Fifty years ago, in early April 1970, there was a horrific racist murder in the East End, but the memory of this tragic case has been obscured by later similar events in that locality. In the aftermath of that murder, the advice given to anti-racists by a veteran Jewish communist remains as valid as ever
The racist murder of an Asian immigrant in the 1970s East End of London, and the outpouring of grief and anger by the local community that followed it, immediately brings to mind Altab Ali, the 24-year-old Bengali clothing worker attacked and stabbed to death on his way home from work in 1978. his murder was indeed met by a wave of protests led by militant young Bengalis who had formed themselves into militant youth campaigns to confront the fascists terrorising their community. Their fight was centred on the East End though they took their protests to the West End too
But Altab Ali was not the first Asian immigrant in east London to be murdered by young people whose minds had been poisoned by racism. That first victim bore the same, common surname and came from the same part of the world in search of better economic opportunities, but he was twice Altab Ali’s age. His name was Tochir/Tosir Ali. He, too, was murdered on his way home from work, but in April 1970, only a few months after Altab Ali came to live in London.
Altab Ali himself rarely travelled beyond the East End where he settled with his uncle and found employment within the busy clothing trade in and around Brick Lane and Hanbury Street. Tosir Ali, by contrast, worked as a kitchen porter at a Wimpy Bar amid the bright lights of the West End, but usually returned late at night, to the dark, forbidding streets between Bromley-by-Bow station and the gloomy housing estates in St Leonard’s Street, Bow. Tosir Ali lived in a 3rd floor flat in
Phillips House. It was a few minutes after midnight when he was attacked by two 18-year-olds, one a labourer, the other unemployed. After they slashed him with a knife they ran off. Ali dragged himself up six flights of stairs leaving a trail of blood behind him. The motive was not robbery. His wallet containing £10 was found with his body.
The alarm was raised by Helen Houlihan who lived in the estate opposite. She heard a horrific, piercing scream which she described to a journalist on the local paper as akin to the sound of a “wild animal… a mixture of pain and fear”. When she ventured outside she saw Ali staggering along the landing opposite before falling against his front door. He was rushed to nearby St Andrew’s Hospital but died soon afterwards from stab wounds to his throat.
This was not an isolated incident. Two days earlier, the Observer newspaper drew attention to the serious growth in the number of assaults on the East End’s small but growing Pakistani community, many of them Bengalis from Sylhet in what was then East Pakistan, later a region in independent Bangladesh. Around 90% of the Sylheti-born immigrants there were men who had recently settled in east London. From his lofty privileged position, a writer in the Observer pompously commented: “Any Asian careless enough to be walking the streets alone at night is a fool.” Tosir Ali was neither careless nor a fool; he was simply a victim of the precarious labour market in which immigrant workers from former colonies were forced to settle for low-paid jobs or take jobs with the least sociable hours.
Who carried out all these assaults? The attackers were largely young men, dressed in a distinctive style: closely cropped hair, checked shirts, braces, or sleeveless tank-top jumpers, dark jeans and steel-capped “bovver” boots. The angry, aggressive, “skinhead” subculture had emerged among alienated youth in impoverished working class areas at the end of what was called “the swinging 60s”, but in Bethnal Green where skinheads were particularly numerous, it was anything but swinging.
Bethnal Green had a long and inglorious history of certain layers of the working class attaching themselves to racist movements. This stretched from the British Brothers’ League of the early 1900s which railed against East European Jewish immigration (or “pauperised aliens” as they put it more politely in public posters and adverts), to the mobs who rioted locally in 1917 when they believed Jews were evading army service, to Mosley’s fascist movement in the 1930s, whose Bethnal Green branch held a weekly march to its headquarters in the part of Roman Road known then as Green Street. Post-war the tradition was revived by market traders there, warming to Enoch Powell’s targeting of non-white immigrants in 1968.
