People remember Enoch Powell’s chilling “Rivers of Blood” speech delivered in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, which happened to be on Hitler’s birthday. At that time Powell was a Conservative politician, and through that speech he deliberately set out to embolden already growing racist and anti-immigrant forces and spread fear through ethnic minority communities working all hours to eke out a living and provide better opportunities for their children. Intimidation and violence against those minorities inevitably followed in the weeks and months after that hair-raising speech. People, though, are far less familiar with Powell’s speech at a public event in Billericay, Essex, a decade later, on 10th June 1978. By then, of course, he was outside the ranks of the Conservatives and was representing Ulster Unionists in South Down. What happened the very next day may have just been a coincidence but on that occasion he talked explicitly about violence: “Violence,” he said, “does not break (out)… because it is willed, or contrived… but because it lies in the inevitable course of events.” He predicted that, within 20 years, “one third of the inner metropolis of key cities will have passed to the control of a population which by reason of the strongest impulses and interests of human nature, neither can, nor will identify itself or be identified with the rest.”
He continued menacingly: “…those who foresaw and feared they would be swamped will be driven by equally strong impulses and interests to resist and prevent it.”
For several months during 1978, there had been a regular National Front (NF) presence on Sunday mornings on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane, right outside a shop selling camping equipment, which was owned by a middle-aged Jewish couple. The NF sold papers – usually National Front News and sometimes Holocaust News. They set up a bookstall with choice titles such as Did 6 Million Really Die? and shouted abusive racist slogans. All within a stone’s throw of two Jewish-run beigel shops and the groceries and cafes that the newly-settled Bengali population had established in this section of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End.
Many of the fascists who gathered on that corner were relatively local, from Hoxton and Shoreditch. And their threatening mob included more and more young skinheads as the numbers grew generally and as their own influence among skinheads increased. But fascist supporters were also coming there from out of the area – from Hackney, Tottenham, and into Essex.
On 11th June, 1978, just 24 hours after Powell’s incendiary Billericay speech, the NF concluded their gathering that day with a terrifying rampage down Brick Lane. Some 150 skinheads, grabbing bottles, bricks and rubble as they went, smashed windows, threw bottles and lumps of concrete, and chanted hate slogans while attacking people in their way. In a manner reminiscent of the response to the outrage against worshippers near two Finsbury Park mosques very recently, some of the attackers in June ’78 were kettled and held by the community until the police arrived. The police made a tiny number of token arrests.
This was just five weeks after Altab Ali, a 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker had been stabbed to death on his way home from work by a teenage gang whose minds had been poisoned by the NF’s racism. After Ali’s death, protesters held a huge march to Downing Street behind his coffin. A range of Bengali and anti-racist organisations were created especially among the youth, and they challenged both the fascists and the wider racist atmosphere the fascists were benefiting from.
Just two days after the rampage, anger was expressed not just on the streets, but in a public hall – the Montefiore Centre on Hanbury Street off Brick Lane. The anger was directed that night not principally at the NF but at a harebrained scheme to make Bengalis safer from racist attacks, dreamed up quite a distance from the East End in County Hall by the Conservative controlled Greater London Council (GLC). They proposed to create Bengali-only estates. Bengali organisations and spokespersons had certainly demanded better, safer housing and had expressed a wish to live near each other, but no Bengali organisation had asked for segregated or ghettoised housing. They wanted to live on multi-racial estates building good and lasting relations with their neighbours.
These explosive situations occurred in a tumultuous decade of East End history. During that decade, as around 15,000 new Bengalis immigrants supplemented the 3,000 or so who had already settled by the end of the 1960s, the overall population of the borough of Tower Hamlets plummeted to its 20th century low – just 139,000 people. The boroughs of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, which were amalgamated into Tower Hamlets in 1965, were home to nearly 500,000 people in the late 19th century, when the wealthy Victorian businessman-cum-social researcher Charles Booth was tramping the streets gathering demographic data.
From the 1980s that population grew again, not least as the fairly recently settled Bengali population had children, and more families were reunited. But the social, economic and cultural dislocation of that decade – white flight to Essex and Kent as the Bengali population grew substantially; the loss of half the remaining jobs on the London docks; the closure of longstanding local firms – created an environment in which groups like the NF with their scapegoating methods could flourish, and malevolent politicians within the mainstream, such as Powell added to the incitement.
Fast forward to today and the very recent penchant for acid attacks which has included those in East London, some of which have been carried out for reasons of Islamophobic race hate. And the police, for all their experience of race attacks, still remain so slow to acknowledge that element when it is obviously there. Though, it is true that the majority of attacks are not on Muslims specifically but on a wider category, the poor and economically marginalised of all communities black, brown and white, including for example Latin American migrant workers most likely raised as Catholics, who are compelled to take risky precarious work as moped-riding delivery drivers. Other victims have been white middle-class moped riders using them as a lifestyle choice. Many attacks are being used to steal mopeds which are favoured vehicles by drugs gangs for quick sales and quick getaways.
And, Tower Hamlets residents continue to face housing problems. Bangladeshi Muslims in East London make up a significant proportion of those who face a housing crisis today, but it is one that is less concerned with physical safety from racists than a crisis fuelled by increasing gentrification of the area’s prime sites, with its knock-on effects on the prices of everything and the reduction of public housing stock.
However, as we face our current troubles, we still have so much to learn from the experiences of those populating the streets in and around Brick Lane in the 1970s, not least about the spirit of resistance, solidarity and determination to bring about change that was so much in evidence then and ultimately pushed the fascists away.
The story of this dramatic decade is the subject of my newest walk, which will be having its third outing on the morning of Sunday 30th July. Further details and booking information are here:
Battleground Brick Lane 1970s is a 2.5 hour guided walk through a dramatic decade in the life of the East End and London as a whole, taking place next on 30th July. Fee £8 (£5 unwaged). Book online at: http://www.eastendwalks.com/?page_id=82