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Who killed Altab Ali? Anti-Fascist struggles in the 1970s East End

United collective action by the local community of the East End defeated Mosley’s fascists in the 1930s but fascism returned with a vengeance under the economic stresses of the 1970s, in the form of the National Front (NF). This time round the community on the receiving end were Bengali immigrants who moved into the same areas in which Jewish immigrants had lived earlier.

The growing strength of the NF was demonstrated in elections to the Greater London Council in 1977. They failed to win seats but in Bethnal Green and Bow their candidates picked up nearly 20% of the vote. Like the fascists of the 1930s they held threatening marches and protests and gathered in large numbers every Sunday morning selling their papers with provocative anti-immigrant headlines on the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road. After their paper sale they would often go on the rampage attacking individual Bengalis and throwing stones through Bengali shop windows.

On 4th May 1978 there were local elections. The NF stood 41 candidates in Tower Hamlets. On that day a young Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali was stabbed to death on his way home from work by a gang of teenagers whose minds had been poisoned by racists and fascists. he died near a green space on Whitechapel Road, then called St Mary’s Gardens, now called Altab Ali Park. Every year on 4th May a memorial event to remember his life takes place in the park.

In the face of all the fascist provocations and especially just after Altab Ali’s murder, the Bengali community organised to defeat the fascists. The lead came from young people who formed a number of youth organisations that cooperated with each other and with the Trades Council and other local anti-fascists. Together they reclaimed the spaces that the fascists were occupying and drove them out.