On the 4th May 1978, a young Bangladeshi textile worker was murdered in east London. It was a racially motivated killing – not unique at the time – but it aroused a fierce response in the local community, and ended with lasting change.
Altab Ali, 25, who had moved to London from Bangladesh in 1969, was attacked by three teenagers – Roy Arnold, Carl Ludlow and another boy. He had been on his way back from work, walking through Whitechapel’s St mary’s park, carrying his shopping. Arnold and Ludlow were 17; the unnamed male was just 16. The murder was racially motivated and random – they did not know Mr Ali and did not care who he was. “No reason at all,” said the 16-year-old boy, when a police officer asked why he attacked Mr Ali.
“If we saw a Paki we used to have a go at them,” he remarked. “We would ask for money and beat them up. I’ve beaten up Pakis on at least five occasions.”
Ali had been stabbed in the neck, and staggered a few metres before collapsing and dying.
Like many others in the area, Altab Ali was a young male working in a factory, sending money home to support his family. His death was seen by many as a sign that things had to change. The National Front were standing for election in 43 council seats the day Mr Ali was murdered.
There had been many other racist attacks over the previous few years, but the murder was the final straw. “The blood of Altab Ali made us realise we couldn’t ignore it, or who would be next?”
“We knew there would be no place for us unless we fought back. So everyone joined together – Bangladeshi people, Caribbean people, Indian people, Pakistani people. Everyone was involved.”
At that time, Bengalis faced a barrage of hostility – if they went out alone, they’d be abused; on council estates neighbours would break their windows, push rubbish through your letterbox – basically make your life miserable.
Police, politicians and other elements in the established political system were accustomed to ignoring, or even condoning and encouraging the onslaught of racism and failing to respond to Bangladeshis’ complaints.
But that political silence was coming to an end. Ten days after Mr Ali’s death, 7,000 people marched behind his coffin through central London, demanding that the government tackle racism in east London. They marched to Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and to Downing Street, to chants of “Black and white, unite and fight” as the large crowd moved through the streets.
Change was far from immediate. In June 1978, just a month after the murder, another Asian man, Ishaque Ali was killed by racists in Hackney. Soon after, the National Front moved its headquarters to Great Eastern Street, just a short walk from St Mary’s Park.
This brought battles between anti-racists and the National Front in Bethnal Green, where skinheads would distribute their literature on Sundays. Groups of people would camp in the area overnight. When the National Front came down in the morning they had nowhere to stand or sell their literature.
(These occupations had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur!) During the whole struggle, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested, some 50 anti-racists; while less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.
In fact, during this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups had been actively involved in occupying the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road,
Bengalis and other minorities in other towns like Bradford, also facing violent racist assault from both rightwingers and the police, (where the two could be told apart) took heart inspired by how East London’s community had organised to protecting themselves.
Though the process was gradual, far-right groups lost their much of their influence in east London over the following decade and violent attacks became less frequent. By the 1990s the intensity and the violence had declined. However, resurgences and flare-ups of organised racism periodically spill over, and the struggle against rightwing and xenophobic ideas continues.
Since Altab Ali’s death, St Mary’s Park, the site of his death, has been renamed Altab Ali Park; in 1989 a new entrance archway was installed, designed as a memorial to Altab Ali, and to all victims of racist violence.
Locals remember him every year on May 4th – known as Altab Ali Day.
It’s worth checking out the Altab Ali Foundation.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online