Local skinheads fell into this tradition more naturally after 1976, when many of them supported violent political groups such as the National Front and British Movement who made a determined effort to organise in the area. But in the late 1960s the East End’s skinheads were not yet politically aligned, and their cultural influences, especially in music, overlapped significantly with Jamaican ska/reggae/Rude Boy influences.
Monty Neysmith was a Jamaican-born member of the skinhead band Symarip, formed in 1969, that released the Moonstomp classic in 1970. He remembers spending time with many other black skinheads in that period. The emerging skinhead culture was, he recalls, split between those who essentially identified with the fashion and style, and those “causing racial problems”. The latter, he said “would go after the Pakistanis, because they considered them weak, because they would not fight back.” Recently arrived Pakistani immigrants, nervously finding their way with limited English language skills in an insular, unfriendly country, became a target. Other young whites, who were not macho, and who skinheads also perceived as vulnerable, weak and afraid, were targeted too.
A pattern of attacks on East End Pakistanis could be identified from the summer of 1969. Many assaults happened in broad daylight, with passers-by too scared to intervene. Four local social workers collectively published a report in April 1970 based on a survey especially of the first two months of that year when the attacks peaked. Their report described Pakistani immigrants as being “too insular and withdrawn”. Their jobs and accommodation were “arranged by fellow countrymen”. They were “unlikely to make any initial contact with English people”, and had “little opportunity to be integrated.” The authors acknowledged that many of the attacks on Pakistanis were carried out by skinheads but observed: “Not all skinheads indulged in ‘Paki-bashing’ … although the average young person might be prejudiced against the Pakistanis, he is unlikely to attack them.” But, they added: “He might lose this restraint if he joins a gang.” And there was another factor. This was learned behaviour: “…some parents do not disguise their prejudice and are encouraging their children to show contempt towards Pakistanis.”
The report added that “tensions were reflected in the local secondary school … some Pakistani children are afraid to go to school.” But having identified the influential role that their parents’ racism played, it nevertheless concluded that the main reasons for the attacks were opportunist – “to steal money or just crude beatings up.”
The geographical areas in which the East End skinheads operated reached across to Whitechapel and Aldgate, and further east through Bow to Stratford and Plaistow. More young people attending West Ham football ground adopted the skinhead style. Racist attacks reported by the local newspaper, the East London Advertiser, through the first six months of 1970, occurred in several East End districts.
In Hanbury Street off Brick Lane a skinhead gang set fire to a car, scratched others, damaged shop fronts and broke into flats to open up gas and electric meters. In Alie Street near Aldgate there was an arson attack late at night on a condemned building. Around 20 Asians – men, women and children – fled from there. There were repeated attacks on local Muslims outside their main place of worship, a mosque on Commercial Road. Bottles and stones were thrown at mourners during a funeral procession.
On another occasion six youths assaulted the imam and two other worshippers, one of whom, Mr Hakim, had initially been approached for a light. When he put his hands into his pocket the youth knocked him over and kicked him in the face. But there was also a spark of resistance. The imam’s wife warned, “It will be a sore thing for the louts if they come back because I and some other woman judoists will be armed with crowbars.”
Two weeks before the deadly assault on Tosir Ali, three skinheads approached an Indian immigrant, Naranaya Vasupillai, on the street near his Newham home. As they threatened him three more skinheads came up from behind. They knocked him down, smashed his glasses, kicked and punched him leaving him on the pavement with blood pouring from a gash inside his mouth. Pasdman Kesavin, who lived at the same address as Vasupillai, said the victim was his fourth friend to be beaten up by skinheads in two weeks.
In late April there was a series of skirmishes between skinheads and young Pakistanis in Brick Lane. In one incident around 50 white youths rampaged down Brick Lane smashing shop windows and attacking people on the street. Two Pakistani youths needed hospital treatment that day. Police arrived on the scene and arrested two white youths and two Bengali Pakistanis – an 18-year-old and a 32-year-old shopkeeper). The two white youths were released later while the two Pakistanis were charged.
