Altab Ali Day: ‘The blood made us realise we could not ignore it, or who would be next?’

Protests sparked by the murder of Altab Ali. Photograph: Paul Trevor
Protests sparked by the murder of Altab Ali. Photograph: Paul Trevor

The Bengali victim of a racially motivated murder, whose death sparked mass protests in the the 1970s, was honoured on 4 May, the first annual Altab Ali Commemoration Day.

Local poets Salam Jones, Stephen Watts and ShayD laid wreaths and read poems in Altab Ali Park, where Altab was killed in 1978. The park was renamed after him in 1998.

After the ceremony, activists Julie Begum and Ayub Ali and author Dan Jones held a panel discussion and relaunched the Kobi Nazrul Centre for Bengali arts and culture.

Actors from the Swadhinata Trust that promotes Bengali history and heritage for young people then performed Altab Ali’s story at the Brady Arts Centre.

Foundation set up

The day was first marked in 2010 by the Altab Ali Foundation, which was set up by the community active in the 1970s and 1980s to recognise the Bengali community’s struggles against racism.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a community activist who helped set up the foundation, told the East End Citizen: “The day is about reminding the young and society at large of the violent racism the Bengali community faced during the 1970s and 1980s and how it organised itself to fight back.

“It is a reminder to oppose all forms of prejudice, racism and extremism that is still manifest today.”

Mr Ali, a leather factory worker, was stabbed to death in 1978 by three teenagers – Roy Arnold, Carl Ludlow and another 16-year-old boy – as he walked home from work through St Mary’s Park in Whitechapel.

The 16-year-old told a police officer he attacked Mr Ali for “no reason at all”.

He said: “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.”

Protests

The murder sparked protests, and ten days later 10,000 people marched behind his coffin through central London to Downing Street.

They called for the government to address racism in the East End, chanting, “Black and white, unite and fight”.

Last straw

Shams Uddin was a friend of Mr Ali and one of the last people to speak to him.

He said the murder was not the first racist incident, but that it was the last straw.

He told the BBC: “The blood of Altab Ali made us realise we couldn’t ignore it, or who would be next?”

He added: “We knew there would be no place for us unless we fought back.

“So everyone joined together – Bangladeshi people, Caribbean people, Indian people, Pakistani people.

“Everyone was involved.”

The Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs announced in October 2015 that the borough would host the day annually to “keep alive the important message of community cohesion, about standing united against racism”.

He added: “Altab Ali’s murder and the subsequent demonstrations showed people they were not alone in suffering or fearing violence.”

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