On 4 May 1978, the day of local elections, Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi textile factory worker in Whitechapel, was murdered on his way home from work. His murder was the catalyst for major anti-racist mobilisations amongst the Bangladeshi community and others in the East End of London. The community had been inspired by anti-racist activism in Southall following the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976. Last June, a day-long symposium, Race, Violence and the City was held to mark the anniversary of his murder. It would have been tempting to reflect back on the events of 1978 as a testament to how far we have come since Ali’s murder and there is undoubtedly much to celebrate: the allyship and solidarity which emerged in the aftermath across London, from Brick Lane to Southall and beyond, as well as the successes of the Bangladeshi community in establishing themselves in the East End. Once we start to think about the wider background to Altab Ali’s murder, however, it reminds us more of what remains to be done.
Today’s language of ‘hate crime’ reduces such racist violence to individual prejudice rather than being symptomatic of a wider social and political context in which Others are systematically excluded from society. Racial violence and the myriad forms it takes is entangled within a multiplicity of other social forces and phenomena. These include policies around housing, inequalities in the criminal justice system and racist policing, economic policies of austerity, a failure to address regional inequalities and adequately respond to deindustrialisation as well as policies and rhetoric around immigration and integration.
Words matter, they shape ideas and make certain thoughts and actions legitimate. In their defence the perpetrators said they attacked Ali because he was a ‘Paki’. What did that epithet mean at that particular moment? How had it come to mean that and why was this sufficient to justify murder? In January 1978, five months before Altab Ali’s murder and a year before her election to PM, Margaret Thatcher, when talking about immigration, described how “people were really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture”. In that infamous interview she also implicitly validated support for the far-right National Front because they spoke openly about controlling immigration. Notably, last year also saw the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, which profoundly shaped the tenor of public debate about immigration during that era.
Since 1978, we have seen increasing complexity in how racism is expressed and responded to; racism is paradoxically both denied and legitimated. Certain pundits have decided that they have the right to determine what is racist, ignoring the voices of those most affected by it. The current refusal to acknowledge Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, for example, is based on collective confusion about whether Islam is a ‘race’, reflecting the common misconception that race is something other than a social construct to which different meanings have been historically attached. On the other, hand, where racism is acknowledged, it has become permissible. The marking of the anniversary of ‘rivers of blood speech’ was controversial, partly because Powell’s rhetoric continues to reverberate. There are clear parallels with contemporary debates about legitimate concerns, economic anxiety and ‘the pace of cultural change’ and his ideas have arguably been fully rehabilitated in the post Brexit referendum era, through narratives made acceptable across the political spectrum.
Jamal Hasan, an anti-fascist activist organiser in 1970s East London, told us that people saw no value in going to the police to ask for protection from far-right agitation and violence. Bangladeshi youth had no alternative but to take matters into their own hands, under the banner of “self-defence is no offence”. As a result, they were seen as the dangerous ones. Stephen Ashe discussed how the legal framework of protest both then and now drew false equivalences between different groups whereby anti-racist defences were treated in the same way as far-right aggressions. This was clearly reflected in Waqas Tufail’s discussion of the Rotherham 12 who were charged with violent disorder following counter protests against the far-right in 2015. This racialised asymmetry can also be seen very clearly in the current counter terrorism measures as implemented through the Prevent agenda whereby far-right extremism is often framed as a response to Islamist terrorism rather than a phenomenon with a long history which predates the London bombings of 2005. Over-policing of particular racialised communities continues to this day and we see how black bodies are disproportionately subject to stop and search and experience police violence both in and out of prison.
A consequence of Empire was the migration of former colonial subjects to the UK. Hostility to this drove the rhetoric of Powell and it has been a constant source of white noise in post war British electoral politics. As such, successive governments embarked upon a strategy of ever more complicated and Kafkaesque immigration legislation eroding the rights of former citizens. Furthermore, public debate and dissent about immigration fostered a perpetual hostile environment for newcomers and their descendants although it is also worth remembering that in addition to the rhetoric of the 1970s, there were virginity tests and deportations too. This hostile environment continues, formalised as official policy by Theresa May in her capacity as Home Secretary in 2013. And it is within this web of bureaucracy that members of the Windrush generation have more recently been caught up. As Georgie Wemyss outlined, however, our current immigration system has not only tightened borders it has altered where those borders are policed as different state agencies and even private landlords are asked to join the frontline of enforcing border controls.
