In DiscoverSociety 67, which focuses on the 40th anniversary of the Southall protests, Naaz Rashid reflects on Race, Violence and the City, a brilliant event she organised at LSE in June 2018 to mark the anniversary of the death of Altab Ali, at which I was privileged to be a speaker.
On 4 May 1978, the day of local elections, Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi textile factory worker in Whitechapel, was murdered on his way home from work. His murder was the catalyst for major anti-racist mobilisations amongst the Bangladeshi community and others in the East End of London. The community had been inspired by anti-racist activism in Southall following the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976. Last June, a day-long symposium, Race, Violence and the City was held to mark the anniversary of his murder. It would have been tempting to reflect back on the events of 1978 as a testament to how far we have come since Ali’s murder and there is undoubtedly much to celebrate: the allyship and solidarity which emerged in the aftermath across London, from Brick Lane to Southall and beyond, as well as the successes of the Bangladeshi community in establishing themselves in the East End. Once we start to think about the wider background to Altab Ali’s murder, however, it reminds us more of what remains to be done.
The Battle of Brick Lane drew on its precursor, the Battle of Cable Street, but Ben Gidley cautioned against premature triumphalism; he reminded us that while the battle against fascism had been ‘won’ in the 1930s, this had not averted the need for a Battle for Brick Lane forty years later.
What all these examples illustrate is the importance of joining the dots, both across time and across different aspects of social life and how we, as scholars and/or activists might ensure that interconnectedness is named and explored. Post Brexit and following the election of Trump there has been a significant upsurge in discussions of racism amongst the commentariat both in and beyond academia. Yet there seems, amongst some, a wilful neglect of the historic intellectual and emotional labour of anti-racist activists and academics who have always contextualised racist violence in a wider landscape and are in no way remotely shocked by such events, however saddened or indeed traumatised they might feel in their immediate aftermath.
As well as the messages pushed in the media, the words of politicians also matter; which drives the other is a semantic debate that matters little to those whose blood is being spilt on the streets. Indeed, irrespective of whether media drives political discourse or vice versa we as the readership or electorate are ultimately responsible; our choices (including the decision to remain silent) about what we are prepared to tolerate matter. And as advocates for social and racial justice what we choose to remember and forget matters.