland jumped 46 per cent to 1,831 in the week after the June 23 referendum from the comparable week a year earlier. More recently, in the period from July 22 to 28, reports of hate crimes had jumped 34 per cent from a year earlier.
Police cautioned, however, that the rise could be attributed in part to higher awareness of hate crimes.
NEW YORK TIMES