Those looking at the Bangladeshi community in East London as it is now would have seen a very different picture forty years ago. Rather than the politically and economically active third of the population of Tower Hamlets that it is now, it was marginalised in just about every respect — discriminated against in housing, subject to racial attacks on the streets and restricted in terms of employment very largely to the garment industry even then starting to decline.
Fast forward four decades and the differences are so vast that it is difficult, even for those of us who experienced those years, lived them and participated in the changes, sometimes to comprehend the tumultuous processes that occurred in such a short time. The events, conflicts, defeats and victories that transformed my community from the isolated and traumatised one that it was, having just emerged from a bloody war of independence and then exposed to a Britain that was itself going through massive social and political changes, are ones that I want to record.
I have mentioned factors that shaped my community and want to tell my story through them, the first being housing. Shortly after arriving in the UK to join my family, we all moved into a squatted house in Nelson Street E1 that my brother had arranged. Nelson and the adjoining Varden Street were typical of an East End that was in the process of disappearing. Small terraced houses of three rooms up and three down, with an outside toilet and cold water. As the politically organised East Enders went into better accommodation, they left behind them streets of houses and blocks of old tenements that lacked basic amenities but were habitable. To the incoming Bangladeshi community, they constituted good accommodation and were, moreover, in areas that were considered safe. Squatting spread rapidly.
The control of housing in Tower Hamlets and the way it was allocated was inextricably linked to political power in the borough, which lay, and had done for a half a century, in the hands of the Labour Party. With no opposition, it had become dominated by small groups of Irish and Jewish families and had become inward-looking, self-serving and had lost touch with the changing local community. A small group of politicians and senior council officers ran everything and, with the biggest concentration of state-owned housing outside of the then Soviet Bloc, the allocation of that housing was a source of political power and financial corruption.
There were two housing authorities: Tower Hamlets itself and the Greater London Council (GLC). Housing applications were made to the local authority, which would then refer them to the GLC’s local housing office if they didn’t have properties themselves, and they didn’t, as all Tower Hamlets’ stock was reserved for distribution as a part of the system of patronage. When Bangladeshis were referred to the GLC, they would invariably be offered accommodation on the worst estates, which could be anywhere in London and were usually all white, deprived, with high rates of unemployment which invariably resulted in racial attacks on the newly arrived Bangladeshis.
Even in Tower Hamlets, areas like The Isle of Dogs and Poplar were considered unsafe and several families, which had been rehoused in those areas, abandoned them for squats in Spitalfields. Squatting became the answer and in January 1976 the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) was formed by the heads of more than fifty families already squatting, assisted by white squatters and the radical black group Race Today. All of the existing Bangladeshi squatters joined and on Easter Saturday 1976 we occupied an entire empty block of flats, Pelham Buildings in Woodseer Street just off Brick Lane. My community was now effectively by-passing the existing housing allocation system and creating one of its own.
The other factor that changed the growing community was the persistent and increasing spate of racial attacks. Contrary to the views of the left, and I’ll deal with them and their tactics later, the National Front and its members and had very little to do with the attacks. What was happening was that a long established white East End community was beginning to fragment for a variety of reasons. Long established employment, centred around the docks, was disappearing as the docks closed, starting with St Catherine’s at Tower Bridge and then moving, slowly but surely, down the river, taking the jobs and leaving the long-established communities to fall apart behind it. The white working class communities were stranded on neglected and deteriorating estates, unemployed and, with the collapse of the British economy in the 1970s and the resultant collective feeling of abandonment had nowhere else to take out their anger than, as ever, on the newcomer.
Racial attacks had been a feature of life for Asians since the late 1960s and the approach of the Bangladeshi elders and often self-appointed leaders of the community was to mediate between that community and the police and politicians. This produced well-meaning statements but no change at all on the situation on the streets. What the direct action of the squatting movement did was to encourage a new, younger generation of Bangladeshi activists to look for other ways to defend ourselves and our community.
Starting in May 1976 a series of meetings took place at 39 Fournier Street in the heart of Spitalfields, a building owned by the Bangladesh Welfare Association. There was immediately a clash with the old leadership and the younger activist as to what to do. The old leadership wanted more of the same, meetings with the local MP and pressure on the police to do something. Myself and the new, emerging activists called for a demonstration and the physical defence of the community, which was overwhelmingly approved. Two actions were immediately to take place, a mass meeting and demonstration, and patrols to show a Bangladeshi presence on the streets. The meeting was arranged for the 12th June 1976 in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane and the patrols started immediately. The new organisation to coordinate all of this was called the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London (ARC-AEL).
