The Murder of Altab Ali in 1978


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.

Altab Ali Met Police AppealBut 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.

 

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The death of Blair Peach and the Southall riot


In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:

The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps.  The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.

The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”.  Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.

Blair_Peach
Blair Peach – died in the 1979 Southall riot

As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.

The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury.  There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.

Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am.  After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened.  His full report was only made public three decades later.

A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution.  However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.

On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched.   In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.

There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.

But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit.  He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.

The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s.  The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth.  In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.

The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation.  But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.

Maggie Thatcher, the Tories and race relations


So what did Maggie think about race issues in the 70s and 80s. One of her key advisers, Alfred Sherman, had views on ethnic minority issues that would be regarded as slightly beyond the pale in our more inclusive times.   One such was that immigration had been from cultures that were alien to English values including “sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law”.

A recurring theme from Sherman was that waves of immigrants from ‘alien cultures’ had resulted in a loss of control of what it meant to be British.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because Margaret Thatcher similarly remarked in 1978 on TV that many Britons “fear rather being swamped by an alien culture”.

Behind Thatcher, on the Tory backbenches, views on immigration and race relations were a touch reactionary.  In one debate on immigration in the House of Commons on 5th July, 1976 –  some rum comments were made.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, who shared the same name but not the same glittering career as the war leader, thought the tolerance and generosity of the British people was being tested to the limit.

“We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

During the 1976 debate, Churchill pointed out that a West Indian had told him at his MP’s surgery that he would remove his daughter from a school, which was 75% immigrant, because she had no chance of a ‘proper English education’.  Churchill added, “that man was as black as your coat, Mr Deputy Speaker”.

John Stokes, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge claimed that a petition to the Home Office might be replied to in six weeks but an “immigrant leader” who wanted to see the Prime Minister would get an audience in two days.

He went on to claim that a vast gap existed between what he called the pro-immigrant camp – made up of race relations people, intellectuals, the media and do-gooders – and “the ordinary people who look to us in the House of Commons for protection”.

“They do not want a multi-racial society.  They do not believe that integration will work.”

And in case anybody thought that by immigration, the Commons debate might be referring to all those who entered the UK, George Rodgers – MP for Chorley – put them on the right track.  “The difficulties revolve around the colour of people’s skins.  We should bear that in mind and recognise the problem, not avoid it.”

And so it went on with Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, even demanding that the then Labour government apologise to Enoch Powell for the comments they had made after his notorious 1968 anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech.

Three years later, the 1979 Conservative Manifesto would include proposals for toughening up of immigration policy directly under its promises on fighting crime.  It acknowledged that the ethnic minorities had made a valuable contribution to the life of the nation.

“But firm immigration control for the future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations”.