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.

 

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.

 

Lesbians versus Gay Skinheads – only in the 80s!


Gay skinheads – what’s not to like? Plenty as it turned out in some people’s eyes. By the end of the 70s, the skin look had been adopted by extreme right thugs normally associated with the National Front, British National Party, Column 88 and the British Movement. They were a menace and a danger to black, Asian and LGBT people.

This was sad because the look actually originated in Jamaican culture and music. And in the late 60s and early 70s the racist tag had not been automatically associated with skinheads. So what to do as the extreme right made the skinhead look their own?

Well, some gay men came up with a fine solution. Take the look back. Subvert it. Engage in a progressive act of cultural appropriation! Draw the sting out of the skinhead appearance by fully integrating it into the LGBT scene. And lo it came to pass!

So successful was the growing gay skin scene that a party was organised by the Gay Skinhead Movement at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre on Cowcross Street near Farringdon tube station. Don’t bother looking for it now – it’s a soulless wine bar for the local white collar droids.

The centre had been set up and funded by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone in 1985 as part  of its much mocked and reviled (in the tabloid press) pro-LGBT policy. From the outset though, the centre witnessed the sort of infighting that only the 80s could produce.

Lesbian mothers took issue with strident S&M lesbians. All of them weren’t sure if they wanted bisexual men in the building in case they hit on them. And, needless to say, gay skinheads were not welcome at all by those lesbians who thought the aforementioned appropriation was in poor taste.

So…when the gay skinhead Moonstomp Disco kicked off – all hell let loose. What is so silly about what happened next is that the event was a roaring success. And god knows, the centre needed the cash. It limped from one financial crisis to the next and so some gay skin wonga should have been welcomed with sequin-gloved hands.

But no. There were howls of protest that the centre was being “invaded” by Nazis. The report from Out magazine is below – read and weep. Unsurprisingly, the centre did not survive long into the 90s. Well done then to the identity politics crowd!

I once went to a curious function called Sadie Masie at the centre – which as you can guess was pretty much full on S&M. Not being a sado-masochist myself, I found the evening curious but made my excuses at some point and slipped in to the night.

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1980 – the Year of the Skinhead


That may not be how many would wish to remember the year but at the time, it was hard to ignore skinheads. Much maligned or did they get the criticism they deserved? Putting it crudely, there were skinheads who were bad and skinheads who were broadly good.

Bad skins supported the National Front, caused trouble on football terraces and if you saw a group walking down the road towards you – it was best to think of an exit strategy. Skinhead punk bands featured prominently as cheerleaders for fascist politics and one group undoubtedly played a major role in provoking the 1981 Southall Riot – though they whined to the NME afterwards that it was all a terrible mistake.

Good skins weren’t necessarily helping little old ladies across the road but they were more likely to be adopting a style they knew was associated with Jamaican music.  I knew skinheads on the far left of British politics and of course, the skinhead look was already being adopted by the gay scene – though some within the gay scene were heavily critical of the look.

Here’s how the Observer in 1980 reported on the year of the skinhead.

Oi! skinhead bands clean up their act


Sounds
Sounds magazine was a cheerleader for Oi!

The riots of 1981 and a spate of racist attacks weren’t helped by a small number of bands whose political views were to the right of Hitler and the entire high command of the Third Reich.  One Oi! gig in Southall led to the pub they were performing in being burnt to the ground by Asian youth.

So, in the months that followed the inner city riots of that year, Oi! had its work cut out improving its public image.  The media was branding skin bands as fascist and racist and in part to blame for the violence that had been seen on the streets.

With these accusations ringing in their ears, some skin bands decided to show their anti-racist credentials by taking to the road which would include two anti-racist gigs and an appearance at the Right To Work campaign march.  The Business, Infa-Riot, the Blitz and Partisans duly went off on tour.

Sheffield’s George IV saw the Blitz join the Mo-Dettes for an anti-racist gig while all the bands played an Oi Against Racism concert in the same city a little later on.