The day was a complete success with the cinema packed. Afterwards, 3,000 Bangladeshis marched around what we defined, and what was becoming, our area. There was a sit down outside Leman Street police station to protest about police inactivity on racial attacks, while a letter of complaint about heavy-handed police tactics was handed in. The day passed off peacefully except for an incident outside the Naz before we set off. All of the existing left groups had been contacted before the day and told that, while they were welcome to support us, banners and placards of a purely party political nature would not be allowed. This was ignored by the International Socialists (IS and the next year to become the Socialist Workers Party — SWP), which proceeded to hand out their own placards in a blatant example of the opportunism that we were to see over and over in the coming years. The stewards removed the placards, which resulted in a fight, with the leading steward being arrested. After this, the IS gave up and resorted to holding up copies of the Socialist Worker paper.
The demonstration was the first show of the strength of Bangladeshis, and a massive one, and presented clear evidence of several things. First that the days of asking the British state to do things on our behalf were over, that a younger, emerging leadership wasn’t going to sit waiting for things to happen and that direct action worked. That day marked the beginning of the change and that change would be rapid.
For me personally and for the emerging younger leadership of our community, this was our first experience of the far left. It was obvious, from the action of the IS/SWP that day, that they viewed us and other ethnic minority communities as cannon fodder, to be used in whatever political campaign they were mounting at the time. That day wouldn’t be the last opportunistic attempt by them to use ethnic minority groups for their own purposes, but from then on they were peripheral to the struggles in the East End. Their only Bangladeshi member resigned and they never managed to recruit even one single new member. They were always regarded as outsiders and remained so even during the attempted intervention of the SWP-controlled Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in 1977.
The success of the day and the growing confidence of my community meant that we in BHAG could move forward on the housing front. With the GLC now relatively quiet, Tower Hamlets began to make threatening noises over Varden and Nelson Streets, in the latter of which I lived with my family. The streets and much of the surrounding property was owned by the London Hospital. Tower Hamlets had agreed to buy the whole area but on the condition, the Hospital evicted all the Bangladeshi squatters. We waited until a full council meeting was in session and mounted a demonstration of more than a hundred Bangladeshis, who sat down in the road outside the Town Hall in Bethnal Green, watched by the police who didn’t intervene. This one act forced Tower Hamlets to open negotiations as the GLC had already done.
The events of 1976 pushed the state onto the back foot as far as Asians were concerned, particularly regarding Bangladeshis, both squatters and non-squatters. The Labour hierarchy both at County Hall and locally didn’t like us, but, barring a massive operation with police and bailiffs, there was nothing they could do. There were then at least thirty thousand squatters in London, the majority in council owned property, and the possibility of massive civil unrest and rioting was something that Labour, also in power at Westminster, didn’t want to risk. The sight of a Labour government and Labour-controlled councils evicting Asian families into the streets of East London would have been a bridge too far. In May 1977, in elections for the GLC, the Tories won power and things, as far as squatters were concerned, were about to change dramatically.
Initially, we thought that we could expect a confrontation and the start of evictions as the Tories nationally and their press coverage had been extremely hostile to what they saw as a challenge to private property. What we were in fact witnessing, however, two years and more before they took power nationally, was the beginning of the Thatcherite revolution in housing and property ownership. The new leader of the GLC was Horace Cutler, who, when he was previously a leader in the 1960s, had started to sell off council housing even then. His head of housing, George Tremlett was of the same free market outlook and in mid-July 1977 BHAG received an invitation to meet with the senior GLC official who ran the “Special Exercise”, which was what the process of regulating all squatters in GLC property was called. This was essentially an amnesty for squatters.
A delegation went to meet the GLC expecting some sort of confrontation and was surprised when the GLC agreed with our demands for the re-housing of Bangladeshis to be in areas of our choice. They went so far as to say that if we selected the estates, then they would make offers on those and nowhere else. They essentially gave in to what we had been demanding for three years. We then held meetings in all of the bases where there were squatters in GLC property, drew up lists of acceptable estates, and later the same year the process of re-housing began.
The processes of resistance to the state, that had begun with a few squatters and had then developed into a broader struggle against racial attacks, were transforming my community rapidly and visibly. The next developments were the formation of the youth movements, of which there were to be many. Groups of friends came together to get involved in sports and cultural activities but then turned to deal with the problems the community faced. For the first time, a generation, although still largely born in Bangladesh, began to be more concerned with life in London than the politics of home.
It was becoming increasingly obvious to me that, while the grassroots movements that were coming out of the struggle had given my community real hope and confidence, a real political change could only come from involvement in mainstream politics and that had to mean, eventually, the Labour Party. Even though we were in a struggle against the party locally, there were Labour voices nationally which were more sympathetic to us, but it was at the local level that we began to organise the fight to get the representation that was lacking. That would be a slow process but it would be accelerated by a series of events that took place in 1978, after which there was no going back.
