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 Front

Fascist infiltration of schools in the late 70s


There’s an increasing concern about neo-fascist infiltration of school playgrounds today – so it’s worth a quick glance back to what the situation was like in the late 70s and early 80s when neo-Nazis were very active among school pupils.

National Front
The NF campaigned against individual teachers
National Front
Publications promoting multiculturalism were lambasted by the fascists

Football terraces were good recruitment grounds for the far right but schools were another arena of activity.  In one report, there was a quote from a fascist group:

We welcome young people. We make or break them. Many are coming to us with the rise in unemployment. Skinheads are prime material – raw and aggressive. They need an identity. The whole point of getting children is to indoctrinate them. We are building a Nazi society through the youth of today.

Chilling stuff. The British Movement and National Front were particularly active. I recall one pupil from my school returning from a BM conference (from memory in Brussels in 1980) replete with skinhead cut and a perma-snarl. He walked up to me in the school library and informed me that I was a “pinko…leftie…etc”.  John Tyndall, chairman of the NF in the 70s said that “until children reach an age at which they are able to determine their own values, some sort of values have to be instilled into them”. According to the 1974 NF manifesto, schools were to be segregated on the basis of race and liberal studies – or “academic Marxism” as they called it – would be banned.

The NF’s youth wing took over the magazine Bulldog and that became its main recruiting tool in schools. It included a campaign to remove “red teachers” from the classroom. They sometimes found themselves competing with other far right groups like Viking Youth, led by Paul Jarvis – who was also looking for recruits in the Scout movement! The BM produced a publication called Fact Finder, which included a “Lie Detector”. According to this, the heroes of the Nuremburg Trials were those on trial! Needless to say, holocaust denial featured highly.

Reported incidents in 1980/81 included:

  • May 1980 – black pupils at a Camden school attacked by skinheads from the National Socialist Party of the United Kingdom
  • October 1980 – BM recruiting at schools in Dartford, Kent
  • October 1980 – Young National Front campaign against a teacher at a Dover school
  • February 1981 – Manchester school daubed with swastikas and NF symbols
  • March 1981 – 33 pupils, mostly Asian, leave a classroom at a Birmingham school before a fire-bomb explosion – racist attack suspected

When Shoreditch was fascist territory


National Front leafletEven in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story.  Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.  National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti.  And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.

In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 40.

Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.

 

Tooling up the police under Thatcher


In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s. The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. But there was also – among those who saw a threatening left wing tide – a desire to toughen up the state apparatus.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that makes their point.

Battle of Lewisham