Racist housing policies were a key component of life for Bangladeshis in 1970s East End. As both personal testimonies and Howard Doble’s analysis of GLC archives showed, Bangladeshis’ very presence was seen as inherently problematic by housing officials. Local policies worked on the premise that Bangladeshis would accept the worst housing and that white tenants would not want to live alongside their new neighbours. The state at different levels (local and national government) was therefore complicit in implementing racist housing policies, explicitly by weaponising local conflicts over territory and implicitly by disregarding the housing concerns of Bangladeshis.
The symposium was held the week before the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell fire, a stark reminder of how space and housing in the city remain racialised and how certain lives are made more precarious as a result. Contemporary narratives of integration show little recognition of the historical factors (such as the racist housing policies) which have resulted in the concentration of particular groups of people in particular urban spaces and impacted on their everyday experiences of life in the city. To this day, as the Runnymede Trust shows, Bangladeshis still have some of the worst housing and Bangladeshi children are more likely to live in overcrowded poor quality high rise buildings. At the same time, as Malcolm James discussed, regeneration and gentrification continue apace in East London by profit-hungry global property developers.
Multiple and incomplete histories
One of the most powerful sessions on the day was the roundtable interview led by Dr Fatima Rajina with Jamal Hasan and Ansar Ahmed Ullah, activists from 1970s and 1980s East End and Tasnima Uddin from Nijjor Manush, a Bangladeshi campaigning group. The dialogue highlighted the power of oral histories and the importance of intergenerational conversations. It was further enriched by contributions from the audience which included allies from that era both from the East End and Southall.
Archives offer the potential to reclaim some of those forgotten histories and to safeguard the histories of marginalised groups particularly given how ‘official histories’ amplify certain voices and drown out others. Furthermore, while memorialising public rallies, sit-ins and hand to hand combat with fascists are important reminders of the how the battle for public space played out, we must also remember the more private forms of resistance and support, conducted from behind the scenes, predominantly by women, in homes and community centres across the city.
The Battle of Brick Lane drew on its precursor, the Battle of Cable Street, but Ben Gidley cautioned against premature triumphalism; he reminded us that while the battle against fascism had been ‘won’ in the 1930s, this had not averted the need for a Battle for Brick Lane forty years later.
What all these examples illustrate is the importance of joining the dots, both across time and across different aspects of social life and how we, as scholars and/or activists might ensure that interconnectedness is named and explored. Post Brexit and following the election of Trump there has been a significant upsurge in discussions of racism amongst the commentariat both in and beyond academia. Yet there seems, amongst some, a wilful neglect of the historic intellectual and emotional labour of anti-racist activists and academics who have always contextualised racist violence in a wider landscape and are in no way remotely shocked by such events, however saddened or indeed traumatised they might feel in their immediate aftermath.
As well as the messages pushed in the media, the words of politicians also matter; which drives the other is a semantic debate that matters little to those whose blood is being spilt on the streets. Indeed, irrespective of whether media drives political discourse or vice versa we as the readership or electorate are ultimately responsible; our choices (including the decision to remain silent) about what we are prepared to tolerate matter. And as advocates for social and racial justice what we choose to remember and forget matters.
“And in this day and age perhaps not enough has changed
Racism continues, it’s just taken a different shape
‘Black and white unite and fight’ they chanted back then
in 1978 and since then it’s been chanted again and again
We win some of these battles but the war has yet to end”
©Katherine Tucker (who performed her poem in its entirety on the day)
Naaz Rashid is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research interests focus on the intersections of race, gender and religion in the city. She is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy in the UK, which analyses the role of Muslim women in the UK’s counter terrorism agenda. With thanks to David Madden, Suzanne Hall, Sivamohan Valluvan, Tanzil Chowdhury, Rita Chadha and Gargi Bhattacharyya for their contributions.