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How Brick Lane fought back against racism

East London’s Bengali community came out against the murder of Altab Ali in 1978. These are their stories

Anita Mureithi
26 July 2022, 10.18am

Whitechapel Road, London E1, June 1976. Demonstration by Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London

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Paul Trevor

On 4 May 1978, Altab Ali, a young Bengali garment worker, was killed in a racist attack in Whitechapel, east London.

His murder wasn’t an isolated incident, but it sparked an uprising. East London’s Bengali community, sick of the racist abuse they faced on a daily basis – including attacks from the fascist National Front – came out in protest.

On 14 May, 7,000 Bengalis marched from Brick Lane, in the heart of the community, to Hyde Park. They demanded an end to racist violence and discrimination. Led by young people, it was part of a fightback that helped turn the tide against far-right politics in the UK.

Today, a new exhibition traces the history of the movement using contemporary images by the photographer Paul Trevor, and the oral testimonies of people involved.

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Two participants in the project told openDemocracy about their memories of the uprising – and what it means to them today.

Rajonuddin Jalal, former youth activist

In east London in the mid-1970s, it felt like the whole Bengali community was under attack.

People felt unsafe in their own homes. Supported by the National Front, racist thugs were openly campaigning against our presence. I myself was attacked at a funfair, and had to be taken to hospital. I was only a teenager at the time.

Brick Lane, London E1, September 1978.©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Brick Lane, London E1, September 1978

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Paul Trevor

Racists were throwing pig meat through people’s letterboxes, and local Bengali-owned businesses were being targeted. A wrong turn into a no-go area in east London could be a matter of life and death.

We didn’t get support from the police. The community would often band together to protect one another. Vigilante groups would show up where there were incidents of racial attacks, and offer support to victims.

Our slogan was “self-defence is no offence”, and we believed that marginalised communities had to protect ourselves from racist violence.

The older generation within the Bengali community thought that, eventually, they’d go back to their countries of origin.

The younger generation, however – people like me – were trying to imagine new beginnings. We decided that this was our home, and that we were going to live here with dignity and respect.

Curtain Road, London EC2, 20 August 1978. Hackney & Tower Hamlets Defence Committee & ANL march©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Curtain Road, London EC2, 20 August 1978. Hackney & Tower Hamlets Defence Committee & ANL march

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Paul Trevor

I got involved in the Bangladeshi Youth Movement through the Asian Studies Centre, an adult education institute where we would meet for language classes, cultural and recreational activities.

We mobilised the community to get involved in anti-racist and anti-facist activities; working with local trade unions and building alliances with other movements to extend our campaign beyond Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

Altab Ali’s death marked a turning point where as a community, we decided that “enough is enough”.

Hyde Park, London W2, 14 May 1978. Altab Ali’s coffin departs for Downing Street©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Hyde Park, London W2, 14 May 1978. Altab Ali’s coffin departs for Downing Street

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Paul Trevor

On 14 May that year, we marched from Whitechapel to Hyde Park. On the way back we delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street, calling for police protection, and an end to racial violence. That led to further campaigning throughout the summer.

Downing Street, London SW1, 14 May 1978. Bengali delegation outside No 10 after delivering Petition©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Downing Street, London SW1, 14 May 1978. Bengali delegation outside No. 10 after delivering petition

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Paul Trevor

On 17 July, we took strike action against racism and closed our area down for the day. This was organised by the Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, but we also had solidarity from other community and trade organisations.

People didn’t feel supported by the police, so groups like the Bangladeshi Youth Movement also formed community patrols to protect citizens from racist attacks. The Community Alliance for Police Accountability held campaigns against police harassment.

At the launch of the Four Corners exhibition, I felt like I was back in 1978. Looking at the pictures, I could remember faces, even if there were some names which had faded from my memory.

Hyde Park, London W2, 14 May 1978. Rally following the march behind Altab Ali’s coffin from Whitechapel, organised by the Action Committee Against Racial Attacks@PaulTrevor.jpg

Hyde Park, London W2, 14 May 1978. Rally following the march behind Altab Ali’s coffin from Whitechapel, organised by the Action Committee Against Racial Attacks

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Paul Trevor

The exhibition brought back memories of a community resistance movement, and served as a powerful reminder of what can be done when we come together and take collective action.

I hope our achievement shows younger generations of activists that if you want to achieve equality, freedom and justice in society, then you have to fight for your rights in unity.

Luthfa Begum, oral history volunteer

A few years ago I had just left a job I’d been in for 14 years to become a freelancer. I saw the Four Corners project was looking for volunteers so I decided to throw my name in the hat.

This project not only connected me back to the area where I grew up – Brick Lane – but also connected me back to my dad.

He died when I was 18, but there was always politics in our house. He would have people over discussing any number of issues affecting our community, and I’d be listening in while making tea and putting out the biscuits.

It was only through the project that my sister and I realised the extent of our father’s involvement in the anti-racist campaigns of the time.

My sister spotted a photo of dad outside Downing Street – I would have been six at the time. I remember hearing conversations, and seeing marches go down, but it was interesting to realise how much we were protected from what was happening at the time.

Commercial Road, London E1, June 1976. Demonstration of Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Commercial Road, London E1, June 1976. Demonstration of Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London

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Paul Trevor

Looking back, I think my dad wanted us to have a normal life. We still dealt with racism, but it has become apparent to me that maybe he wanted to shield us from the violence, from the death and bloodshed of the time.

I don’t think dad took us to any of the marches. I guess he didn’t want our lives to be about the struggle.

Brick Lane, London E1, 17 July 1978. Bangladesh  Youth Movement Against racism march©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Brick Lane, London E1, 17 July 1978. Bangladesh Youth Movement Against Racism

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Paul Trevor

Working on the project, I would look at the photos and read the newspaper clippings. I felt like I could smell the environment, and hear the noises of that time. And actually, it was quite sad.

After poring over more than 200 photos, seeing the people who were at the forefront of this movement at the exhibition was emotional. The image of all these guys who are now in their late 60s or 70s, standing in front of photos of their teenage selves, was phenomenal.

You could feel their pride – I got the sense that some of these people never thought that one day, people would be asking them about what happened.

Outside police station, Bethnal Green Road, London E2, 17 July 1978. Sit down protest©Paul_Trevor.jpg

Sit down protest outside of a police station, Bethnal Green Road, London E2, 17 July 1978

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Paul Trevor

Funnily enough I spotted one of my cousins in the photos. He shed light on the difficulties of being a teenager at that time. To have the burden of racism around you, and the feeling of having to fight for things that other people aren’t having to fight for, is something that’s stuck with me.

Brick Lane: The Turning Point is on show at Four Corners Gallery, London E1, until 10 September

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