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.

 

Advertisements

National Union of School Students membership card for 1978


Not entirely sure how long the NUSS lasted for. Think I’m right in saying it was a Socialist Workers Party inspired organisation but I might be wrong. Amusing to see the reference to caning and school uniforms. It didn’t have a great deal of traction at my school. Interestingly, in 1985 there was a major school students walk out in Liverpool with a rally addressed by Terry Fields MP at the pier head.

Does a 1970s NF manifesto show how far right we’ve moved today?


National Front leafletDigging up this National Front filth from my archives, I was struck how far to the right the mainstream political parties have moved these days. There was the NF calling on Britain to leave the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union) and now it’s de rigeur to be eurosceptic to a degree – any enthusiasm for the European project seems to have evaporated.

On immigration – the main parties haven’t yet advocated repatriation but the assumption that immigration is a ‘bad thing’ has become dominant. Back in the 70s, the NF wasn’t shy about talk of “sending THEM back” – even if the people they were referring to were second even third generation black and Asian Britons. Today, UKIP has called for the children of immigrants to be classed as migrants and all parties have promised to ‘get tough’ on immigration and remove benefits.

The NF made great headway spreading lies about immigrants grabbing social housing – yet that assumption goes unchallenged today by many mainstream politicians. Ditto the health service being overrun by so-called “health tourists”. And we’ve had British jobs for British workers rhetoric from politicians on the left that would have been screamed down as utterly racist 30 years back.

What’s your view?