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Author Azad Konor relives the ‘Battle of Brick Lane’ 40 years after Altab Ali’s murder

PUBLISHED: 07:07 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:16 26 April 2018

Defence committee protest march through east London demanding police protection against racist attacks in the 1970s. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust

Defence committee protest march through east London demanding police protection against racist attacks in the 1970s. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust

Altab Ali Trust

Life has settled for the once-immigrant Bengali community three generations down the road from having faced attacks and murder in the Whitechapel of the 1970s.

Altab Ali's funeral in May, 1978, following his murder in Whiterchapel. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust Altab Ali's funeral in May, 1978, following his murder in Whiterchapel. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust

Yet the memories of racist conflict hasn’t gone away altogether, with the 40th anniversary next week of the killing of Altab Ali, a young immigrant rag trade factory worker on his way his way home to Brick Lane.

Altab was set upon by three skinheads. His murder led to public outrage and demonstrations in a struggle his community later called “the Battle of Brick Lane”.

This mirrored the struggle two generations earlier when London’s East End Jewish and Irish populations sent Mosley’s Blackshirt fascists packing in the infamous 1936 Battle of Cable Street.

Brick Lane, it seemed, hadn’t changed that much in 40 years, just the ethnic background—once overwhelmingly Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, then a wave of Muslim newcomers by the 1970s.

Protest march after Altab Ali's murder in Whitechapel in 1978. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust Protest march after Altab Ali's murder in Whitechapel in 1978. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust

Today, author Azad Konor looks back on that era of conflict in the 1970s when he was newly-arrived himself in the East End at the age of 14 from Bangladesh.

His book out this week, The Battle of Brick Lane 1978, looks at that all-too-familiar struggle against prejudice and hatred which became a defining moment for the Bangladeshi community.

“It’s a reminder of discrimination our generation faced,” he tells the East London Advertiser.

“I was a young social activist and want to share my experience, to help our younger generation today to understand the struggles we faced 40 years ago and how difficult it was defending against racial attacks.”

March against racist attacks on East End's Bengali community in the 1970s. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust March against racist attacks on East End's Bengali community in the 1970s. Picture source: Altab Ali Trust

Azad was an angry young man back then, a founder member of the Bangladesh Youth Front set up to “face off” the National Front and a member of the so-called Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence committee.

He went on in 1986 to work for the Inner London Education Authority as a youth worker, then for Tower Hamlets Council until being made redundant in 1991.

His story tells how his Bangladesh Youth Front got involved in politics and how some members were even elected onto Tower Hamlets Council during an era Azad claims the community faced discrimination in housing.

He looks into the National Front’s violence in Brick Lane and the gang killing of Altab while walking home through derelict St Mary’s churchyard in the Whitechapel Road—later renamed Altab Ali Park in his memory. A memorial trust also named after Altab holds annual remembrance services there on May 4, the anniversary of his violent death at the age 28.

Altab Ali Trust's 'solidarity with Londoners' demo in Whitechapel's Altab Ali Park after the 2017 terrorist attacks at London Bridge. Picture: Mike Brooke Altab Ali Trust's 'solidarity with Londoners' demo in Whitechapel's Altab Ali Park after the 2017 terrorist attacks at London Bridge. Picture: Mike Brooke

“Our community is now into its third and fourth generation in Britain,” Azad, now turning 60, informs you. “The community has come a long way, but we still have work to complete in quashing racism that lingers.”

He faced the challenge of rooting out long-forgotten facts when many people involved in 1978 had either died or moved away. Many organisations at the time had also disbanded, like his Bangladesh Youth Front that was finally dissolved in 1991, its work in the East End seemingly done.

The Battle of Brick Lane 1978, by AK Azad Konor, is published this week in paperback by Grosvenor House Publishing at £7.99.

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