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.

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.

 

1979 – Irish Republicans stage daring attacks on the UK


Being half-Irish (as I am) could be difficult in the 1970s as the Provisional IRA launched bloody and audacious attacks on the UK mainland. I even earned the nickname “Paddy” at my first secondary school – even though I didn’t speak with anything like an Irish accent.

One night, the waterworks at the top of my road was bombed by the IRA and as a 12 year old kid lying in bed, I knew immediately what had happened. My heart sank at the thought of what school kids would be saying the next day about the Irish. Bad enough there were “comedians” on mainstream TV at this time cracking “jokes” about how thick “paddies” apparently were.

Airey_Neave
Airey Neave

1979 saw two murders that shook the country. On the 30th March, the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army – not to be confused with the IRA) blew up Conservative MP Airey Neave. You can watch the BBC TV news report by clicking HERE.

Neave was shadow Northern Ireland secretary and a close confidante of Conservative Party leader and soon to be PM, Margaret Thatcher. His car was blown up by a bomb attached underneath with magnets as it left the House of Commons car park. Needless to say that the security around the Palace of Westminster had presented no obstacle to the terrorists.

More shockingly was the slaying on the 27th August, 1979 of Lord Mountbatten: cousin of the Queen, the last viceroy of India and a very well known member of the royal family by the IRA. He was blown up on a boat with his son and a deck hand while on holiday in Ireland. Hours later, 18 British soldiers were killed at Warrenpoint in a devastating attack by Irish Republicans.

Mountbatten
Mountbatten

You can watch the BBC TV account of that by clicking HERE. Mountbatten’s murderer shared my surname, unfortunately, and was caught. He was released from prison in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, put in place after the ceasefire.

These events undoubtedly exercised a huge political and emotional influence on Thatcher. When IRA prisoners went on hunger strike demanding to be treated as prisoners of war, Thatcher folded her arms and let them starve – to death. That was in spite of one of them, Bobby Sands, being elected to parliament from his cell.

Margaret Thatcher and capital punishment – her desire to bring back hanging


In 1979, Thatcher pledged to bring back hanging during the General Election that saw her take power for the first time – beating Jim Callaghan and Labour. In one conversation made public in 2014 she made it clear that hanging should be re-introduced for terrorists in Northern Ireland.

Capital punishment had only been banned under 15 years earlier by a Labour government. But the movement against it had been gathering pace since the 1930s. Thatcher undoubtedly supported the rope and wanted a free vote in parliament. In answer to a question put to her in a newspaper attacking her over the issue, she replied:

For my part, I have always supported capital punishment for terrorists, and will continue to do so.

2Tone bands take on racism in Coventry – 1981


The summer of 1981 was rocked by riots against the government with cities across Britain experiencing massive upheavals. Coventry had been something of a tinderbox for years with skinheads clashing with black and Asian youth throughout the 1970s – something I write about in my biography of Neville Staple, “Original Rude Boy”. But things escalated in 1981 when an Asian youth was murdered in broad daylight in the shopping centre – enough was definitely enough.

The National Front had swaggered round town intimidating law abiding people and now the 2Tone bands born of Coventry organised a gig to take the streets back. It was a festival of racial unity. Though that didn’t stop the NF threatening to come down to the venue and cause disruption. At the same time as the gig, riots broke out round Coventry bus station.

Here is Melody Maker’s report on the gig from my archives!

Did 8,000 Britons die in a hushed up nuclear accident?


Alpha_po_latticeIn 1983, New Scientist claimed that an accident at the Windscale nuclear plant in 1957 had been hushed up.  Windscale is now called Sellafield and at the time of this article, CND was at its height commanding massive attendances at its demonstrations.  The question nearly thirty years after that article is – was there a disaster in the 1950s or were we all getting carried away in the early 1980s?

The train of events has been detailed by somebody on Wikipedia under Windscale Fire and I’m not going to repeat the Wiki entry.  I don’t just cut and paste Wiki on here.  I’ve got original newspapers and magazines from the time in front of me and I can tell you what while Wiki claims there may have been an extra 240 deaths from thyroid cancer – the claims in 1983 were of a possible 8,000 deaths.

And what would have been the culprit – why, our old friend Polonium.   You remember Polonium?  It was what ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko had popped in his tea without his knowledge at the Itsu restaurant in London in 2007 leading to his death.

In the 1983 magazine article it was claimed that a radioactive cloud passed over the UK and most of Europe from Windscale.  Milk was effected in the local area leading to substantial quantities being dumped in the Irish Sea.  The figure of 8,000 cancer deaths was speculated on though as I say, the current Wiki entry has dramatically reduced that figure.

Happy for any feedback on this.