If any year is iconic in the struggles of Asian communities it has to be 1978. It is also the year of more misrepresentations and downright lies in terms of the development of my community than any other. To read some of the accounts, virtually all of them written by people who either weren’t there or have a political axe to grind, until the involvement of the white left in the shape of the Anti-Nazi League, Asian communities were incapable of defending themselves and the far right and other racists were running riot unchecked. According to this narrative, Asian communities were unable to organise until the arrival of the ANL to show them how to do it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is important to recognise that while many of the written accounts of those times deal with the highlights such as the pitched battles, life for the Bangladeshi community was a process of low-level guerrilla warfare rather than large confrontations. Racial attacks were a continual process rather than occurring in “waves” as some of the press described them at the time. It was something that we as a community had become accustomed to although we never accepted it. The effects on families in outlying parts of the borough, particularly women and children, was devastating, with homes becoming de facto prisons. By contrast, within the growing and definable community, there were many fewer attacks, but in one case the attack was fatal — the murder of Altab Ali on 4th May 1978, local election day.
Altab Ali wasn’t, as far as I know, politically active but, in spite of that, he has become for many, and not just for Bangladeshis, a symbol of those years. He was on his way home from work as a machinist in the garment industry and what started out as a case of robbery for his wage packet ended up in a stabbing and murder charges. The other irony was that one of the three youths charged and convicted of his murder was African-Caribbean and told the police that he often went out with his white mates to rob “Pakis” because they always had money!
The response of the community was to organise a protest march to Downing Street. Over five thousand people marched from what is now Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel to Westminster in pouring rain carrying a symbolic coffin. Although there was yet another attempt by the SWP/ANL to take the event over they were warned off in no uncertain terms and, as the photos show, had no presence at all on the day. It was this day, for me, which was the watershed whereby the old guard Bangladeshi leadership had now been bypassed. Also, the attempt by the newly formed Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to divert the newly emerging movement into negotiations with the government didn’t even get off the ground when the Chair of the CRE was shouted down and heckled at the Montefiore Centre just off Brick Lane by angry youths. The struggle would now be between the growing autonomous Bangladeshi movement, the state, which attempted to divert it into non-confrontational paths, and the far left, trying to take it over and incorporate it into a part of their, as yet unrealised, British revolution!
Most of the accounts of the period tend to follow the same chronological order — this happened and then that happened and those events led to this, in a Marxist determinist way. What I am doing is to recount what I remember from the events that I was involved in and then to let people draw their own conclusions. I cannot stress enough that while many accounts make it sound as if the period was one of the years of political turmoil, we as a community were, as far as possible, living everyday lives. This was particularly true in the squats where children were now established in the schools, which were becoming more and more Bangladeshi. Most men were employed in the rag trade which, although it had started its decline, was still a huge employer. Other industries, that still existed in the area at that time, gave unskilled employment.
It is also important to realise that the momentous events so beloved of the chroniclers of the time occurred sporadically and almost always at weekends. For many months at a time, the corner of Brick Lane and the Bethnal Green Road was the scene of the ritual struggle for the right to sell papers there. The attitude of the police was that whoever got there first would be allowed to stay and the others prevented, which led to the early morning scuffles supervised by the police and captured on camera. The records show that they were, pretty much, all white affairs. There were still attempts by the SWP/ANL to recruit the newly emerging youth groups, but by now all were aware of what their agenda was. As far as we were concerned, we would only co-operate on our own terms and when it was to our advantage.
That we were wise to treat the left as we did, keeping them at arm’s length, was demonstrated by the lessons of the pop festivals. To read the standard accounts of the period, it was the National Front (NF) that was responsible for racial attacks and the ANL that defeated them. Much of the literature of the time, usually written by Marxist or Marxist influenced individuals, would have those who didn’t live through that period believe that a series of high profile pop concerts somehow or other defeated the far right.
The reality was that, from the end of 1974 or beginning of 1975, the NF membership was declining because former Tory members were moving back to the Conservative Party as a result of Margaret Thatcher shifting the party severely to the right on all issues, especially immigration. The increasing boot boy, skinhead presence in the organisation was in fact a sign of weakness in the NF, which was resorting to more violent street-based activities and marches, which isolated it more and more from the general public and the electorate, which were, very shortly, to elect the Tories with a massive majority.
Some commentators have noted, usually many years after the events, that the whole purpose of the SWP’s exercise was to recruit Asians and to try to take over existing organisations. As far as my community was concerned, it was blatantly obvious at the time. What all of the staged confrontations did, along with letters to newspapers and statements to other media, was to present the ANL as at the centre of a “struggle” and to draw national and later international attention to our corner of London. Left and right converged on us on Sunday mornings, had their confrontation, police permitting, and then disappeared. None of this in any way protected us but actually raised tensions that we had to live with, as well as increased feelings of insecurity.