Several community meetings were called in response to this escalating crisis. Some were led by more establishment bodies: the local Community Relations Council, police, MPs, citizens and church groups. They listened to people’s experiences and sought to dampen down conflicts and identify positive steps to improve the situation. Others were organised by militant political groups such as the Pakistani Progressive Party, the Pakistani Workers’ Union, Black Panthers, the the Black People’s Alliance and the Third World Party led by a charismatic activist calling himself Brother Louis. More than 200 young Pakistanis were recruited into vigilante patrols. In a demonstration that followed one meeting, dozens of activists marched on Arbour Street Police Station off Commercial Road. They had placards that read: “Down with Paki Bashing” and “End police brutality”, and chanted: “Stop police harassment of Asian people,” promising: “We will hit back now!”.
At one of several community meetings, mainly attended by local Pakistanis, a familiar, veteran political figure spoke up. Solly Kaye was a Communist Party councillor in Stepney. He had already experienced this situation as a young communist activist in the 1930s East End where the East European Jewish immigrant community he was born into faced ideological and violent physical attacks from fascists and other antisemites. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, took part in the Battle of Cable Street, and spoke on many indoor and outdoor platforms against fascists.
In a powerful intervention he argued that “the purveyors of racialism can be defeated by united action… it would be the greatest error and worse, if the struggle were left to the immigrant organisations to bear the brunt of the fight… the fight against racial discrimination and violence is part of the fight for a new and better society.”
It had an immediate positive effect. It also contains important principles that we need to restate when communities are under attack now. The responses to today’s outbursts of hate must always be wider than the community directly attacked. There is often a stress on the community under attack leading the fightback, but we need to hardwire a reaction to expressions of hate in which wider groups instantly demonstrate an attitude that “their fight is our fight”. We must support each other unconditionally against racist attacks.
Minorities who have suffered similarly are generally good at supporting each other, but Solly Kaye recognised that the onus was also on majority communities. For him, solidarity was the responsibility of all who want a better society. And the fight against racism could not be delayed for other fights to be settled first. Racist attacks on communities always present themselves urgently.
Kaye’s intervention implored people to be not bystanders but upstanders when others were attacked. But his statement also coupled the violence the Pakistani community endured with the everyday discrimination they suffered. He recognised that they were intimately linked. He understood that the responses from a wider community to the assaults the Pakistani community were suffering had to provide real, tangible support for them, and ensure the victims felt empowered.
Today, 50 years on from Tosir Ali’s horrific murder by young racists, and nearly 42 years on from Altab Ali’s murder, we have become used to using the language of “hate crime” to describe the negative treatment of minorities. But what gets categorised under “hate” is actually more than that. Very often it is a defence of the real or assumed privilege that maintains everyday hierarchies, everyday discrimination, everyday oppression. Hate crimes take place within a framework of privilege and power.
The term “hate crime” is too much of a catch-all. We need a more sophisticated language to counter different kinds of negative actions in different ways. We need to develop appropriate and distinct responses to negative social media comment, specific threats to individuals, general threats to communities, and physical attacks.
It is also crucial to recognise that discrimination, whether on the basis of skin colour, faith, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or based on negative stereotypes, can be enacted quite coldly and routinely, without the outburst of emotions implied by “hate”.
If we are to follow the meaning of Solly Kaye’s wise intervention, we must recognise that the continuing impact of routine discrimination in limiting people’s lives, diminishing their aspirations and opportunities, and depressing their potential, should command our attention just as much as dramatic outbursts of hate that end with blood on the streets.
* This article was written for the Spring 2020 issue of Jewish Socialist magazine which will be out later this week. Subscribe to Jewish Socialist (£10 for 4 issues) at:
It has also been published today, on the 50th anniversary of Tosir Ali’s murder, in the Morning Star, https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/remembering-tosir-ali-murdered-skinhead-racists-1970