Stop 10: Altab Ali Park
This is Altab Ali Park, but it was only named as such in 1998. Before that it was called St. Mary's Park, the site of a 14th Century white church called St Mary's from which the local area – Whitechapel – derives its name. It was bombed in the Blitz during World War II, and a lightening strike a few years later finished it off, only a few gravestones remain today.
Tighter immigration legislation introduced in the 60s and 70s gave legitimacy to the idea that newly settled Bengalis in Spitalfields did not belong here. As officially sanctioned second-class citizens, immigrants became an easy target for attack and could be blamed for everything. In 1978, very real blood was spilled near this park.
On 4 May 1978, on the eve of local elections, and the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a local textile worker by the name of Altab Ali was murdered in a racist attack and left in a pool of blood in the Whitechapel road. He worked in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, and was heading home past the park to Cannon Street Road when he was attacked by a group of racists.
In fact throughout the 1970s racist attacks on the Bengali community had increased. Bricks were thrown through windows, excrement smeared over doors and Bengali families felt too intimidated to leave their homes. Politicians and the mass media pinned much of the blame for this violence on the 'skinheads' of the ultra-reactionary National Front. They also blamed immigrants themselves for 'not mixing' while the police even accused families around here of setting fire to their own homes for insurance purposes.
These explanations of course simply hid mainstream scape-goating when in the late 60's the post-war boom subsided into bust and recession hit Britain. Trade union leaders and the TUC (Trade Union Congress) demanded stiffer measures to keep immigrants out, encouraging a view that whites were being driven from their jobs by blacks and Asians, rather than by government failure. The idea of too many workers chasing too few jobs became popular and demands to protect 'British jobs for British workers', a common slogan. These ideas spurred violent racist attacks on the ground.
By the mid-70s a number of local youth movements, realising that they would have to defend themselves, united with anti-racists under the umbrella of the Asian Youth Movement. They were influenced by the ideas of radical black solidarity movements in the US and attempted to reclaim the streets from the racists, confronting them head on when they attempted to smash up Bengali shop fronts here in the Whitechapel Road and in Brick Lane.
In this period it is worth noting, being anti-racist meant you believed there was only one race, the human race. Anti-racists campaigned against ideas of racial difference, against all forms of discrimination and for equal treatment for all and when it came to jobs and wages, for unity between black, white and Asian workers.
After Altab Ali's murder, his coffin was carried to Whitehall in a long procession led by thousands of Asian youth and anti-racists, highlighting the anger many felt at the government's failure to do anything about racist attacks, at levels of police racism and the criminalisation by the government of immigrant communities. This mass mobilisation of local anti-racists put paid to further large-scale racist incursions in Brick Lane, although violence still continued in the local area. Fears of riots in the 1980s, finally transformed the divisive racist politics of the preceding era into a radical new form as we shall learn at the end of our tour.