All of this was just about to get worse when in June 1978 an article appeared in The Observer which was headed “GLC plans ghettoes for Bengalis”. It subsequently turned out that senior GLC housing officers opposed to the squatters’ amnesty and to the demands of the Bengali Housing Action Group in particular, were engaged in a campaign to sabotage the whole process. A number of the GLC’s own documents, now available, record the whole process, as does the excellent sixth episode of The Secret History of Our Streets. In November 1976 the GLC published a report called “Colour and the Allocation of Social Housing”. It contained the following statements: “Non-white applicants were disproportionately allocated to the oldest and most unpopular types of accommodation” and “GLC allocations are maintaining and even reinforcing the pattern of immigrant disadvantage which is so characteristic of the private housing market”. So far so good and nothing my community didn’t know already. There was, however, a world of difference between what the top layer of GLC management was writing reports about and what was actually happening on the ground.
In May 1978, the GLC Director of Housing Len Bennet, no friend of either squatters or Bangladeshis, published a report entitled “Housing of Bengalis in Tower Hamlets”, which contained the following. It said that Spitalfields “represented an acceptable area to the Bengalis as it is the centre of the London clothing trade and has within it Asian shops, a Mosque and a community centre”. It went on to say that of 3,270 households in Spitalfields in the 1971 census 24% were Bangladeshi. As a result of immanent re-housing of squatters, many of whom who had left GLC flats elsewhere in the borough because of racial harassment or attacks and who had registered under the squatters’ amnesty, together with re-housing due to tenement clearances, more than 300 homes would be needed in the next year just for Bangladeshis. The report then went on to suggest that possibly a few blocks of flats in Spitalfields might be set aside specifically for the housing of Bangladeshis as a possible solution to a difficult social problem. Nowhere did it mention Ghettoes.
it was this report that was picked up on when it was leaked to the press a week or so later. As I have said, the press went berserk and the non-existent plan became headlines and then was mentioned continually for weeks — even years. Every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted a bit of publicity got in on the act. What we worried about in BHAG was that pressure would lead the GLC to abandon its agreement with us on re-housing, so we put out a statement drafted by myself and our secretary, Mala Sen: “We have been told that the GLC plan to segregate us on slum estates because it is a plan that comes from within the Bangladeshi community. It has been claimed that we (BHAG) support this move. We do not. At no stage did we ask for a ghetto nor did we ask for segregated slum blocks to be set aside for our members. If this is what the GLC propose, we intend to fight them in the same way as we have fought them before. We will not settle for segregated slums”. We needn’t have worried, however, as the press moved on to other things and the GLC pressed on with the re-housing. By the end of the year, the main squat, Pelham Bldgs was emptied and the bulldozers moved in.
At the same time as this controversy was being played out in the press, the Sunday morning confrontations between the SWP/ANL and the NF and assorted skinheads gradually petered out. The left had now more or less given up on trying to organise or co-opt Bangladeshis and had moved onto a much larger stage — pop festivals, the obsession with which would have dire consequences for my community and Brick Lane. It was obvious from all the publicity where the bulk of the left was going to be on a particular day and the NF leadership was capable of working that out and launching a series of attacks, one of which resulted in them charging down Brick Lane, hundreds strong when the ANL was mounting a festival in Brockwell Park in south London.
On both occasions, the organisers were asked to divert some of the thousands of people who attended the free events and both times they refused, claiming that “building the movement” was more important. After the worst of these attacks, some two thousand Bangladeshis mounted a demonstration at the top of Brick Lane, occupied the Bethnal Green Road for several hours and then marched to Bethnal Green police station, where they sat down again.
By the end of that summer, the white left, in general, were being treated by the Bangladeshi youth activists with the same contempt and suspicion as the SWP. A few months later, Hackney council denied planning permission for the NF headquarters in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch and the decline that had been taking place for a number of years continued until they were completely wiped out by the General Election in May of the following year. The SWP leadership lost interest in the East End and Bangladeshis and stopped appearing. As far as my community was concerned, all they had contributed was confusion.
The whole period was summed up by a much respected local youth worker, Caroline Adams, when she wrote “ARC-AEL and the activity around it transformed the consciousness of many young people and laid the foundations for the community’s relationship with the world around, as the police, the council, local whites and the left learnt to regard the Bengalis in a new light. The Bengali community had come of age and could not be ignored or patronised, at least not without a comeback”.
At the beginning of the process in 1974, with the start of the squatting movement, the traditional leadership of the community was incapable of organising resistance to the threats we faced and was by-passed by the newly emerging youth movement. The white left saw us as cannon fodder to be led and directed in the same way as they viewed the white working class, which had ignored them and which would vote the Tories into power with a massive majority in May 1979. By the close of 1978, my community, and in particular the radicalised youth section of it, was emerging as a political force, which is a generation would comprise a third of the population of the borough, make up a majority of councillors and I would be Council Leader, but that’s another story.