The death of Altab Ali

As we’ve seen from the death of Alfred Linnell and Emily Wilding Davidson, deaths of activists or deaths that demonstrate social prejudice/police brutality have been rallying points for social movements in London since well into the 19th century. One such example from 1978 was the death of Bangladeshi migrant, Altab Ali.

Altab Ali was 25 years old when he was murdered by 3 teenagers on the way home from his work at a textile factory in Brick Lane on the 4th of May, 1978. Two of his killers were white and one was mixed race (black and white), and although the third was himself a person of colour, Ali’s race was recognised as the motivation for the attack. One of the killers was quoted as saying: ‘if we saw a Paki we used to have a go at them. We would ask for money and beat them up. I’ve beaten up Pakis on at least five occasions’.

At this point, there had been ongoing racialised agitation in London for some years. The racist National Front had held active and aggressive events and demonstrations, the Battle of Lewisham had occurred the year before, the Grunwick workers dispute was ongoing (primarily featuring female South Asian workers), and Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been killed 2 years before. Tensions were high and only getting higher.

The fury over Ali’s death led to a march of 7000 people following his coffin from the spot he had died (Alder Street in the East End) to Downing Street on the 14th of May. The march had galvanised the Bengali community in a way nothing had before, and their protest was not only for police protection for their own community, but against wider issues like the National Front and widespread racism in Britain at that time.

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(Protestors following Ali’s coffin to Downing Street, 14th May 1978)

The above image shows the ‘worthiness’ of this demonstration – the activists look sober and serious, and there is clearly a mix of younger and older activists. They are show unity through the use of their placards featuring the same image and slogan, and a few of them appear to be wearing the same badge. Their numbers are undeniable, they utterly fill the photograph and must have created an extraordinary presence as they marched. Their commitment is harder to determine but given the solemnity of the march, it is clear that this was important to them all.

Their use of space is important, as they specifically started from the place Ali was first killed. Brick Lane and the East End had been the site of many protests at the time, but by taking his coffin to where he died turned a site of social exchange and informal encounter into a memorial to Ali and a reminder of what he represented. The fact that they protested for police protection in their community shows how people were increasingly aware that the police were failing to protect non-white people in London. The police had been accused of defencing or at least showing leniency towards movements like the National Front, so by demanding that the police care for the Bengali community the activists were making it clear that the police had been failing them and other Black or Asian people in London.

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(Protestors following the hearse containing Ali’s coffin, 14th May 1978)

Altab Ali became a symbol of Bengali resistance in Britain, and this march encouraged many Bengali migrants to take a more active part in social movements and activism generally, even though they began as ad hoc activists focused only on their specific community. Various groups were formed in the East End to help and protect the Bengali community, and the Altab Ali Foundation (which is still operating) was formed to commemorate his death.

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