The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978 – a story of racism in Tower Hamlets 40 years ago
In 1998, St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel was renamed the Altab Ali Park. The church of St Mary’s that once stood there had been completely destroyed in the Blitz and the new name was felt to be more relevant to the area’s growingly confident Bangladeshi community.
But who exactly was Altab Ali?
Visitors to the nearby Brick Lane market can glimpse the new park gate with its Bengali design surmounted on what’s left of the old church wall. They might attribute it to the emergence of what’s been termed BanglaTown, the vibrant immigrant success story of today’s east London.
However, in 1978, the name of Altab Ali hit the local headlines as yet another victim from an embattled community. Twenty five year old Altab, a clothing worker, had been on his way home from work when three white youths attacked and killed him.
If this had been an isolated incident of “paki bashing”, it might not have triggered the wave of fury that now burst out of this corner of the East End. Ten days after his death, thousands of Bangladeshis filed behind Altab’s coffin, on the 14th May, as it was carried all the way to Hyde Park for a demonstration.
This was about as public a display of being fed up as London had ever seen. To understand the depth of feeling behind this long funeral cortege, it’s worth flicking through a dossier that the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council published that year aptly titled ‘Blood on the Streets’.
It’s a dispiriting catalogue of far right violence combined with either police ineptitude or indifference – it’s hard to tell which. The list of thuggish incursions in to the area begins with a hundred and fifty skinheads storming Brick Lane in a show of strength just a month after Altab Ali’s murder.
On 11th June, they rampaged down the street terrorising market stallholders and shopkeepers. What might have riled them was the emergence of Asian youth organizations that were taking a more strident stance against fascist hooligans. For the first time, Bengali boys were hitting back and the skinheads did not approve.
The white youths mustered at the top of Brick Lane. Seeing them gather, the owner of a sari shop phoned the police begging for assistance. None came. Nobody from the local constabulary would arrive till after the mob had run amok with their excuse being that the phone call to the station had come during a change over of shifts.
The next month saw an attack that was far more audacious and would spark off an area wide strike by Asian workers and a one day shut down of businesses.
On the 6th July, thirty white men turned up at the Charrington Bottling Plant in Bow armed with clubs and bricks. Incredibly, they began setting about the sixty or so Asian workers at the plant causing several injuries. Police were to claim afterwards that there was no discernible racial motive involved.
September brought a report in The East London and Hackney Advertiser about an Asian family forced to live in a back room of their own house for six weeks as it came under sustained bombardment with various objects. The police had been called and visited but said they were otherwise powerless to stop the damage being done or prevent the death threats.
In many of these cases there was perceived to be a marked unwillingness by the police to investigate alleged crimes or to prosecute attackers. For example, one Asian motorist attacked by a white van driver was curtly informed that the police would look in to the matter of dangerous driving by his assailant but the assault itself was a civil, not a criminal matter.