Anti-racists and anti-fascists have long memories. I can recall graphic details of how we were suddenly, forcefully, pushed to the back of Trafalgar Square by thick ranks of police, arms linked, on my first anti-fascist demonstration in 1975, so that the plinth could be reserved for “race”-obsessed, Hitler worshipping, anti-immigrant agitators to practice their free speech.
I still have haunting memories of a march through south Hackney and Hoxton in 1977
where we were outnumbered by National Front members and supporters pouring on to the streets from the estates we walked through and the pubs we passed, to scream abuse and threaten us on the streets. One of them targeted myself and a group of young Jewish socialists. At spitting distance he was shouting, “You’re going to the gas chambers.”
I was out of London when the powerful Black People’s Day of Action march took place in 1981 following a fire at a house in New Cross where young people were partying. Thirteen black teenagers died in what is widely believed to have been a racist fire-bombing, Friends who marched that day have described that day of action to me relatively recently, as clearly as if it had happened last week.
Our memories are punctuated by anniversaries. In April this year we will recall the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and Enoch Powell’s poisonous “Rivers of Blood” speech. It will be the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder by racist thugs as he waited a bus stop in Eltham south London, with his friend Duwayne Brooks. We will once again recall the appalling behaviour of the five police who arrived on the scene and treated Duwayne as the suspect. While Stephen Lawrence struggled for his life, not one of them attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. We know why.
Later that same year, myself and other family members, were among the 60,000 who were attempting to march on the bookshop/HQ the British National Party had established in Welling, not that far from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered and a host of other horrific racist attacks had occurred.
I have no doubt these anniversaries will be marked this year. But one 40th anniversary on this theme, just a few days ago, seems to have passed us by. It didn’t take place on the streets. People experienced it in their living rooms, watching World in Action on television. On 30th January 1978, Gordon Burns interviewed the leader of the opposition at that time, Margaret Thatcher, in a period when the National Front were holding provocative marches on the streets aiming to intimidate minority communities and using every opportunity to push the propaganda line Enoch Powell popularised 10 years earlier: Stop Immigration Start Repatriation.
In the interview Thatcher expressed her fears and encouraged her white British viewers to share them:
“… by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth
or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay people’s’ fears on numbers.…we cannot go on taking in that number…
there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this… as much as we should… that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems… we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened.”
Burns interjected: “So, some of the support that the National Front has been attracting in recent by-elections you would hope to bring back behind the Tory party?”
Thatcher replied: “Oh, very much back…”
On 4th May, less than 100 days after that interview was broadcast, Altab Ali,a 24-year-old Bengali immigrant, on his way home from a hard day’s labour making clothes in a workshop on Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, was attacked, and stabbed to death, by three teenagers. They were two 17- year-olds and one 16-year-old. In court, they acknowledged they did it because he was “a Paki”. His assailants were not born racists – and one of them was himself of mixed-race heritage – but they had their minds poisoned by racist and anti-immigrant ideology that they imbibed from several sources, not least the National Front. May 4th 1978 was also the day of local council elections. The National Front were contesting 41 of the 50 council seats being fought over that day in the borough where Altab Ali was killed. They knew they wouldn’t get elected but it gave them a chance to spread their venomous propaganda and hatred.
This afternoon I will be taking nearly 30 young activists for social justice from marginalised communities in South London, on a walk in the East End focusing especially on, immigration, anti-racism and multiculturalism. They are part of the Advocacy Academy, a brilliant and imaginative project that works with them for one year through residential retreats and fortnightly gatherings. I have taken two previous Advocacy Academy groups on this walk. When we visit Altab Ali Park, the small green space between Aldgate and Whitechapel named in his memory, I will tell them his story and show them a poster of the time that says “Who killed Altab Ali”. I will put that question to them, and I expect, perhaps with a bit of prompting they will be able to tell me who it was that killed Altab Ali – beyond the three teenagers who stood trial and served their time.
Because there were surely a number of adults who should have been in the frame too: National Front organisers and propagandists; the police, who had been failing to deal with racial violence against the local immigrants community; the press with their repeated and sensationalist anti-immigrant headlines… and mainstream politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was cynically seeking to win votes for the Conservative Party that were heading the National Front’s way, not by challenging their philosophy but by legitimising it.
Let us remember Altab Ali, Stephen Lawrence, Martin Luther King and all victims of racist murders, but let’s not forget the parts played by Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.